500 million years is hard to fathom, but that's the amount of time the British and Irish oyster has been around. And according to Chiltern Firehouse's oyster shucker, Bobby Groves, the time to celebrate these delicate, enigmatic molluscs is now.
"Native oysters appear in Jurassic limestone in Dorset and today they can be found strewn across the Thames foreshore in London dating from the 1800s," Groves tells Departures.
Set with his mission to celebrate the British and Irish oyster, Groves, who's been working with oysters since he was a child, spent 2018 riding 5,000 miles on a Triumph Bonneville T120 motorcycle, tasting native oysters from Scotland to the island of Guernsey for his new book, Oyster Isles: A Journey Through Britain and Ireland's Oysters ($25, Amazon.com).
During his 12-month oyster-escapade, he traveled from his home in Essex to rural England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland's most remote locations, tasting the native oyster. "Riding Ireland's Conor Pass on the most Westerly point of Europe in the Dingle Peninsula was a real highlight," he recalls.
It wasn't all plain sailing though. "Riding through an amber warning Storm Callum in Devon where my boots filled up with water was a real low point, but luckily the fishermen of River Teign dried my clothes while I stood in their living room eating a pasty in my underwear." Oyster Isles is part travelogue part social history food book with the oyster as the central subject.
When he's off his two-wheeler, the oyster expert can be found shucking and pairing molluscs at André Balaz's (of Los Angeles Chateau Marmont) Chiltern Firehouse. Known as a trendy, celeb-beloved hotel in London's Marylebone, Chiltern Firehouse's restaurant—usually sold out months in advance—is also known for "Bobby's Selection of Oysters" and free-flowing big-name champagne.
Read on for the oyster aficionado's pearls of wisdom.
Native Oysters vs Rock Oysters
Broadly, there are two kinds of oyster. Native oysters, these are fairly round and take longer to grow, the other type is the rock oyster. These have been cultivated in Europe since the 1960s on a commercial scale and can be eaten all year round, you can spot them as tear-dropped shaped. For natives in Britain and Ireland lookout for Groves' go-to: "Fal native, Loch Ryan, Galway Native and my local Maldon, West Mersea or Colchester native from Essex".
How To Buy, Shuck and Present Your Oysters At Home
"When buying oysters make sure the oysters are closed and have a nice weight on them," says Groves. "Knock two oysters together to check you don’t have the coconut sound—if you do, one of them is empty and should be thrown. Once you have your oysters, keep them refrigerated 4-6 degrees Celsius (39-42 F), cup side down (flat shell on top)."
To shuck, wrap the oyster in a tea towel protecting your non-knife hand, put the blade into the hinge (pointy end) of the oyster and gently push the knife in at a 45-degree angle pointing downwards. Once the knife is in a few millimeters, twist the blade and pop the shell. Then run the knife along the inside of the shell and cut the adductor muscle and lose the top shell. Then cut the adductor muscle off the bottom shell and your oyster is ready to eat." Voila. "You can plate up on crushed ice, old shells or pebbles. Any plate will do, but presentation is key".
The Best Oyster Shucking Knives
Shuck like the experts by using the right tools. Groves recommends Deglon ($16, Amazon.com), "they make a great knife with an ergonomic handle". Or treat yourself to an MKS Knife ($250) from Cambridge, MA or London’s Blenheim Forge Oyster Knife developed with Oyster Boy Connor Pearson, "they're forged from a high carbon Swedish stainless steel", advises Groves.
How to Eat Oysters Like a Pro
"Native oysters just by themselves or with a dash of lemon, rock oysters with whatever you want. A creamy wild oyster in the height of summer will be great cooked or with mignonette (red wine vinegar, black pepper, brown sugar, and chopped shallots)." For a traditional bubbly pairing, Groves picks a glass of Lallier Champagne (Loridon ideally) or a Noilly Prat Extra Brut in a cocktail.
For something a little different? "A mixed plate of rock and native oysters with a pint of Guinness and soda bread is one of the best culinary experiences in Galway, Ireland."
Oyster Shacks and Restaurants to Try
The Company Shed, West Mersea, Essex, England
"This spot is a rustic and traditional weather-boarded oyster shack in the heart of the 2000-year-old Roman oyster beds run by 8th generation oyster family the Hawards."
Riley’s Fish Shack, Tynemouth, Newcastle, England
"Dine facing the North Sea with the freshest fish and oysters from Adam Riley and his team in a converted shipping container. Explore my favorite English county, Northumberland using Newcastle as a base."
Loch Fyne Oyster Bar and Deli, Cairndow, Scotland
"The original oyster bar on the banks of Loch Fyne — this place truly set the bar high 30 years ago and is still owned by the oyster farmers unlike the Loch Fyne restaurants nationwide. Stay at the George Hotel in Inveraray."
The Marram Grass, Anglesey, Wales
"Take a trip through the mountains of Snowdonia to the ancient druid isle of Anglesey to dine at Marram Grass where their produce is all locally sourced. After exploring Anglesey, head into the mountains and stay at the Princes Arms Hotel in Trefriw 45 minutes away."
Crab House Café, Chesil Beach, Dorset, England
"The Crab House is a fun waterside restaurant on Chesil Beach, you can also head to their sister café Billy Winters where windsurfers in Weymouth Harbour can entertain you as you eat."
Le Petit Bistro, St Peter Port, Guernsey
"Dine at Chef Michael Pesrin in the heart of St Peter Port, Guernsey. It is authentic, rustic, and romantic, with all the joie de vivre, and le je ne sais quoi that France has to offer (which is a short ferry trip from St Malo)."
Moran’s Oyster Cottage, Kilcolgan, Galway, Ireland
"Dine inside a 19th-century cottage for arguably the best oyster experience on the Wild Atlantic Coast of Ireland in County Galway. If you then take a trip to Galway city — head to McDonagh’s in Quay Street."
Klaw by Niall Sabongi, Dublin, Ireland
"Crabshack dining in the heart of Dublin with an array of Irish oysters- —Carlingford in particular are from just 50 miles north of the restaurant."
The White Horse, Brancaster, Norfolk, England
"Eat rare Brancaster oysters and other seafood from the Saxon coast while gazing across the marshes to uninhabited barrier island Scolt Head. Amazingly comfortable rural accommodation and wonderful Norfolk beer culture here too, drink in pubs where Lord Nelson grew up."
Mourne Seafood Bar, Belfast, Northern Ireland
"Shellfish served from their very own shellfish beds. Take a tour around the Titanic Museum while you’re in the city."
Butley Creek Oysterage, Orford, Suffolk, England
"Honest East Anglian cooking by the Pinney family and Irene in the old Norman town of Orford. Take a boat trip along the rivers for some exquisite bird watching afterward."