Oysters: Who supplies London's top eateries?

London's top restaurants get their oysters from just one man. Christian Broughton meets him
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's 6.45am at Fishworks restaurant, Chiswick, west London. A slightly rusty white van pulls up and a bleary-looking man walks in, carrying two innocuous wooden tubs, announcing with reluctant jollity that it's -2C outside. "Not a good day to load up a ton and a half of shellfish and forget your gloves." He sets down the cargo, and we climb aboard. One delivery down, 38 more to go.

This is probably not the image that Robin Hancock had in mind when his brother-in-law, Ben Wright, persuaded him to share his dream: abandon their careers - as music producer/engineer and corporate lawyer respectively - and start a business together. But to understand why they did it, you have to understand this: those wooden tubs contain what
may well be the finest oysters in the world.

To paraphrase the most irritating food advert of our times, this is not just a delivery run, this is the delivery run that feeds the most vibrant restaurant trend of 2006: the lust for fresh, healthy, exceptional seafood (and no, in case you're wondering, Robin has nothing to do with M&S). Bentley's Oyster Bar has been reopened by Michelin-starred chef Richard Corrigan. The equally venerable seafood bastion, Scott's of Mayfair, is about to relaunch under the
Le Caprice group, which owns The Ivy, J Sheekey and The Rivington. Fishworks won best seafood restaurant at last year's Tio Pepe awards. All of these take deliveries from Hancock. Add The Wolseley, Automat, The Ebury, Galvin and all the others on the delivery round, and it seems that every top restaurant in town is in on Hancock and Wright's secret.

The business, Wright Brothers, started only in November 2002. Wright spent time as a student in France, became friends with the nephew of a certain Jerome Miet, who happens to be one of the country's foremost oyster producers, and the idea to rekindle Britain's love for oysters was born. Drop number 11 (Bibendum) sparks a reverie. "I used to come here
for oysters and champagne in my previous life. We built this business out of passion. I remember one day we were with Miet on a chalon [a boat] in the Marennes Oléron in south west France, eating paté, drinking wine, and fishing oysters straight out of the water that were just amazing..."

In Britain, meanwhile, where 500m oysters were once consumed each year, the industry had been in decline since the mid-19th century. Now France produces 2bn oysters annually, the UK just 10m - a figure that Monsieur Miet alone can match. And so, with a small consignment from the Marenne Oléron, Hancock and Wright set out to win over London. It wasn't the slickest operation. "We hired a van and drove to a pick-up point in London," recalls Hancock, wincing, "but the hauliers confused us with a massive Irish fishmonger, and sent our oysters on to Grimsby." Countless missed appointments and 400 miles later, they dropped samples at restaurants. "We left some
at Racine, and an hour later, Henry Harris was on the phone saying they're up there with the best in the world, and that he had Simon Thomas, from Bibendum, with him, and that they both wanted them. It was unreal. This chaos was going to work."

Now the standards are even higher. The brothers started out selling razor clams, winkles and whelks from Boulogne, mussels from La Rochelle and oysters from the Marennes Oléron, where they grow in the sea for three years, and are then transferred to claires, clay-bottomed lakes, where, without tides and with less salt, the oysters fatten. The Wright Brothers now also offer other grades of claire oysters, which are left in the nourishing waters for longer, and less densely packed. They may well be the only supplier of the pousse en claire - an oyster that has fattened in the claire's waters for six months, spaced at just three
per square metre. Traditionally, this, "the kobe beef of oysters", has been reserved for the producers and their families only.

But the brothers also take the finest rock and native oysters from British suppliers, from as far and wide as Scotland and West Mersea, and have just acquired the oyster rights to Prince Charles' Duchy of Cornwall oyster beds on the Holford River. In all, prices range from a tenner for a dozen wild Colchester rocks, to £17.80 for 12 pousse en claires or Duchy natives.

At 2pm, Robin locks the van for the day and heads into Oyster Control, as he has it. Only one breakdown today, but nothing a push start couldn't fix. Still, the produce and passion are paying off. This last stop is at Wright Brothers Oyster and Porter House, in Borough Market, the brothers' own restaurant and shop that opened recently to rave reviews. The day's not over, of course. Robin still has to oversee the set-up of the latest addition, a 1950s oyster cart that he'll be manning in Spitalfields Market. And oversee some recruitment ads - for a driver, among other posts.

Having many of London's élite chefs as fans certainly helped when they were setting up the restaurant. They gave advice, shared recipes. Here
are other contributions from Henry Harris of Racine, Mitchel Tonks of Fishworks and, of course, the high-flying Wright Brothers themselves.

Wright Brothers' razor clams marinières

Serves 4

150g/5oz butter
2 shallots (thinly sliced)
4 cloves of garlic (crushed)
450ml/16fl oz dry white wine
1kg/2lb razor clams
1 small bunch flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
50g butter cold
1 lemon (juice only)

Melt 150g (5oz) of butter in a pan. Add the shallots and garlic, cook until soft. Add the wine, boil and season. Lower the heat and add the clams, place the lid on and cook until they open. Add the remaining butter and cook covered for 2 minutes. Remove and add the lemon and parsley. Place on 4 plates and pour the remaining sauce on top.

Wright Brothers Oyster and Porter House, 11 Stoney Street, London SE1, Tel: 020 7403 9554. For home deliveries, tel: 020 7403 9550

Mitchell Tonk's seared scallops with cabbage, champ and parsley sauce

Serves 2

Half an onion
2 bay leaves
6 cloves
A few peppercorns
50g/2oz soft butter
2tbsp flour
450ml/16fl oz milk
Handful of parsley leaf, finely chopped
500g/17fl oz potatoes, mashed
200ml/7fl oz double cream
6 spring onions, finely chopped
8 scallops
1 small cabbage, finely chopped and blanched

Add the onion, bay, cloves and peppercorns to the milk. Boil and infuse for 15 minutes. Strain and set aside.

Melt 25g (1oz) of butter in the pan and sprinkle in the flour until you have a smooth paste. Pour in the milk until you have a creamy sauce. Add the parsley and season.

Warm the cream and onions and whisk into the potato with the butter. Season and keep warm. Heat some oil in a pan and fry the scallops until golden brown. Transfer to serving plates. Add a little butter to a pan, toss in the cabbage and swirl around and serve along with the champ. Coat with the parsley sauce.

From 'Aga Seafood Cookbook', £20, Absolute Press

Henry Harris's oysters and spiced sausages

Serves 4

350g/111/2oz lean lamb mince
250g/8oz lean pork mince
Zest and juice of one lemon
1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
1tsp of harissa
1/4tsp coriander seeds, lightly toasted and ground
1 small packet of fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 small packet of fresh chives, finely chopped
A generous amount of freshly milled black pepper
1/2tsp sea salt
4 handfuls of seaweed, washed
24 oysters, opened
2 lemons

Place the first 10 ingredients in a bowl and mix. Cool in the fridge for 4 hours. Take out and shape into 24 patties. Store in the fridge, but remove 30 minutes before you need them. Heat the oil in a pan, and cook the patties for
2 minutes on each side. Keep warm. Garnish 4 plates with seaweed and arrange 6 oysters on each. Cut off the top and bottom of each lemon and halve them horizontally. Place six sausages each in a bowl and serve alongside.

Henry Harris is chef and co-owner of Racine, 239 Brompton Road, London SW3, tel: 020 7584 4477