Diving for pearls

The native oyster season is nearing its end for another year.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The fact that April contains the letter 'r' would seem inconsequential to all but the most crazed of crossword fans, and, of course, the oyster lover - for few precious days remain of the native oyster season.

The fact that April contains the letter 'r' would seem inconsequential to all but the most crazed of crossword fans, and, of course, the oyster lover - for few precious days remain of the native oyster season.

A sea apart from the more familiar rock oyster with its crenellated shell and strong, sea-salty flavour, the native is a subtle beast. A smooth shell and the more delicate marine flavours of sea air and iodine make it ambrosia to the shellfish fan, for whom the end of this month brings woeful tidings because it is in the summertime that the natives make whoopee.

As we contemplate two weeks at a CentreParc, the oyster - a hermaphrodite - is producing the million or so eggs that next year will be shucked and sucked to feed our hedonistic delights. It is for this reason - plus the fact that the strenuous activity that it takes to bring a million kids into the world renders the summer native a milk-burgeoned skinny minny - that we should leave well alone.

Without warrant, common thinking has it that eating seafood, oysters in particular, is akin to playing Russian roulette. To save you having to be pushed around Casualty for the weekend, follow a few simple rules: if it smells fishy, it is fishy; if it's old, it's no good, and - above all - if it tastes bad, spit it out. Actually, those are rules for life, not just for shellfish.

Of our own natives, the Whitstable flat is among the most highly prized. Whitstable's Royal Native Oyster Store is housed in a storm-battered building set alongside a pebble beach strewn with the clawed aftermath of yesterday's gluttons. Inside, blackboard menus, checked tablecloths and open beams prevail. On a Friday lunchtime, out of season, the dining room was full. Locals mixed with Japanese imports and media types, some complete with de rigueur three-wheeler prams.

Black-clad Antipodeans bustled about toting silver trays heavy with ice and startled sea-eyes that watched me peruse the short menu. Among the casualties was smoked eel with horseradish, scallops with balsamic dressing and other such delicacies, but it was for the oysters that I came and, at £12.50 for six, they weren't going to escape.

They were gloriously delicate, with that highly prized fresh marine flavour, and a smell redolent of nothing more than a walk on the beach. I could not have been happier had I found a pearl inside. This is what oysters should effect: the feeling of two weeks old-fashioned rest and recuperation, with a frontal lobotomy thrown in. They could only have been better if they were illegal.

Accompaniments must be kept simple - a little pepper perhaps, and a glass of something light. I chose a Muscadet Sur Lie '98 at £2.50 a glass. Fruity and light, with some yeastiness, it proved a fortuitous partner. Chablis makes for a classic combo, but shy away from wooded whites. The vogue for a pint of Guinness - or a deadly Black Velvet (stout mixed with champagne) - is not without its merits, but there is no rule book.

We are often informed, wrongly, that drinking hard spirits with oysters is demented. True, oysters have a histamine content which, when combined with the richness of hard liquor, can cause chaos in weaker tummies, but who cares about them? The real reason to leave the hard stuff alone is that it is overpowering.

As those around me discussed the bedroom antics of b-list celebrities, I wanted to scream "shut up and eat!" as I do at home. But, given the feast before me, that would have been untimely, rude even. So I paid my £35 bill (I had some irresistible cod to follow) and stumbled down the windswept beach, giving thanks to the gulls and the gills that it was only four month's wait to the new native season, and that fish don't take holidays.

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