A pearl amongst the oysters
Saturday 27 July 1996
When it comes to oysters, there really can be no better place than Whitstable, home to the world famous Whitstable Native Oyster. (Well, it's world famous at least as far as the Med; we know the Romans enjoyed a few natives from shells found as far away as the Imperial city as well as at a Roman site near Canterbury.) I arrived here in in time for the town's annual oyster festival.
At the harbour I made for the Oyster Fisheries Exhibition but first side-stepped into the Guinness tent. Here, for an open donation, you could indulge in unlimited oysters and draft stout, the perfect compliment I'm told. It was where Whitstable's finest connoisseurs, the fisherman themselves, could be found quaffing the slippery little buggers by the half dozen. I swear I watched a short pot-bellied man swallow at least two dozen in the time it took to drink my pint. It was here that I ate my first oyster. "Take courage", J Philpot advised in his book Oysters and All About Them, Vol 1, "for once the disgust is conquered, shuddering antipathy becomes natural craving".
Feeling surprisingly indifferent about the whole experience I made for the oyster exhibition at the eastern entrance of the harbour. Here I learnt everything a man needs to know about the humble oyster, from a chronicled history of the town's shellfish industry to their curious sexual behaviour. They mature as males, then change slowly into functional females, and can alternate their sex for the rest of their lives.
Most importantly I became educated in the subtle differences between the Whitstable Native and the rest of the oyster family, facts that give you credibility among the oyster eating fraternity. I now know that the term Native is attached to those oysters born and bred within the boundaries of the Thames Estuary. It is the combination of London Blue Clay as a seabed and a mix of fresh and salt water that produces a mollusc of superior quality, firmer in texture and with a more delicate cucumbery taste. This is the reason connoisseurs favour the Native Oyster (Ostrea Edulis) over the more common Pacific Variety (Crassostrea Gigas). Natives also have a certain exclusivity: taking the longest to mature (about four years) and being the hardest to cultivate in laboratories and most susceptible to disease, makes them less readily available and more expensive.
By now you would be forgiven for thinking that all Whitstable has to offer is its famous oyster but one of the council's information leaflets announces Whitstable as a "town of sunsets, seascapes and surprises". There are certainly seascapes, which depending on the state of the tide provide the visitor's eyes with either an expanse of chocolate-coloured sea or acres of chocolate-coloured mudflats. When darkness closes on a clear night there must also be sunsets, even if somewhat muted by a sun that disappears through London's smog out to the west.
What makes Whitstable attractive is not the seascapes or the sunsets but simply the town and its residents. Whitstable has resisted development into a resort - it doesn't even have a promenade, and given its proximity to Canterbury (only eight miles) it is not overrun by marauding hordes of visitors. It is a town with a village feel, where the shops still close on a Wednesday afternoon and dogs walk themselves through the streets. It's a real gem on our coastline, a bit rough around the edges yet crammed with narrow little alleyways and passageways cluttered with a jumble of inventive, and very desirable little cottages.
The surprises are, of course, all oyster shaped and include a number of places to sample the local wares. Worthy of a mention is The Royal Native Oyster Stores on the seafront for an excellent daily menu of seafood and somewhere to unravel a short history of the Whitstable Native over dinner with a few friends. As an alternative you could also try the tiny Wheelers Oyster Bar in the High Street (est 1856). At the end of an afternoon learning about oysters and how best to consume them, I perched myself on a stool there and stared at the fine display of local treasures before ordering a round of prawn sandwiches.
This weekend visit Whitstable for the annual oyster festival. Call 01227 275482 for details. The Oyster Fisheries Exhibition is open daily except Wednesdays 10am-4pm, May-September. Traditionally oysters were eaten only then there was an R in the month but today both pacific and native oysters are edible all year round - which is why Whitstable holds its festival in July.
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