Forget Marmite (to which I'm indifferent), the true divider of the nation is the oyster. To some it's a rare, slippery joy, to others as disgusting as a teaspoonful of snot in a shiny silver box.
Like marmalade, coffee and fennel, the oyster requires a certain maturity of palate (and that’s not just because they are a known aphrodisiac). And those with such palates are rejoicing as the arrival of September – a month with an r in it – means that natives are back on the menu.
I’m a fan of the mermaid’s sneeze, but a relative novice. So I was quick to accept when I received an invitation to J Sheekey – one of my very favourite restaurants – which was hosting the Tabasco British Oyster Opening Championships.
While the shucking was going down (oyster shucker is a job made for rude tongue twisters), I went to the kitchen for a lesson on just how to do it from Tim Hughes, executive chef director of Caprice Holdings (which owns J Sheekey, a restaurant which began life as a humble oyster cart). There was no better place to learn as on a busy Saturday, the Sheekey staff can open over 1,000 of the molluscs. Tim taught me the difference between natives and rocks and that you might want to avoid the ones that are already open, or feel a bit light. He also showed me the key skill of opening one without stabbing yourself in the process.
Full of confidence I then went back to watch the contestants, where I realised that I had some way to go: the quickest hands in the kitchen belonged to Sam Tamsanguan from Wiltons restaurant who opened 30 in 3 minutes and 23 seconds.
But there is more to the mollusc than just parties in pearly restaurants. This week it was announced that a marine biologist in Wales was replanting oysters in beds that had not been used since the 1920s. The hope eventually, is to see if they can recreate their former harvests. As this was a big local employer in the 19th century, a mini-industry could evolve if successful, and might inspire other areas with abandoned farming areas.
But then, what do I know? I’ll turn up to the opening of an oyster shell...