Few people know this, but Europe’s largest oyster nursery is located in Cumbria, on the southern tip of Walney Island. The site is responsible for supplying many of the most famous oyster beds both across the UK, Ireland and France!
Our native oysters have been an important food source for centuries, the Romans even exported them back to Italy from our shores! Though it was thought that the oysters found off our Cumbrian shores were probably never eaten by the local population, and that’s despite the fact that there are quite a few oyster beds to be found along the coast, especially near Whitehaven. From old written accounts it seems the oysters found in these beds were reputedly very large, coarse and described as being far from delicious!
However, in 1871 new oyster beds were discovered close to both Maryport and Workington, which were described as producing much more agreeable stock. So much so, that boat loads containing up to 5,000 at a time were subsequently landed and then transported to Carlisle for sale.
Robert Orman’s fish shop located on St Albans Row in the city, kept oysters in stock during the traditional season, which ran from September through to April, right up until the early 1890’s, after which the supply of wild Cumbrian oysters dried up. The sad demise came about as a direct result of over fishing, as has also proved to be the case with charr and shrimps.
You can now, however, eat oysters from Cumbria once more; though they’re not wild nor are they our own native species of oyster, but to be honest they’re probably a lot nicer than the ones that use to be harvested on the west coast.
The Morecambe Bay Oyster Company set up shop in the old gravel workings and lagoons on Walney Island over 40 years ago. Here, the company mainly operates as a hatchery and nursey, sending seed on to oyster farms across Europe. Handily they also part grow stock too out in the Bay. Quite often at low tide you’ll spot staff on tractors heading out onto the sands around Rampsbeck going out to check on trestle beds that have been established at various locations where they grow stock on , which feed on the nutrient rich waters found in the Bay. The tides and strong currents found in this part of the Bay play their part too, especially as the oysters have to cope with the 10-metre tidal range, but that only helps produce very strong, hardy oysters, which are high in minerality and have a firm, silky texture when eaten - delicious.
If you’re ever in London try to get down to Borough market, it’s amazing! In amongst all the other colourful and lively stalls you will find the Furness Fish market, run by Les Salisbury. Les began his fishing career, fishing for shrimps in the Bay and then to setup his company.
On his stall potted shrimps are still the main attraction, but they also offer fresh fish and shellfish from all around the UK including the Morecambe Bay Oysters. The staff on the stall will happily open up just one for you if you ask, which is perfect for those who’ve never tried an oyster before. So if you are in the area, you’ve really got no excuse not to give them a try!
I have to admit though, it may be a little bit excessive travelling to Borough Market just to try a Morecambe Bay Oyster or two. Luckily, there’s a more local solution and that’s in the form of Chris Saunders the owner of the Lake District Lobster & Seafood Company, a lovely fishmonger’s shop in Ulverston, which tends to have them in stock and will certainly get some in for you if you let them know in advance.
Alternatively, they are also available to order online for delivery direct to your door. Though do be warned if you do this you will need to shuck them yourself! Which is why I would recommend watching a tutorial video online before you even attempt this and make sure you concentrate because it can be painful if you get it wrong. Trust me I have the scars to prove it - if you rush, you’ll definitely regret it. The dinner service when working in Edinburgh where I inserted an oyster knife into my hand will never be forgotten, no matter how hard I try!
At the restaurant we have served oysters as one of our introductory snacks, the reason being because it’s one of my favorite ways to start a meal. When we serve them, they are accompanied by pickled cucumber, apple, dill, and freshly grated horseradish. Unfortunately, though in the end we had to take them off the menu, seemingly writing the word oyster on a tasting menu causes shellfish and seafood allergies in customers to rise considerably! Which as you can imagine is a little frustrating when all the dishes on the menu other than the main course and the desserts are some form of fish or shellfish.
Of all the ingredients we serve nothing else seems to elicit quite such an extreme range of opinion in terms of likes or dislikes than the humble oyster. For my money I’m firmly on the like team and would urge you to be brave and try them, regardless of your preconceptions!
Morecambe Bay Oysters
100ml sunflower oil
One granny smith apple
75ml white wine vinegar
One stick of fresh horseradish
Begin by making a dill oil. Before you do this pick some of the tender dill leaf and set aside for later. Place the remaining dill in a small blender with the oil and blitz until the oil is green. Place in a pan and bring to the boil stirring constantly. Pour the hot oil through a fine cloth to remove any sediment. Set aside to cool.
Slice the apple finely then using a round cutter that is roughly the same diameter as the cucumber to cut discs out of the slices. Then cut these in half so you have semi circles. Place in a bowl and cover with dill oil. You will need twelve semi circles altogether (or two per oyster). The remaining dill oil can be kept in the freezer to be used again in the future.
Peel the cucumber and slice then cut the slices in half, you will need eighteen cucumber semi circles (or three per oyster), hopefully roughly the same size as the apple. Place the cucumber in a heat proof bowl. In a pan bring the vinegar, sugar and water to the boil and pour it over the cucumber. Wrap in cling film and allow to cool.
Peel the top part of the horseradish root so you can grate it later.
Now you need to open the oyster. As mentioned, I would recommend watching a tutorial video and take care! Remove the oyster carefully from the shell into a bowl retaining the juice. Slice the oyster in to 3 and place back in the shell with the juice. Start with a slice of cucumber then apple so they overlap repeat with another cucumber than apple and finish with a piece of cucumber add a little of the dill oil. Garnish with sprigs of tender dill and place into serving bowls. These are best filled with rocks or ice to keep the oysters stable. Finish table side with grated horseradish to taste.