Robin Hancock, co-founder of Wright Brothers, who farm, supply and serve oysters the way they should be farmed, supplied and served, is going to show us how to eat oysters. Well, we know how to eat them, but we aren’t so confident about preparing them at home, even though it’s really no trickier than opening a bottle of wine or cracking a walnut.
‘The whole purpose of Wright Brothers has always been to demystify oysters,’ says Robin. ‘We wanted to narrow the cultural chasm between the English and the French.’ Oysters used to be everyday food for Londoners, with many millions of the nutritious, frilly bivalves passing through Billingsgate every year in the mid 19th century. But overfishing, pollution and harsh winters saw production dwindle to the point where they ended up as a relative luxury. ‘Our thing, when we started out in 2002, was to demonstrate that anyone can eat oysters – it’s a myth that they’re unaffordable or challenging.’
Once Wright Brothers had established themselves as suppliers of French oysters to the UK restaurant trade, they began to farm the shellfish themselves in Cornwall, opening their first oyster bar in Borough Market in 2005. We visit Robin at their newest restaurant, in Kingly Court in Soho, where we sit at the counter and learn how to wield an oyster knife and a tea towel. ‘I’m a great advocate of getting people to open them at home,’ says Robin, girding his elbows.
The other thing we ask Robin to clear up for Editer readers is the difference between rocks and natives. What is a native oyster? It turns out to be a species, ostrea edulis, that’s actually the same as the French native (they call them plates or belons). ‘Natives tend to be smaller, rounder and flatter, and more delicate in flavour, hence often more prized. The rock oyster, aka crassostrea gigas, was introduced from the Pacific in the 1960s, and has pretty much taken over.’
Natives are becoming rarer, so it’s worth seeking them out, but the rocks are delicious, too. The ones we tried with Robin are Dorset rocks, from Brownsea Island. They are so stupendously good and sweet that we eat them just as they are, without so much as a squeeze of lemon. Others you might encounter are wild Colchester rocks, subtly briny Lindisfarne rocks, the minerally Duchy of Cornwall natives that Wright Brothers produce on the Helford River, nutty Whitstable natives, the revered French fines de claires, and the classic, robust West Mersea natives, loved by the Romans.
Incidentally, oysters are sustainable, and contain not just vitamins but zinc, magnesium, potassium, calcium, iodine and dopamine. Some enthusiasts believe they lend themselves to hedonism, though we always try to behave ourselves when we’re at Wright Brothers. Anyway, get some oysters, follow Robin’s instructions, and let us know how you get on at home.
A few tea towels, an oyster knife (do not use a knife with a sharp blade), a glass of wine (optional)
- Store the oysters in the fridge, wrapped in a wet tea towel. Eat them within a day or two of buying them.
- Wrap the shell in the tea towel, leaving only the very end poking out, and grip firmly in your left hand.
- Using your other hand, insert the tip of the knife into the hole in the hinge, and waggle gently until you feel it give.
- Then – and this is the tricky bit – run the knife back inside the upper shell in order to sever the adductor muscle.
- Serve them on ice, with a bit of seaweed drapery (just ask your jolly fishmonger).
- Trad accompaniments are lemon, tabasco, red wine vinegar with chopped shallots or (our personal fave) simply a grind of black pepper.
- To drink, try minerally, unoaked white wine (Picpoul de Pinet, Muscadet, Chablis), a glass of Guinness, porter from Kernel Brewery, fino sherry or champagne.
- Finally: yes, chew them a bit!