The beautiful looking oysters in the photograph above are from Loch Ryan, a sea loch in the south-west of Scotland. The oysters that come from Loch Ryan are unique, as it is home to the only oyster bed in Scotland to be harvested commercially.
Over the last few centuries native oyster stocks have plummeted in Britain, and all over Europe, due to factors such as over-harvesting, disease and pollution. For instance, there were once oyster beds in the Firth of Forth which covered an area of 50 square miles and were the most productive in Scotland, landing up to a staggering 30 million oysters per annum at peak production. By the 1950’s they were essentially extinct.
Native oysters are on the OSPAR List of Threatened and/or Declining Species and Habitats so careful management is needed to preserve this precious resource. Despite this depressing thought, there are 93 locations around the Scottish coast alone, where native oysters can be found, even if these populations are sparse. Most of the oyster beds are found on the west coast, with the biggest population in Loch Ryan. A discovery made recently even found a return of the native oyster to the Firth of Forth!
The Loch Ryan Oyster Company have worked hard to carefully manage their stocks, with the aim of increasing the extant population. They only take oysters that are fully grown, leaving the younger ones time to reproduce and grow to their proper size.
In these cold waters the oysters grow slowly, so by the time we get to eat an oyster from Loch Ryan it can be up to eight years old!
Oysters, even farmed ones, are a rare treat today, despite the fact that they were once common place in the British diet. Native oysters, Ostrea edulis, are quite different from the teardrop shaped, farmed rock oysters, with which we are now more familiar with in Britain. They are a prize stolen from Neptune’s larder and should be cherished. Despite their rarity, however, native oysters only cost around £1 each. This is relatively cheap compared to some other great delicacies.
It is amazing to think that the Roman soldiers who built the Antonine wall in the 2nd century AD ate oysters just like the ones from Loch Ryan. Shells have been found at the remains of the forts which once lined the Antonine wall. Going further back still, there are records of oyster eating from some of the earliest evidence of humans in Scotland.
Oyster middens have been found at West Voe in Shetland, dating from around six thousand years ago, and from Cramond, a choice location for oysters where the Forth estuary meets the river Almond, dating to around 8,500 BC.
Oysters are a strange thing. They are wet and snotty, and like the Loch Ryan ones, can be incredibly salty. But somehow this strange sea creature has captured man’s imagination, as there is something magical and decadent about them. Not only have they sustained humans but have become a benchmark for civilised Western culture, prized by gourmands and gluttons for centuries.
Edinburgh was once famous for its oyster taverns, or so-called oyster cellars. Today in Edinburgh, the headquarters of the Bank of Scotland famously sits upon a giant oyster spoil heap. There is a small example of the amassed oyster shells inside the museum, evidence that oysters were once eaten with abandon in the Scottish capital. There were clearly no shortage of gourmands who relished them either, as Christian Isobel Johnstone (The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, 1826) proudly describes the types of oysters available in Edinburgh:
"Every city has its favourite oyster-bank...Edinburgh has her 'whiskered pandores,' and latterly Aberdour oysters...Those large fat oysters called Pandores, which are so much prized in Edinburgh, are said to owe their superior excellence to the brackish contents of the pans of the adjacent salt-works of Prestonpans flowing out upon the beds, a subject worthy of serious investigation by the oyster-amateur, who may here receive some excellent hints for fattening and improving the quality of his favourite morsel."
There is also a wonderful passage in The Traditions of Edinburgh (Robert Chambers, 1868), revealing what it might have been like to eat in an oyster cellar in old Edinburgh:
"The custom which prevailed among ladies, as well as gentlemen, of resorting to what were called oyster-cellars, is in itself a striking indication of the state of manners during the last century.
"In winter, when the evening had set in, a party of the most fashionable people in town, collected by appointment, would adjourn in carriages to one of those abysses of darkness and comfort, called in Edinburgh laigh shops, where they are proceeded to regale themselves with raw oysters and porter, arranged in huge dishes upon a coarse table, in a dingy room, lighted by tallow candles. The rudeness of the feast, and the vulgarity of the circumstances under which it took place, seem to have given a zest to its enjoyment, with which more refined banquets could not have been accompanied."
You can buy Loch Ryan oysters from oysters.com, and they will be delivered the very next day. They go on sale from the 1st of September right up until the end of April or May. This follows the traditional season for oysters, where they are only eaten in months with the letter R in its name.
During the summer months the oysters are breeding so they get left alone. Besides which, they are not as good to eat in summer as the flesh becomes soft. It is their firm texture for which Loch Ryan oysters are so famous. When eating oysters, the received wisdom is that natives are best served on their own, so their unique taste can be savoured. As Johnstone attests in The Cook and Housewife’s Manual 1826: "A genuine oyster-eater rejects all additions,-wine shalot, &c., are alike obnoxious to his taste."
• See more of Fraser’s recipes at www.redbookrecipes.com/
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