A few tempting ideas for the upcoming UK August bank holiday weekend (or any weekend, really), if those of you in the UK want that "getaway" feeling without getting on a plane.
Wheelers Oyster Bar, Whitstable
A mere 90 minutes train journey from London Victoria station, Whitstable on the Kentish coast is a well loved oyster hub. I'd been to the town's annual oyster festival two Julys in a row, only to realise (duh) that given the month, the native varieties weren't in season. The old adage goes: Don't eat oysters during any month without an "R" in it, cos that's when good oyster stewards let them get on with the mating process. (As I understand it, there's a lot of simultaneous spooging and squirting into the sea, and the currents swirl it all together so that the magic can happen.)
So this past spring we went back and hit Wheelers Oyster Bar . Wheelers is one of those places insiders don't want to talk about because the food is fantastic and the dining room is tiny. In short, reserversations are scarce, and it's not because anyone on the Wheelers team is being poncy. It took me 2 bloody years of living in London before a friend who slinks off by himself at odd hours of the weekend to dine alone at Wheelers finally deigned to mention it to me.
Open with a cold platter (pick your size) from the cold bar. Then order up some oysters. Below is a monster of a Whitstable native no doubt fattening since the previous summer. Huzzah!
Good luck picking a main from the mouth watering list. My personal favourites were the skate wing ravioli, and the very innovative take on steak and Guinness pie on a bed of raw oysters.
Bring with you only people you really really like.
A few of my favourite memories from previous Whitstable Oyster Festivals past:
Above: The annual oyster eating competition - a speed round consisting of 6 oysters and half a pint of local brew. Both the years I was there a local named Nate won (time: sub 10 seconds). I ended up at the same lunch table with him afterwards, that first year. Turns out, he didn't even really like oysters! Anyone know who won this year?
Above: Melf, Jas and I take our place in the competition. Jas proves to be the fastest gullet of the East
Above: These oval shaped giga oysters are delish, but not native. Come back in the cooler months for the rounder-shaped natives
The Company Shed, West Mersea, Colchester, Essex
Some time ago, Bab's buddy Paul told me about a magical place...a little seafood shack called The Company Shed where you bring your own booze and bread and condiments, whose connecting causeway to the mainland floods with the tide. I decided to mark my 30th birthday there last August. My birthday wish: May the tide leave us permanently stranded.
The Haward family run this joint; the same good folks behind the just-in-time shucking oyster and clam stall at London's Borough Market on Fridays and Saturdays. I always get a half dozen or so of the largest ones available when I drop by -- the breakfast of champions!
After a 2 hour drive from London, we did get stranded, but only at the front door in the 2-hour queue (they don't take reservations). Our merry little crew kept ourselves sane with little seafood snacks from stalls by the nearby dayboat pier, and intermittently joining the kids to keep a hawkish eye on the fast-moving inventory.
We finally make it in, and let loose like hounds. The cold seafood platter (3 kinds of shrimp, 2 kinds of smoked fish, cockles and crab) is a must, as are the grilled scallops. I love it that they keep the coral on. Nothing to waste!
A toast to turning 30! The world is my oyster. Oh wait, maybe the other way around. In any case, try 'em both ways: cheekily chilled in the champagne we bought, and baked in hot cheese.
Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant, Padstow, Cornwall
If you're up for seafood of a much splashier kind, Rick Stein's flagship establishment in his Padstow empire on the Cornish Coast is a good bet. Thanks to old friends SL and P-Diddy for pointing us here as a stop for our South-west roadtrip (back in our yuppier days).
Babs and I played hot and cold with the starter list. A diabolical pairing of raw oysters and chorizo (who knew!), and beautiful plate of sashimi.
When in doubt, get a platter of everything. Babs and I are hopelessly indecisive when it comes to ordering food...
Afterwards, pay a visit to The National Lobster Hatchery, just a few steps from Rick Stein's. This fantastic institution works with local fishermen to collect and hatch lobster eggs, and nurtures baby lobsters through their most vulnerable period before setting them free into local waters. You can adopt lobster, or a family of them, and track their release.
For you fellow seafood fiends out there, this is kinda like the crustacean version of a carbon-offsetting programme. Visit their website for other donation and volunteering opportunities.
Above: Lobsters are so yummy that they even eat each other! So the National Lobster Hatchery keeps each baby lobster in its own individual compartment during their most cannibalistic period.
I mentioned briefly about how oysters mate, but do you know how lobsters mate? Trevor Corson does, and tells it well in colourful but digestible detail in his wonderfully educational and entertaining book The Secret Life of Lobsters. A fun foodie read for that bus or train ride to any of the shellfish spots mentioned above.
Have a brilliantly briny weekend!
Wheelers Oyster Bar
8 High St
CT5 1BQ, UK
+44 1227 273311
The Company Shed
129 Coast Rd
West Mersea, Colchester, Essex
CO5 8PA, United Kingdom
+44 1206 382700
Travel tip: in advance and you can save up to 43% off the fare sold at the station.