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Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Whitstable Oyster Festival

There are people who don’t like oysters. I’ll repeat that. There are people who don’t like oysters.

Why? That’s one of life’s great mysteries, like lumpy peanut butter, or Sandra Bullock. If you don’t like oysters, you should probably avoid reading on. And frankly, what are you reading a food blog for if you don’t like oysters?

I had good memories and high expectations of Whitstable. While training to be a teacher in Canterbury, I used to visit on spare days, swim in the sea, drink Guinness and eat oysters. That I’m now a journalist should tell you all you need to know about my success as a teacher, but Whitstable stuck with me.

For those of us that were brought up to believe you should only eat oysters when there’s an ‘r’ in the month, it comes as a bit of a surprise to find the oyster festival taking place in July. There is a fairly obvious advantage though: weather. On a late Sunday in July, it was beautiful.

We headed for the beach and the festival, but not before popping in at Wheelers to pick up half a dozen rock oysters. Wheelers is one of my favourite shops in England, so go. Its oysters, whelks, winkles, crabs and prawns are always delicious, and reasonable to boot. Our half dozen cost £3.50, which is really not bad.

Then on to the festival proper, complete with crowds, beer and Mackenzie Crook from The Office (a visitor, not an attraction). As well as seafood, there were stalls selling fruit, vegetables, trinkets, tat, booze, burgers, curry and the rest. It was a veritable greedy man’s paradise.

I won’t go through all the stalls. That would be boring (and impossible, given my slapdash approach to note taking). A couple of highlights though: the beer from Gadds (pictured) was spectacular, all bitter caramel and slightly plummy; the cherries and strawberries from four or five different stalls were great, as they should be at this time of year; and the various oyster sellers did their best.

Oddly, the oysters we ate, while fine, were really nothing special. The prized Whitstable natives were few and far between. Rock oysters were the norm, and are all well and good, especially when they’re abundant and cheap, but they’re hardly sophisticated. I eat mine with Tabasco, or sometimes lemon and black pepper, if you’re interested. At least there was no danger of catching an STD.

In the end though, it didn’t matter that the oysters were a bit of a disappointment. I swam in the sea, I bathed in the sun, I ate and drank well, and I saw old men singing sea shanties.

There was also the oyster eating competition. To my great annoyance, I arrived too late to register, but the sight of intrepid munchers guzzling half a dozen oysters and necking half a pint of stout in the fastest time possible is one to warm any cockles, if you’ll pardon the pun. I intend to take part next year.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely post, Phil - where do you stand on that old ostreophage's dilemma: the joy of six or the dirty dozen?

    I don't know if you're a literary man, but thought you might enjoy Seamus Heaney's slippery little poem about shucking and slurping nonetheless:


    Our shells clacked on the plates.
    My tongue was a filling estuary,
    My palate hung with starlight:
    As I tasted the salty Pleiades
    Orion dipped his foot into the water.

    Alive and violated,
    They lay on their bed of ice:
    Bivalves: the split bulb
    And philandering sigh of ocean
    Millions of them ripped and shucked and scattered.

    We had driven to that coast
    Through flowers and limestone
    And there we were, toasting friendship,
    Laying down a perfect memory
    In the cool of thatch and crockery.

    Over the Alps, packed deep in hay and snow,
    The Romans hauled their oysters south of Rome:
    I saw damp panniers disgorge
    The frond-lipped, brine-stung
    Glut of privilege

    And was angry that my trust could not repose
    In the clear light, like poetry or freedom
    Leaning in from sea. I ate the day
    Deliberately, that its tang
    Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

    Boo Danoir