Native oysters would definitely be on the menu for my last meal. When I was growing up in the west of Ireland, we’d often have a plate of native oysters, with some soda bread and butter. The flavour is so distinctive it immediately takes me back to those days, so it’s something very special to me.
To me they represent the wild Irish countryside, which has always defined who I am as a chef. They’re the finest oysters from the British and Irish Isles, and you can’t even compare them to oysters from the Pacific. So I’m doing my bit in return with the menu at Bentley’s, which celebrates native oysters more than any other restaurant in London, as it has done since I took over the restaurant 16 years ago.
So I’m pleased to be welcoming another native oysters season. I recommend eating them without any fancy sauces or vinaigrettes, just a squeeze of lemon to bring out the depth of iron in the flavour. And you have to enjoy them with a chilled glass of sparkling wine or champagne, of course. Here are eight things to swat up on before you visit the restaurant.
8 oyster facts, tips and tricks
- Native oysters have grown in the UK since the Roman ages and are so called because they are native to our waters. It’s the oyster that the Romans took from our beds and towed behind their ships all the way back to Rome. You’ll never find them outside of Europe and there are only a few native oyster beds where you’ll find them; West Mersey in Colchester, Falmouth in Cornwall, Loch Ryan in Scotland, Galway Bay and Cork in Ireland.
- Native Oysters have a short season and you can only get them when there’s an ‘R’ in the month. It’s actually against the law for native oysters to be harvested for sale outside of this period, allowing for stocks to replenish for the next season. Because there’s such a limited amount every year, they are a highly sought after product and can be double the price of rock oysters; about £6-£8 per oyster.
- Native oysters are completely wild and can’t be farmed ro cultivated. They can grow for 3-5 years to get to an edible size, which accounts for their deeper and more intense flavour as opposed to rock oysters, which usually only grow for 14-16 months and therefore have a more delicate and subtle flavour.
- The shape of native oysters is completely different to rock oysters, being round and flat as opposed to the teardrop shape of classic rock oysters. This means that native oysters can be harder to open. You open them in the same way, from the hinge at the back, however the muscle is located in the centre of the oyster.
- Native oysters have a deeper and more briny flavour than rock oysters. They have a strong nutty, savoury, earthy and mineral taste, which can last for about 15-20 minutes after you’ve eaten them. However, each region and oyster bed will produce slightly different tasting oysters.
- The texture of native oysters is more firm and meaty, although the meat content is smaller than rock oysters, so it’s important to chew the oysters rather than just swallowing them.
- The best way to enjoy them is with just a squeeze of lemon and freshly cracked black pepper. You want to be able to taste the oyster not the dressing so I would always advise keeping it simple. I would also suggest enjoying native and rock oysters side-by-side so that you can really see the difference in taste, texture and appearance.
- Champagne and oysters is a classic pairing for a reason so I would recommend enjoying native oysters with a glass of crisp Blanc de Blancs, which will match the minerality. It’s also popular to have Guinness with native oysters, which balance perfectly with the creaminess and sweetness of the Guinness.
• To book a table at Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill go to bentleys.org