My favourite ancient Roman gourmand, Apicius, has been documented in history bragging about supplying the emperor Trajan with oysters – oysters that could be served uncooked safely, and were famous for their unique taste of the sea. Those specimens would have hailed from what Romans then called “cold and inhospitable Britannia”, from the area where the tiny seaside town of Whitstable is today. Wealthy Romans loved oysters (in the manner that they loved everything exotic – turtle-doves, peacock tongues etc…) but historians today don’t believe that they were ever eaten fresh by the time they had crossed the Roman empire. Even Apicius gives a recipe for ‘pickled’oysters in his book (the first recipe book ever written) but neglects to mention how to get hold of fresh ones if you feel the urge.
Here in Europe oysters are at their best from October to February due to the sea being much colder, so I figured a weekend visit to Whitstable was needed to try the now famous Whitstable natives, as well as some rock varieties. Wheelers Oyster Bar was a must – any restaurant that manages to stay in operation for over 150 years, and recently had Jay Rayner creaming, has me interested. As the tiny restaurant was full, we sat at the counter up front, where customers come and go, enjoying nearly every kind of shellfish Britain has to offer. We were in the mood for a pre-dinner snack, and had brought some beautiful wine with us from London.
I ordered a bowl of winkles, which were the wrong kind of chewy and not fresh. That aside, we should have known when a nervous-looking lad brought the dozen oysters we had requested – even the lady behind the counter suddenly became quite occupied. Initially we were really surprised at how badly shucked these specimens were, and thought that that could have been the reason for the cloudy juice. Which it wasn’t. These were old. Too old. I immediately had images of dying, and was convinced I’d start feeling seriously ill any moment. Simon was looking as uncomfortable as I felt and it seemed as if the place was closing in on us. We got ourselves out of there fast Anyone who has been serving oysters for such a long time knows when they have bad or old stock, – passing them off to paying customers is a pretty irresponsible way of doing business, even if Mr Rayner thinks its fine.
A local had told us about The Pearson’s Arms earlier that day and we hoped to save our night there, with Simon bravely ordering some more native oysters. These were not only presented with more care, but were clearly fresher. The rest of our meal here rivalled some of the “best” gastropubs in London and I’d happily send someone here if they felt the need to check out Whitstable.