Oysters: The food of love?
- Credit: Archant
Need something to bring you out of your shell on Valentine’s Day? Linda Duffin heads to Pinneys oyster beds at Orford for some suggestions
Casanova, with typical overkill, is said to have breakfasted on 50 oysters daily to keep his libido up to snuff. Galen, the most famous physician of the ancient Roman empire, prescribed them as a cure for waning sexual desire, a sort of early Viagra.
Their reputation as an aphrodisiac is often dismissed by oyster-haters who describe them as ‘snot on a plate’ (sorry), but modern medicine suggests there could be some truth in the old wives’ tales. They contain high levels of zinc, potentially boosting testosterone levels. And a 2005 study by a team of American and Italian chemists found they also contain rare amino acids, which could trigger the production of testosterone in men and progesterone in women.
Bill Pinney snorts with amusement when I ask him for his view. He’s probably shucked more oysters in his life than even Casanova could have coped with, so it’s fair to say the romance may have worn a bit thin. “It might be a myth, it might not. There’s only one way to find out!”
It’s easy to wax lyrical about the bleak beauty of Butley Creek, with its herons and sea birds and the seals that sometimes sun themselves on the wooden oyster-growing structures mid-stream. In truth, it can be a cold, wet and muddy job and with all due respect to Bill and his team, there’s nothing very sexy about an over-the-shoulder waterproof onesie. But this is a family affair.
The Pinneys have been farming oysters near Orford since just after World War Two, when Bill’s dad, Richard, relocated to Suffolk from London.
“They were called Orford Plates because they were really good oysters, almost as big as a plate,” says Bill. “They were fished all through the 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th centuries, but gradually dwindled and died out, probably in Victorian times.” In later years Mac Fisheries used Butley Creek as a fattening ground. Bill says: “That trade petered away in about 1925 and that was what gave my father the idea to try to resurrect it.”
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The local fishermen told Richard it was a good way to lose all his money, but undaunted he set to work to revive the derelict beds, stocking them with Portuguese oysters. All was going well until the infamously cold winter of 1962. It was, says Bill, a terrible set-back.
“Everything died. It was the same for the whole oyster industry, Colchester and West Mersea, everybody lost everything that year.” But the family picked themselves up and re-stocked, re-building their business and eventually switching over to the deep-shelled Pacific variety that they still farm today.
They buy them in as tiny infant molluscs, smaller than the head of a drawing pin. They are grown on in special racks, feeding on the nutrient-rich waters of the creek, until they are big enough to fend for themselves on the river bed. And Pacific oysters mature quickly.
“The native oysters take five years to grow, they’re very susceptible to cold, fresh water, disease – they’re just not very hardy. These Pacific oysters, they grow extremely fast, they’re very robust, they can take very low temperatures, very high temperatures, very great changes in salinity, they’re much easier to grow,” Bill says. Oyster snobs would say that the native has a better flavour than the Pacific oyster, but Bill disagrees.
“My view is that if you get an oyster in absolute prime condition, there’s not much difference. The native oyster is very nice, very sweet, but you can get almost the same with a Pacific oyster. All oysters vary in condition through the year, they’re constantly changing.” And that old adage about only eating oysters when there is an R in the month?
That only applies, apparently, to the native oyster and not because it’ll make you ill. When it spawns in the summer months its eggs are greyish-black and it’s visually unappealing, unlike the Pacific oyster whose eggs are white. You can eat oysters all year round, though they are best between autumn and late spring.
Classically they are eaten, after going through purification tanks, raw from the shell, with a dash or Tabasco, a squeeze of lemon juice and a few finely chopped shallots. If the appearance and texture of raw oysters puts you off, try them cooked. Pinneys’ restaurant in Orford also serves Angels on Horseback, which are wrapped in bacon and grilled, oyster soup and deep-fried oysters.
Bill is also thinking of adding oysters to the range of seafood he smokes back at his Butley Creek headquarters. And while he might be sceptical about oysters’ aphrodisiac qualities, the recent addition of a grandchild means the Pinney family is now into its fourth generation in Orford. They must be doing something right.
Bill’s oyster-shucking advice
1. Lay the oyster curved side down on a cloth on a flat surface.
2. Wearing a glove, hold the oyster firmly and insert a sharp, pointed knife into the hinge. Press down and wiggle it around until you find an opening and then press in.
Give it one twist to break the hinge.
3. Keeping the shells slightly apart, slide the knife along the inside top of the shell to avoid cutting through the meat, and cut the muscle at the other end, trying to retain the oyster juices. The top shell will come away.
4. Slide the knife under the oyster meat to cut the muscle that anchors it to the shell. The oyster is now ready to eat although you can if you like flip it over to make it look plumper.
Some like it hot . . .
Two easy recipes to spice up your Valentine’s Day. Try making both and alternate eating the oysters hot and cold. Delicious.
Raw Oysters with an Asian Dressing
1 red chilli, de-seeded and finely chopped
1 small thumb of fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
The juice of 1 lime
2 -3 spring onions, finely chopped
Shuck the oysters, mix together the dressing ingredients and spoon a little over each oyster.
Grilled Oysters with Herb Butter
6 oysters, shucked
40g salted butter, room temperature
1 heaped tspn grated Parmesan
1 heaped tbsp chopped parsley
1 clove of garlic, crushed
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Squeeze of lemon juice
A grind of black pepper
2 tbsp fresh breadcrumbs
An oven-proof frying pan with a thick layer of sea salt, to cook and serve
Mix the butter with the Parmesan, parsley, cayenne, garlic, lemon juice and black pepper, place on a piece of cling film and wrap and roll into a sausage shape. Place in the freezer to firm up.
Heat the grill to high and nestle the shucked oysters in a bed of sea salt in a heat-proof pan.
Slice the herb butter into six rounds and place one on each oyster. Top with a sprinkling of breadcrumbs and grill for 4-6 minutes, until the topping is browned and bubbling.