The town of Whitstable, on the east coast of Kent has been synonymous with oysters for hundreds of years. Probably longer in fact - the Romans in Britain farmed and exported Whitstable oysters to the Imperial Capital 2,000 years ago. The Whitstable Oyster Festival Association reports that 2,000 year old oyster shells excavated in modern Rome have been traced back to Whitstable.
The town's pride and joy, the Whitstable Native Oyster (left in the photo above) is small and bluish, firm and with a clean taste of the sea. It flourishes in the shallow, coastal waters of the Thames Estuary where fresh and salt water mix and where the microscopic algae oysters eat is plentiful. The colder the water, the better the oysters so, although the native season begins September 1, hang on until at least October when the native oysters are really worth the hour and 20 minute train journey down from London Victoria. (Check National Rail Enquiries for times).
If you are planning on heading for Whitstable outside the traditional oyster season (months with an R from September to April) you can still try some oysters. Farmed rock oysters (the tan oyster on the right) are available all the time and plenty of other fish and seafood, including lobsters, are landed by the local fishermen.
As it happens, the town's traditional Whitstable Oyster Festival takes place in the off-season for native oysters. Oystermen are far too busy once the season opens so they celebrate in July. It's a tradition that dates from Norman times, when local fisherman held a festival and service of thanksgiving during the closed season for oysters, around the time of the feast day of St. James of Compostella, July 25.
Where to Eat Oysters
The Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company, which operates several restaurants and a hotel in Whitstable, can trace its history back to the late 1700s and (according to some reports) as early as the 1400s. The company lays claim to being Europe's oldest surviving commercial enterprise.
The popularity of Whitstable's native oysters grew for hundreds of years, reaching its apogee in the 1850s, when the company, then a cooperative of local fishermen and oyster farmers, shipped as many as 80 million oysters a year to London's Billingsgate Market.
Disease, war and fashion put paid to the town's oyster fishery in the 1920s, but a revival, led by the current (private) owners of the Whitstable Oyster Company, has made the town's succulent mollusc a valued and desirable commodity again.
I visited the company's Royal Naval Oyster Stores restaurant in September and struck up a conversation in the casual oyster bar with some businessmen who had come down from a nearby conference just to eat oysters. Located in a handsome, 18th century brick building with a venerable beamed ceiling, the restaurant offers a big selection of local fish, shellfish and crustaceans. Outside of the restaurant's scheduled lunch and dinner hours, visitors can enjoy a beer, a plateful of oysters and some bread and butter at wooden trestle tables in the bar. The ambiance may be laid back and casual but the oyster's shucked to order in front of you and the sea view (and the prices) are first class. There is no elaborate haute cuisine here. Instead, expect the best local ingredients, simply cooked. The hand cut chips were very, very good.
Royal Naval Oyster Stores Essentials
- Address: Royal Native Oyster Stores, Horsebridge, Whitstable, Kent, CT5 1BU
- Telephone: +44 (0) 1227 276 856
- Open: Mon-Thurs 12 to 2:30 and 6:30 to 9; Fri all day from noon to 9:30, Sat noon to 9:45, Sunday noon to 8:30. Booking for the oyster bar is probably unnecessary but wise for the restaurant when natives are in season.
- Prices: Average to high. 1/2 dozen native oysters in September 2010 were £16, rock oysters were £9. Other main course in 2010 ranged from £12.50 to £28.
- Visit their website
As good as it is, the Royal Oyster Stores, in its striking brick building on the beach, can be something of a tourist draw in oyster season. Here are some other good choices:
- Wheeler's Oyster Bar 8 High Street, Whitstable, +44 (0)1227 273 311. This tiny, pink fronted restaurant dates from the town's Victorian heyday. Everything is right off the boat. Cash only and BYOB.
- The Crab and Winkle - South Quay, The Harbour, Whitstable, +44 (0)1227 779377 Restaurant and fishmarket overlooking the working fishing harbour.
- The Sportsman A Michelin-starred gastropub on the beach in Seasalter.
The Last of the Sailing Yawls - "The Favourite"
In the Victorian heyday of Whitstable's oyster fisheries, at least 150 sailing yawls, sometimes called oyster smacks, harvested the cultivated oyster beds. Often they were crewed by two or three men and a boy. The boats were built strong with a shallow draft to ply the shallow waters over the beds.
Shallow draft sailing craft still manoeuvre the oyster beds, sharing space on the beach with many small pleasure boats, but "The Favourite", in the top photo, harks back to Whitstable's Victorian fishery.She was the last of the traditional wooden oyster yawls in Whitstable and the only one now in public ownership. Built in 1890, she was a working vessel until machined gunned in 1944 during WWII. Now, she sits surrounded by wildflowers in a narrow garden on a street called Island Wall.
"The Favourite" commemorates Whitstable's shipbuilding industry. She was hauled up to the garden of Favourite Cottage just a few feet from where she was built. Information on signs in the garden around her tells of the shipwrights and blacksmiths that once built Whitstable's oyster fleet right on the beach.
Follow the story of Whitstable's oyster yawls and other marine traditions (the diving helmet was invented here) at the town's museum and gallery on Oxford Street in Whitstable. Adult admission is £3; students admission is £2, and one child is admitted free with each paying adult..
Fisherman's Huts Are Now Quirky Hideaways
Unlike some English seaside towns, that (since the seaside became popular in the mid 19th century) are little more than extended amusement arcades, Whitstable has the salty charm of a working fishing village.
Out of fashion as a place for seaside breaks for many years, it has always had its share of independent, small boat fishermen. Now the pebble beach, near town is lined with a ramshackle assortment of huts, some of which still store fishermens gear, some of which are small artists studios and galleries and some of which are secret bolt holes for raffish vacationers.
In an enterprising act of recycling, the owners of the Continental Hotel, who also own the Whitstable Oyster Company, have converted a group of cockle farmers' storage sheds into unusual ocean view accommodations (bottom left in the photo above) They're available for a minimum of two night stays. Visit their website to find out more.