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Issue 42 - Seafood and eat it

Scotland Magazine Issue 42
December 2008

 

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Seafood and eat it

Sue Lawrence rediscovers Scotland's delectable bivalve molluscs (oysters and mussels to you and me).

It is extraordinary to think that, not so long ago, the consumption of shellfish went hand in hand with poverty. Oysters were eaten daily by the poor; it is recorded that in early 19th century Edinburgh (a much smaller city than today) some hundred thousand oysters were consumed every single day.

Lobster and crab were so cheap they were daily fare in coastal villages and were eaten particularly in times of scarcity. Other molluscs such as mussels, which we nowadays convert into glorious stews or soups, were used only as bait. How times have changed. Apart from mussels, which are still fairly inexpensive, most other shellfish is now regarded as a luxury item.

Since oysters are low in calories and highly nutritious, it is a pity that so few people seem to want to try them. Cultivated (rock or Pacific) oysters – the majority sold in the UK – are not that expensive. But native oysters (such as those from the Duchy of Cornwall or Colchester Oyster fisheries) cost rather more.

So when you have the treat of native (wild) oysters, I suggest you eat them just as they are; cooking them would be a sacrilege. In order to fully appreciate them, once the oyster is loosened, tip it into your mouth. Press it with your tongue against the palate, then – and only then, only once you have the full taste bursting in your mouth – do you swallow, to get the full flavour.

Oysters are well known to be an aphrodisiac, of course. But unlike some socalled aphrodisiac foods, there is good reason to link oysters with romance. They contain high levels of protein and many minerals including zinc: oysters have the highest natural zinc content of any food, and since the most common nutritional deficiency in men with fertility problems is zinc, I need not spell out the obvious.

The winter months are the best time to buy native oysters (Ostrea edulis): the well-known “R in the month” adage was in fact wellfounded, as they reproduce during summer and as they spawn they lose their body flesh.

You will not necessarily become ill if you eat a native in high summer, but the basic law of nature states that you should not harvest when the animal reproduces. Cultivated oysters (Crassostrea gigas), however, are available all year round since they do not spawn naturally in British waters which are too cold. The “gigas” spats are raised in warm-water hatcheries, then they are brought to British farms at about a year old.

These “seed” oysters are then grown on from there.

At Loch Fyne in Argyllshire on the west coast of Scotland, the seed oysters are grown on to 3-4 years by which time they will weigh 75-120g / 3-4 oz. Because Loch Fyne is a sea loch (with fresh and salt water), although an oyster would drown in 100 per cent fresh water, its addition provides a sweeter flesh.

Mussels have been collected along the north-east shore of Scotland for centuries, just like they have on many other coastal areas around Britain. In the Dornoch Firth, the most northerly of Scotland Firths, the Crown gave up its rights to the mussels almost 400 years ago, making it unique in Britain. So, since 1612 when James VI of Scotland (James I of Britain) bequeathed the ownership of the mussel “scalps” (rocky outcrops) to the Royal Burgh of Tain in perpetuity, the locals have been legally permitted to harvest the wild mussels.

Since King James used to make pilgrimages to the tomb of St Duthac in Tain he obviously felt he wanted to bestow some kindness upon the locals. The Tain Mussel Fishery now forms part of the Common Good Fund of the old Royal Burgh area, helping finance local community projects. The company that harvests the wild mussels take them from the sea around four or five years old, much older than their farmed cousins.

Older wild mussels are left as brood stock.

The wild mussels – apart from being sandier than farmed, also have heavier shells and are generally smaller than the more common farmed mussels. But there are also excellent farmed mussels found all around the waters of Scotland.

Let us enjoy the produce of our shores, whether raw or cooked.

MUSSEL AND ONION STEW
1 kg / 2 1/4 lb mussels, well scrubbed
2-3 sprigs of thyme
400 ml / 14 fl oz dry white wine
40g / 1 1/2 oz butter
2 onions, peeled, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, peeled, chopped
40g / 1 1/2 oz parsley, chopped

1.Once the mussels are scrubbed and
washed, place in large pan with the thyme
and wine. Cover tightly and bring slowly
to the boil. Boil for about 1 minute –
or until the shells have opened –
then remove from the heat and strain
over a jug.
2. Meanwhile, heat the butter in the
same pan, gently fry the onions and garlic
for about 10 minutes until softened. Then
increase the heat and add the mussel
liquor. Bubble away for a couple of
minutes then taste and season
accordingly.
3. Return the mussels – in their shells – stir
gently and reheat over a low heat for a
minute or so. Scatter over the parsley just
before serving.
4. Ladle into warm bowls and serve with
plenty of bread.

OYSTERS WITH SAUSAGES
500 g / 1 lb 2 oz sausages, halved (beef
or pork, with high meat content)
16-20 oysters

1. Grill the sausages, place on a dish.
2. Open the oysters, place on ice alongside.
3. Eat hot sausage then cold oyster.

To open an oyster
Wrap your left hand in a tea towel.
Place an oyster – cup-side down, hinge
towards you – in the palm.
Insert an oyster knife into the hinge,
push and twist simultaneously,
passing the knife under the top shell
to cut the muscle, sliding along the
length to fully open.
Retain all juices.