28 May 2009

Drunk Crabs Walk Straight

IF KIRSTY Young invited me to name my desert island dish rather than disc, I would probably say “shellfish”, which seems apt. A recent craving for crustaceans took me to Essex (but not as you know it). Colchester’s Mersea Island is just five miles by two of tidal salt marsh. Whilst far from the dreamy paradise of Radio 4’s flagship programme, it boasts old world atmosphere in bucket loads. There is a vineyard, pub, seven B&B bedrooms and a peeling family-run shack known as ‘The Company Shed’. With fluorescent strips, kitsch ornaments and efficient rather than effusive service, this wet fish shop with tables has become a favourite of Michelin-jaded restaurant critics…
Perhaps it was ambitious to have headed down on a bank holiday weekend, misguided an hour off course by a deceptive Sat Nav. Regardless, our (misspelt) name chalked on the waiting list, it wasn’t hard for three friends to while away an appetite building hour at the water’s edge, where lines against masts provided percussion. We liberated a bottle of rock-pool mineral, oak bevelled ‘Gavi di Gavi’ from Northern Italy (so good, they named it twice).
Once inside, we shared a Formica table wrapped in cheerful plastic with glinting-eyed locals. They in turn shared a paper plate of ‘Gigas’ (rock) oysters, suggestively introducing the gift with, “we hope they work!”
From a waiter in wellies, I eagerly took charge of ordering. The iodine, brine and ozone whiff of the sea continued onto the plate. We methodically worked our way through the last of the season’s saline fragrant, native oysters famous from these parts since Roman times, whole sweet, roe-laden lobster sliced in two, meaty, tangy, hairy crab, soft, succulent, springy prawns, silken mussels and fat cockles doused in vinegar. We followed on with gently grilled buttery scallops, garlic sodden langoustines and elegantly smoked salmon and mackerel. No vegetables were authorised to trespass this fishy spectacular.
The shed provides cracking utensils, Tabasco, the occasional lemon segment and kitchen roll. You bring bread, wine and glasses (no corkage) and if you must, mayonnaise.
Afterwards, we begged a behind-the-scenes tour. Tall purifying racks of oysters gurgled behind shower curtains where coloured threads distinguish different types. Just landed and under ice, a beautiful, bony-spined, stingray-like skate tingled. Disorientated crabs grabbled - apparently the shed gets through 50 stone a week. I was encouraged to sniff a ‘smelt’, a small, pretty silvery fish imbued with the scent of an allotment fresh cucumber. Apparently it is best fried then eaten whole.
Having amassed a charnel house of spent cartilage, we left, comfortably full, to stroll off lunch along the shore. It had been a lavish meal at a bargain price.
Close-by, a boy showed-off the biggest of his in truth rather small bucketed crabs and variously patterned mongrels growled at eachother before reconciling the row with a dogged attempt at humping.
Apparently Giacomo Casanova slipped 50 bivalves a day. My record is 30 at ‘Wright’s’ in Borough Market, although a rising bill and a waitresses’ disapproving look stopped me from ordering more. I used to have coffee at a greasy spoon whose owner boasted of the time he swallowed over 100 in the company of supermodel Kate Moss. It was a tale so outlandish that I half believed him...
Check the tide tables
THE COMPANY SHED 129 Coast Rd., West Mersea, Essex. T. 01206 382700.
FOR Foodepedia

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