Walking around Lower Castle Park in Colchester on Saturday, you could be excused for wondering where, or even when, you were. A corner of the park was filled with food and craft stalls, all centred around a gladiatorial arena, to mark the annual Colchester Oyster Festival. This year the festival was celebrating Colchester’s Roman roots, when it was known as Camulodunum. A theme that is particularly appropriate given that Colchester has been famous for its Oysters since as far back as Roman times.
It was quite bizarre walking around and seeing groups of fully-kitted Roman soldiers (as well as some gladiators with far less coverage!), they seemed to be enjoying themselves though.
Others looked a bit more confused!
In the main arena there was a series of bouts between Camulodunum and the visitors from Londinium, with both sides being cheered on by the crowd.
Onto the main event; the oysters. Neither of us are particularly practiced oyster eaters – I once had a slightly traumatic experience with one in a restaurant where the oyster wasn’t properly detatched from the shell (big mess, choking on dressing – you get the picture!) – so what better time to put my demons to bed?
The oysters were provided by Richard Haward Oysters (@rhawardoysters) from West Mersea. West Mersea is famous for its oysters and the Haward Family have been cultivating oysters there for eight generations, since the 1700s. They also run the Company Shed restaurant on the island and sell their oysters at Borough Market as well via their website.
Firstly we were faced with a choice: Wild spawned Giga (rock oysters) or Colchester Native? While all of the oysters are local, the oyster festival is really about the start of the native oyster season (the rock is available all year round), so native seemed like the natural choice. Native oysters are available from September through to the end of April.
But what is the difference? The rock oysters have a jagged appearance and are irregular shapes (like rocks). Rock oysters originate from the Pacific, but having been introduced to help to boost stocks, they now grow wild in the River Blackwater, and around the UK.
Native oysters, like the ones in our photos, have a smoother round shape and are more delicate and averse to harsh weather conditions. According to Haward’s website, the two types differ in texture (natives are firmer) and rock oysters tend to have a saltier taste, whereas natives have a fresh metallic finish on the back of the throat, owing to their high zinc content.
To accompany our oysters we each had a glass of Bacchus from Dedham Vale Vineyards (@DedhamValeVines), formerly Carter’s, where we helped with the grape harvest last Autumn. It sounds like this year’s harvest is set to be a good one – they should start picking in around a month. I’m sure Bacchus himself would have approved.
The advice was to chew, and we both really enjoyed them. There’s definitely a strange sense of anticipation about eating an oyster, but they were really delicious and so fresh. We kept it simple with the dressings, opting for lemon juice on some, and red wine vinegar and shallots on the others.
After we’d finished our oysters we visited the Stour Valley Organic Lavender Company‘s stand. They are the only lavender farm in Essex and had a range of products to buy. Our eyes had already been caught on the way in by their lavender ice cream, which was so creamy, with just the right balance of lavender flavour – absolutely beautiful, and a great note to end on.