BY NICKI HOLMYARD
The oyster is his world Author’s passion shines through delightful romp around UK farms
YSTER Isles: A Journey Through Britain and Ireland’s Oysters’ is a delightful read; a clever melange of travelogue, history, facts, recipes, tasting notes, anecdotes, restaurant and oyster bar recommendations, and conversations with many of the UK’s oyster farmers. It is dedicated to oyster folk everywhere. The book is the tale of a pilgrimage undertaken by Bobby Groves, a passionate oyster lover, and, for the past ﬁve years, head of oysters at the well known Chiltern Firehouse restaurant in London. Here, he runs an oyster cart, selling upwards of 150,000 oysters each year. ‘That’s not a bad tally for a restaurant that is not a dedicated oyster bar,’ said Groves, who reckons he has opened several million oysters in his life. And at just 32, he has many millions more ahead of him. ‘I spent my teenage years on the Blackwater River in Essex, helping out at Maldon Oysters, learning how to farm, to depurate, to shuck, to sell, and to promote them. ‘Later, when I was studying, I started shucking oysters on the London markets, selling several thousand each day,’ he said. Following a short spell back on the farm, Groves took the plunge and set up his own business, Bobby’s Oysters, which specialised in oysters from East Anglia.
oyster farmers Ben Sutherland and Richard Loose Right: River Blackwater, Essex (photo: Shaun Reynolds-Darwood) Opposite top: Bobby Groves (photo: Michael Leckie) Opposite bottom:Oyster farmer Judith Vajk (photo: Richard Hunt Smith)
‘I was on a mission to put Essex on the map, not as a place that is the butt of jokes, but as somewhere that grows excellent oysters,’ he said. The Chiltern Firehouse was his ﬁrst proper restaurant job, but it is one that he adores, and which next year will to take him to New York, Los Angeles and Paris to oversee the setting up of an oyster programme in partner hotel restaurants. Groves’ work involves talking to customers, and he explained how he loves conjuring up images of oyster farmers and the natural beauty surrounding their oyster beds. People often want to know more, and ask for directions to the wild and largely unknown pockets of the world where they operate. Over the years, he also grew frustrated at the lack of knowledge about UK grown oysters, especially from foreigners, even though these were the highlight on his oyster menu. ‘So many people ask me for French oysters because the French have done a really good job of promoting them. But to me, asking for a Fine de Clair or a Belon oyster in a UK or Irish oyster bar with a fully stocked menu is like asking for a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk in a Belgian chocolate shop!’ he said. Groves was an avid reader of all the oyster books on the market, but he felt that none told the story