Oysters, herbal drinks, endless horizons and merrior

The wind is light, the sea retreating in its morning tidal shift and the horizon shimmers across the revealed slithery, slimy seafloor.

Low tide and sticky mud flats make for ideal foraging amongst the millions of feral, invasive oysters. I am standing, swaying in the gloop of the Wadden Sea, looking at uncountable numbers of oysters matted together with seaweed, clinging onto each other with a quiet, fast grip.

Hand collecting these wild, non-native oysters gave us an understanding of the complex relationship the molluscs have with the environment and the vast numbers that have made the shallows of the Wadden Sea around the western coast of Denmark, where I stand, home. Stretching from the Netherlands in the south to Jutland in the north, the sea is the world’s greatest tidal region.

These waters give the oysters merroir, a similar concept to terroir as used by wine makers to describe land, environment, ecology, soils and so on that root grapes and the wine they produce to a specific place. An oyster’s merroir suggests its taste is linked to many environmental variables including the temperature of the sea, its salinity and other mineral content, and the local ecology. Merroir affects an oyster’s flavour making it, for example, bland to the tongue, creamy, sweet, salty, good for frying, or best for eating raw.

I had been kindly invited to the Danish island of Rømo by the Danish Oyster Festival to experience how many of the country’s top chefs were able to interpret the merroir of the island’s oysters in a range of sweet, savoury dishes (see other posts to learn how they fared, including some delicious recipes from chefs based across the water in northern Germany). Generally though, it was thought that the Pacific/Rock oysters improved with further cooking and additional flavourings while the creamier, sweeter native oysters were best eaten raw with a couple of bites to release the taste of the sea.

Pacific Oysters

Now found around the world, the Pacific or Rock Oysters are one of the world’s dominant varieties. Named both from place of origin and their rock like shape and shell texture, this oyster overruns marine space and food supplies to native oysters. In areas such as the Wadden Sea, Pacific Oysters have no natural predators and are thriving.

Wild Pacific oysters vary in shape and size, but they are all sharp to the touch, spiky and spiny. Gloves are recommended as we gathered the oysters and peeled away clingy seaweed and other crustaceans such as the native blue mussels.

Clumping together

The oysters clump together, forming thick carpets of densely packed life. Take a closer look and you’ll see crabs, mussels and clams making their home in the tangle. New ecosystems are being created, but at the loss of the more delicate native oyster. Wild oysters are much more variable in shape and can grow very large. It’s the same across the waters around the southern English coastlines of Essex and Kent, and the (river) Thames estuary.

Meanwhile, we leave tangled piles of oysters that are too well connected to prise apart. My fellow forages, hunters and gatherers seek out single oysters, smaller ones that fit snugly into our hands for eating where we stand. Other gather to eat later in the day, with their minds on recipes for grilling or baking.

Outdoor life

The waters around Rømø are clean, fresh and cool. In summer the island attracts holiday makers from Denmark and northern Germany. They come for an outdoor life of horse riding, cycling, hiking and sailing. It’s a landscape on the move, continually changing its memory. There are currently five restless, shifting sand dune ridges, as the land seeks to expand westwards and claim the space for its own.

Gathering oysters here is traditionally carried out on foot at low tide and between the months of September and April. Hand collection of feral oysters is one method to keep wild populations of this non-native species under control.

Shucking on the beach

It takes about 30 minutes to walk along the dyke from where our bus drops off with wellies, woolly hats, gloves and bucket to hold our haul before we reach the flats where the oysters beds lie. 

Herbal heat for oyster pairing

At one point I turn to see the smiling face of a Ranger holding some small glasses and a bottle of mysterious lightly coloured, greeny brown coloured liquid. I’d just shucked my third oyster and was about to lift it up to my mouth, it was suggest this warming, snaps would be the ideal complement. There was no prising any recipe from the maker, but she was very generous with her servings.

The schnapps was flavoured with herbs picked locally, grown on the salt marshes, coastal wetlands that are flooded and drained by sea water brought in and out by the tides. The water encourages certain grasses and herbs to grow which are rarely found elsewhere and it’s these salt tolerant plants which give grazing sheep their distinctive flavours, and the warming herbal schnapps. We’re on the west side of the island where, according to our guides, the rangers, herbs such as sheep’s fescue, waxy hair grass, sand sedge, sheeps-bit scabious (yes, that really is a plant), field pansy and common cat’s ear . Which one contributed to the layers of flavours of this heart starter drink, I can’t comment, but I gratefully received a second glass.

Pacific plunderers

Pacific oysters have been spreading around the shores of the Wadden Sea since the mid-1990s. This oyster is native to Japan arriving via Dutch oyster growers who at the time believed the progressively colder waters would stop the breed encroaching too far north. However, climate change has warmed seawaters steadily north ever since dragging the oysters along.

The breed grows up to 9 cm, have spiralling groves and uneven shells and has a voracious appetite for plankton which threatens its less strident native competitors.

While migrating birds feast on the microscopic algae, worms, mussels, snails, and crustaceans they have yet to learn how to prise open the tightly closed oysters. Local environmentalists fear the impact of Pacific oysters are having on the original populations of native sea dwellers. Indeed, a ranger informs me that the hope is that nature will find a balance and all types of such creature will live in balance. But in the meantime Povl, his team and some of the country’s leading politicians are suggesting, ‘if you can’t beat them, eat them’.

For more information on the Danish Oyster Festival click here.

For more information about the Romo island and southwestern Denmark click here and here.

Bruce McMichael

Food writing, discovering food stories, meeting producers, chefs and food enthusiasts are all part of desire to inspire, inform my readers and fellow food lovers. I am a freelance writer, journalist and published author focusing on the international world of food and drink, culture and travel. In 2019 I graduated from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy with a Masters in Food Culture, Communication and Marketing. I am now a visiting Professor at the university teaching Food & Drink Writing. Based in London I travel widely, particularly across western Europe. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur. In 2017 I won an episode of the ITV (the UK-based national television channel) cooking competition show, 'Gordon Ramsay's Culinary Genius'. I took my children on holiday to Sicily with the prize money. As an experienced farmers' market manager and operator of a small marmalade/ preserves company, I am very familiar with the issues surrounding local food, farming, enterprise and the environment.