… not to be confused with the Black Shuck, which is a scary spectral hound said to roam Suffolk. No, the Woodbridge Shuck is a shellfish festival celebrating the oysters and mussels grown in the Deben, the river that runs past the town of Woodbridge on its way to the sea.
The festival is three years old but its genesis lies with the fishing and farming traditions of the Simper family. They’ve farmed in Suffolk for 200 years, the last 75 of which have seen them cultivating land on either side of the Deben. Five years ago they revived an earlier venture farming the river itself, by rearing oysters and mussels in its waters.
“We had been supplying pubs and restaurants with shellfish and one day I was sitting in the Woodbridge Crown with my father, talking about how good it was to have such local produce and why we should celebrate it,” says Jonathan Simper. “So we thought, why not actually have a celebration?”
I tend to associate the area with yachting and boating – I’ll never forget the trauma of having to steer along the aptly-named Troublesome Reach on the nearby river Alde – but Jonathan says the Deben is officially one of the cleanest rivers in Britain. “It’s not like a big estuary with a large town sitting on it, where you have problems with the volumes of people and their waste. Because the Deben is a small river, it effectively gets flushed out by the tides from the North Sea twice every 24 hours.”
Jonathan and his family – there are now three generations working together – grow their oysters in mesh bags on sinking platforms in the creek. They’re mostly Pacific (rock) oysters, though the Simpers are also now introducing the much-prized but slower-growing British Natives. The mussels, meanwhile, are grown on beds at the bottom of the high tide mark. Once the shellfish have grown to a marketable size – which can take two or three years – they’re harvested, taken ashore and cleaned and graded at Simpers’ purification plant.
The Shuck festival started out with local pubs and restaurants cooking special menus featuring Deben shellfish. Now it has grown into a bigger event, with fishing boats and stalls down on the quay by the recently restored Tide Mill (more on that in a later post), two nights of bespoke catering on the three floors of the Tide Mill itself and foodie events dotted around pubs, restaurants and wine bars in Woodbridge. It’s one of the fringe events associated with the Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival.
Don’t like oysters? I heard them described recently as “snot on a shell”. Personally I’m rather partial to a raw oyster with just a little shallot vinegar and a dash of Tabasco but if that doesn’t appeal, they’re also fabulous cooked.
Years ago I did a television feature on an Irish oyster company and the owner gave me a tip – if you can’t shuck them easily (and I’ve had a fair few cuts and abrasions over the years) just pop them over a gas flame for a moment or two. This relaxes the muscle that keeps the shell clamped shut and you can just slip a knife into the hinge. I left mine over the flame for too long and simmered them in their own juices – and they were delicious.
If you want to get fancier, there are lots of recipes available including one I once tried with cream, champagne and caviar. Well, it was St. Valentine’s Day. But for a quick treat try this method from the Simpers: open up the oysters, loosening the meat on the half-shell, then put a tablespoon of cream and a sprinkling of cheese on each one before popping them under the grill for around three minutes.
This year’s Woodbridge Shuck takes place tomorrow and Saturday, October 4 and 5.
What’s your favourite way of eating oysters? Drop me a line here and let me know. Happy shucking!