14 June 2002

SHELLFISH SHED A GOURMET DELIGHT

There is more to good eating and drinking

than dining in a posh restaurant and drinking

foreign wine. Tessa Gates visits an oyster shed

and a vineyard on Mersea Island

THE Company Shed is an "in" place. At lunch time you need to get there early to get a table and dine on shellfish fresh from the sea that is a mere oyster shells throw away from the back door.

The décor is minimalist – bare floor, a hotchpotch of wooden tables and chairs and a lifebuoy on a wall – but this is no "theme" designer eatery, it really is an oyster shed and its first concern is selling fresh fish from the counter in the corner.

"This is not a restaurant," says Heather Haward emphatically, despite the fact that the place is full of people waiting expectantly for huge platters of shellfish to arrive at their tables. "We just serve shellfish and they bring their own wine and bread."

Heather and her oyster grower husband Richard, were born on Mersea Island which is linked to the Essex mainland by a tidal causeway. They met on a local jetty one winter when they were both helping with the herring, fished with drift nets on the river. "I said, he is the man I am going to marry – he didnt stand a chance," she recalls, adding that she was 21 at the time. Marriage and four children followed and the couple have seen good and hard times through together.

Eleven years ago, when Richard had a fish transportation business, they went broke and lost everything but the shed. Heather decided to open it at weekends to sell locally caught fish – Mersea has a small but thriving fishing industry of around a dozen boats.

"I am no business woman but I put my heart and soul into it. At first I just opened in the summer but now we are open all the time. We take last orders at 4pm and close at five," she explains. She cooks crabs and lobsters on site and sells a whole range of shellfish and wet fish. Favourites with the second-homers and holiday visitors that seek out The Company Shed are the oysters, particularly "natives".

Richard works the oyster beds that thrive on the mud of the tidal creek that almost laps at their door. There withies mark each oystermans territory of river bed rented from the Crown. Rock oysters – Gigas – are put out weighing 30g to fatten on the lines. They are harvested year round by hand when they are exposed at low tide.

"You have to keep taking out the big ones or the others wont grow," explains Richard. "But they must be laid close together for fast growth."

Native oysters spawn here, but they are always below water and have to be dredged up. It takes about four years for them to mature and they are harvested when there is an R in the month – in the summer they are milky.

When it comes to eating, Richard prefers the natives, not so much for the taste but for the texture. The native is softer and less chewy than the Gigas. And yes, he does chew them. "It would be mad just to swallow them," he says.

In The Company Shed they sell for around £1.15 each and there is no shortage of customers. The place has been discovered by TV camera crews and foodies are beating a path to the door. "People keep telling me I should expand but I want to keep it just as it," says Heather, who is a member of the Tastes of Anglia regional food group.

&#42 Mersea Island

Vineyard

Her seafood platters are also served at group tastings at Mersea Island Vineyard, East Mersea where Roger Barber and his wife Jacqui produce some very drinkable wines and offer bed and breakfast.

The vineyard was planted in 1987 and grows on a very scenic site. The land drops away below sea level and the ocean seems to rise up beyond it. The Barbers have owned the vineyard since 1997. "We drove in here on a Saturday afternoon in May when the vines were green and sun was setting low and we just said Yes! We met the owner and made an offer within a week, we are both quite impulsive," says Roger.

That is something of an understatement because they had never grown vines or made wine before. "If you have a gut feeling about something you should have a go or you will spend a lifetime regretting it," he says.

The land – well drained loamy top soil on London clay – has 4ha (10 acres) of vines planted with German Reichensteiner, Muller Thurga and Ortega grapes, and a small amount of Chardonnay and Pinot Meniur. These are used to make five white wines, dry to medium dry, full bodied and fruity with an alcohol range from 11% to 14% by volume.

"At the time we first looked at the vineyard we preferred drinking red wine but we only produce white," says Roger.

"But we tried the wine and liked it, thank goodness. You cant produce something you dont like yourself," says Jacqui, adding that their Mersea 97 won East Anglian Wine Growers Wine of the Year Award 2001.

&#42 Wine course

They did a short wine course at Plumpton College, joined wine growers/makers associations and took the advice generously given by other winemakers and set about making two of the five wines made from their grapes, themselves. "The simplest method worked best for us, the less you do with wine the better it comes out," explains Roger.

"We think being near the sea has an affect on our wine. A winemaker can always tell our juice in blind tastings. He can taste a saltiness that is in no way detrimental."

When the couple bought the vineyard there was no house on it but it had outline planning for a small dwelling. "We went back to the council and said it wont work," said Roger, and outlined his idea for making the vineyard a tourist attraction. "The council worked quite well with us, we all compromised."

In the event they built a house big enough to take guests, a tasting room which would allow for group visits and successfully applied for a licence to sell wines. The buildings have been finished to look as if they have grown up gradually with the place and materials in the local style have been used well. They now intend to apply for permission to build more holiday accommodation. "Tourism is the way to go for us. Around 2000 people/day come onto the island in the summer."

&#42 Good combination

At the end of the strood, the tidal causeway to the island, a sign points the way to the vineyard and an increasing number of visitors call in to buy wine to take with them to The Company Shed. Local wine for local food is a good combination and one that is not lost on Roger. "One of the wines we have in the tanks now will be just the thing for shellfish when it is ready," says Roger. Now thats co-operation between producers.

Inquiries: The Company Shed, 01206-383284; Mersea Island Vineyard, 01206-385900.