Few foods cause such a polarisation of feelings as the oyster. On the one hand it is famed for its ability to seduce – quite literally – while on the other it possesses a fatal power to poison, as any sufferer will verify. With oysters there is no middle way – you either love ’em or loathe ’em. Despite their quirky reputation, however, they enjoy celebrity status among the ranks of culinary treats. Still, they deserve some form of compensation, since their lives are spent clinging, limpet-like, to rocks in the flats of the seabed. Furthermore, they are protandric hermaphrodites, which means they undergo regular changes of sex, so not for them the pleasures of reproduction as this procedure is a solo act.

Oysters fall into two categories: plump, juicy natives, grown wild and available when there is an “r” in the month’s name (during the summer they spawn and their flavour alters, so it is not advisable to eat them); and the rock variety, known as “gigas” a longer and thinner oyster produced throughout the year by farming. Natives are, of course, far superior in flavour (a fact reflected in the price) since they are always well fed, thus full of meat in the shell. Hence they are best enjoyed au naturel. Rocks are especially good to cook with though the secret is to remember that they require only the briefest exposure to heat.

Oysters take at least two years to reach maturity, though many growers cultivate theirs for four years before they deem them suitable for consumption. Once harvested, the oysters are graded and passed through a purification process before being brought to the table.

For all those who revel in the hedonistic delights of gorging on these meaty mouthfuls a visit to the annual Whitstable Oyster Festival is a must. Tucked away on the Kent coast, this quaint seaside resort with its weatherboard cottages and secret alleyways is home to the eponymous native oyster, which has been its most valuable resource for centuries. “The Oyster Festival tends to send us slightly mad,” laughs Delia Fitt, who runs the original Wheelers, part of that famed restaurant chain, which has been in her family since 1856. And what this doll-size pink house lacks in space it more than atones for with the dazzling selection of fish it offers its customers. Be this as it may, Whitstable has become a magnet for all oyster lovers and its merry frivolity embraces the best of English eccentricity.

Opinions vary as to when the first Oyster Festival took place, though it is generally acknowledged that there has been some form of celebration dating back to the 1830s when the town’s railway and port were completed. The first steam-powered passenger and railway service between Whitstable and Canterbury was known as the “Crab and Winkle line”. The phrase “proudly protective of its past while constantly evolving with the times” paints an accurate picture of what to expect now in terms of the eight-day extravaganza. There is no doubt that the Festival has undergone many reinventions of its original self over the years and it is largely thanks to Mike and Jeanne Harrison, who took charge of it in the mid Eighties and remodelled it, that it is such a resounding success today.

It is now organised by Art Hewitt and run on a voluntary basis by the Whitstable Oyster Festival Association (WOFA). Hewitt’s modern-day approach recognises the need to embrace the locals – the event is well bolstered by the presence of many local clubs, societies and schools – while moving towards a more contemporary attitude to host more than 100,000 people who flock here every July. Brian Baker, secretary of WOFA, confirms this: “There’s a need to feed back into the community while opening our doors to a wider audience.”

The official opening of the Festival is marked by the landing and blessing of the oysters. This takes place on the Long Beach, preceded by an energetic musical performance from the Whitstable Community Band, Samba Pelo Mar. Resplendent in turquoise costumes which bring brightness to the dullest of days, the performers’ rhythmic movements are accompanied by enthusiastic whistle-blowing and rattling of percussion instruments.

Under grey skies and a hard northern light, the ketch bearing the oysters is brought to shore by the Sea Scouts. The oysters are duly landed by Neil Austen with an ancient wooden yoke. They are presented to the Lord Mayor of Canterbury, this year Councillor Carolyn Parry, and blessed by the Reverend Simon Tillotson. Other officials present include the Party of St Peter’s and the Sheriff of Canterbury.

The service completed, it is time for the dignities to slake their thirst with the locally brewed stout while the oysters are loaded on to a horse-drawn dray in readiness for distribution among the town’s restaurants and public houses. The procession, which brings the whole of Whitstable to a standstill, is composed of many local organisations including small children all proudly displaying imaginative treasures of the sea cut-outs created in their school workshops.

The oyster may be the undisputed queen of the show but other activities to amuse and entertain include tug-of-war, history walks, mediaeval theatre, cookery demonstrations, firework displays and morris dancing. For those unable to resist the bait of a fishy fix, slip along to the harbour where, in addition to stalls selling jams and jellies, fudge, fruit juices and French cheeses, there are counters of jellied eels, whelks, winkles and exotic crustacea.

Then there’s the oyster-eating competition – half-a-dozen oysters to be washed down with a half-pint of Whitstable Oyster Stout. A winning time of 9.4 seconds leaves room for improvement on the world record of less than half that time. Not for these contestants the delight in chewing oysters to maximise the juxtaposed tastes of ozone, salt and saline sweetness; one gulp and they are gone. I take the slower option, crushing them in my mouth before squashing and swallowing them. That way, the exquisite essence of the sea is at its best.

The Festival is a time for rejoicing, yet the locals’ fortunes have altered radically over the years. Once a fully operational fishing and trading port, with a railway connecting it to the harbour, it provided a thriving industry for its inhabitants. Now that way of life has all but vanished. A spate of diseases in the oyster bed have taken a cumulative toll and forced large oyster businesses to close down. The fishermen, too, are all but extinct now. One, Roger Cooper, reminisces, “We live in transient times. It’s all changed since I was a lad. Nowadays this place is full of DFLers [Down From London]”. Graham West, who runs the West Whelks fish stall, agrees: “It isn’t what it used to be when all the men from the old Whitstable families worked in the oyster industry, their sons became apprentices at 14 and Freemen of the Oyster Dredgers at 21.”

All the more reason, then, to support the Festival, for it would be a sad day for Whitstable if this, the pearl of Kent, no longer shone and the oyster was no longer its world. As Fitt has it: “It’s like an octopus, this place, it will always pull you back in.” I, for one, agree.

Get battered and bloody

Whitstable oysters coated in batter

4 tbsp cornflour
2 tbsp plain flour
Pinch of salt
200ml can Guinness
24 Whitstable rocky oysters
Vegetable oil

Make the batter by mixing the cornflour, flour and salt. Slowly add the Guinness, whisking constantly. Open the oysters and lightly pat dry on kitchen paper. Dry the shells well. Heat the oil in a pan or deep-fat fryer until sizzling hot. Dip the oysters in the batter mix, then into the oil for no more than two minutes. Serve, with one oyster in each shell.

Fred Carr’s Bloody Mary oysters

24 rock oysters – deep shelled if possible
200ml bottle clamato juice
Lemon juice
Worcester sauce
Tabasco, to taste
1 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
4 sheets gelatine. soaked in a bowl of cold water

Open the oysters and reserve the juices in a bowl. Add the clamato juice, vodka, lemon juice, Worcester sauce, tabasco and parsley. When the gelatine is completely soft and spongy squeeze out all the excess liquid and warm through very gently to melt. Stir it into the Bloody Mary mix.

Spoon a little sauce into each shell (rest these on a large bed of crushed ice or small pebbles to anchor them), then add the oyster and pour over a little more sauce. Refrigerate and, when set, top up again if necessary. Serve straight from the fridge and chomp well in the mouth before swallowing.

Oyster catches

Loch Fyne Oysters Clachan, Cairndow,
Argyll PA26 8BL, tel 01499 600264,
visit the website.
Colchester Oyster Fishery
Pyefleet Quay, Mersea Island, Colchester, Essex CO5 8UN, tel 01206 384141,
visit the website.
Fowey Fish 37 Fore Street, Fowey,
Cornwall PL23 1AH, tel 01726 832202, visit the website.
Ardtaraig Fine Foods Riverslea, Tarholm, Annbank, Ayr KA6 5HX, tel 01292 521000,
visit the website.