Bid to protect name of Colchester oyster

OYSTER growers on Mersea Island are clubbing together to try and protect the integrity of one of the region's most famous exports – the Colchester Native.

By Roddy Ashworth

OYSTER growers on Mersea Island are clubbing together to try and protect the integrity of one of the region's most famous exports - the Colchester Native.

The waters off Colchester and the Colne have been producing sought-after oysters for more than 2,000 years with their shells even being unearthed in ancient Rome, where wealthy gourmands considered them a prize delicacy.

Their size, shape and unique, meaty flavour is credited to the specific type of marshy creek found in the area and the “Colchester” is still much sought after across the world, despite the fact it can cost as much as three times that of its more common cousin, the rock oyster.

Pop diva Kylie Minogue is said to feast on Natives before going on stage, while other fans of the Essex mollusc include celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and former James Bond actor Roger Moore.

Now, however, eight Mersey oyster growers have joined together to try and stop unscrupulous vendors passing off alien oysters as Colchester Natives, a practice they fear could both threaten the oysters' high reputation and damage the local industry.

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The producers have applied to the European Union for a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), which would mean that only those oysters grown and purified within the borders of Colchester borough would be able to bear the historic town's name.

The move would see the speciality shellfish -Latin name ostrea edulis - afforded the same status as Champagne, Parma Ham or Newcastle Brown Ale, all of which can only legally be labelled as such if produced within their declared geographical area.

“While we want to promote the Colchester Native, we don't want anyone else to use that name to sell an inferior product,” said Mike Dawson, of West Mersea Oysters.

“We have spent a lot of time, effort and money ensuring our product is excellent. Our creeks are rich in food and the purification process, which we do here using ultra-violet technology, takes 48 hours.”

The company has three boats dredging the local oyster beds during the Native season - from September 1 to the end of April - and employs half a dozen people. It produces around 50 tonnes of purified Colchester Natives a year and distributes them internationally.

“You can go to the other side of the world and buy genuine Colchester Natives and know they will be of a consistent quality. We need to make sure that stays the same.”

Rumours of rock oysters from Irish waters being sold off as Colchester Natives have caused concern among oyster producers on Mersea, who in turn fear the reputation of their product could be affected.

Colchester borough councillor Don Quinn, who is director of the recently-formed Colchester Food and Drink Festival, has become involved in the promotion and sale of Colchester Natives and yesterday threw his weight behind the oyster producers' move to get a PGI.

“Colchester Natives are a wonderful delicacy, and we have as much right to our own appellation contrôlée as anyone else,” he said.

“I am currently writing a book of oyster dishes using Natives and so far I've got 140 recipes.

“The Colchester Native is a much sweeter, better flavoured oyster than any other I can think of, and I've tasted them from all over.

“Rock oysters are alright for cooking, but the Native is a lovely-shaped, beautiful product which is fantastic straight from the shell.”

n The Colchester Food and Drink Festival will be held in Castle Park on June 5.

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