Oysters grown on beds established nearly 650 years ago by pious monks will take centre stage on Valentine’s Day at a Northumberland pub close to the historic shellfish farm.
The Lindisfarne Inn is the nearest mainland hostelry to Holy Island, around whose shores the Benedictine monks who once called the tidal landmass home, set-up the oyster beds in the late 14th Century.
Now the traditional country pub run by The Inn Collection Group is embracing the local delicacy on its Valentine’s Day dinner menu as it helps loved-up couples celebrate the most romantic day of the year.
The high-quality Pacific oysters grown in what is now the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve will be available to eat individually on their own or with a dash of red hot tabasco, poached and served with either caviar and classic beurre blanc or apple granita and seaweed, or deep-fried with a Thai dipping sauce.
It’s very different to how Lindisfarne’s monks would have enjoyed their home-grown oysters in an age when meat-free days, simple fare, and abstinence of all kinds were weaved into daily religious life.
It’s an irony not lost on The Lindisfarne Inn’s head chef, Richard Smith. He says: “Lindisfarne’s monks would have eaten the oysters as a substitute for meat and animal products on fast days and during Lent and Advent when only fish or seafood was allowed.
“They would probably have been simply prepared in something like a stew and would have been eaten for their nutritional value, and most definitely not to spice up their love life!
“Nowadays, however, oysters are seen not as an essential food alternative but as an aphrodisiac by lovers perhaps hoping to imitate the seductive prowess of the legendary Casanova, who is said to have eaten 50 each morning for breakfast.
“I’m not sure what the celibate monks of Lindisfarne would make of oysters grown in the beds they created just a stone’s throw from the inn being served as the centrepiece of what is essentially a Pagan fertility festival, but it would be nice to think that one or two of them would be wryly amused.”
As far back as the Ancient Greeks, these unprepossessing shellfish have been linked to love, passion and fertility, with the goddess Aphrodite, believed to have arisen from the sea on an oyster shell.
For much of history, however, the humble and plentiful oyster was a dietary staple of the poor and working class. Charles Dickens noted in Pickwick Papers that “poverty and oysters always seem to go together.”
Now they are seen as a luxurious delicacy, with those grown by Lindisfarne Oysters highly esteemed by top chefs and connoisseurs alike.
The family-run enterprise was set up in 1989 by farmer John Sutherland after he noticed oyster shells littering the beach at low tide where his land met the endless stretches of sand, tidal mudflats, and salt marshes that make up the wildlife-rich Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve.
The business is now run by Christopher Sutherland and his wife Helen.
Richard says: “They are the very best organic oysters, and here at the Lindisfarne Inn we are proud to be championing a top-quality product grown on our doorstep.
“Nothing tastes quite like a fresh oyster, and Lindisfarne Oysters are the freshest you can get grown in the pure waters around Holy Island.”
Does he think they are an aphrodisiac? “Who knows? But there is certainly something exciting about eating a juicy, fresh, salty-sweet oyster. It’s an intensely pleasurable depth of flavour that stays with you.”
And what is his preferred way of eating them? “Maybe I am a purist, but I don’t think anything beats having an oyster straight from its shell alongside a glass of fizz or stout. Or maybe a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or peppery hot Tabasco for that extra bit of fiery Valentine’s Day zing.”