“We wade 3km out into the cold water until we reach the beds, which are made up of huge clusters of mussel shells covered with oysters of all different shapes, colours and sizes”
“We’re not known as an oyster producing nation, but in the old days, in the Viking settlements around here, oysters would make up to 30-40 per cent of the diet,” says Kasper Fogh, managing director of FOOD, a not-for-profit organisation promoting Danish and Nordic food culture. “Oyster Week is all about reconnecting us with that heritage, so it coincides with the native season,” he says, as he grips the steering wheel of the car that’s to transport us the few hours across sparse, flat, wintery Danish landscape, from Copenhagen to the Wadden Sea National Park in Ribe, south-west Jutland.”
Oyster Week was set up to help get Denmark recognised as a native oyster producing nation, but before we get to sample the incredible native oyster, or ostrea edulis—the round, flat oysters that grow wild here and in other parts of Europe—we’re taking a walk into the North Sea to, unbelievably, pick our own pacific oysters, which grow in abundance on old mussel banks in the Wadden Sea. As well as being tasty bounty for the locals and visitors who are prepared to wade into the sea and collect them, these invasive pacific oysters provide much needed nutrition for the almost 12m migratory birds that stop at this UNESCO World Heritage site to refuel on the journey between their Arctic breeding grounds and their wintering sites in West Africa.
When we arrive, the sun is rising, sending pearly sheets of light out across the vast, silvery mad flats that fade into the sky on the pale horizon. Given National Park status in 2010, it’s a beautiful, dramatic wilderness and black clouds of Dunlin birds undulate in the distance, flitting on and off the horizon. We’ve come at low tide with the intention of donning some waders and walking out to the oyster beds, which, Fogh says, “are lying like great buffets stretched out as far as the eye can see.” Accompanying our forage is the Sea Centre’s manager Klaus Melbye, a smiling, red-cheeked Dane with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the surrounding area and its astonishing wildlife.
We wade 3km out into the cold water until we reach the beds, which are made up of huge clusters of mussel shells covered with oysters of all different shapes, colours and sizes. I’m amazed by how big some of them are. Melbye explains that oysters can live for up to 30 years, growing 2-7cm per year. We clamber up onto the bank and pluck some straight from their seawater slumber, as Fogh cracks open a bottle of Moët. Melbye opens them with his knife and we slurp the fresh, glistening molluscs straight from their shells, with no adornments but the seawater that sits on top of them. They’re stingingly salty and mineral rich; delicious.
“To get out here you have to be made of good stuff,” says Melbye. “118 tonnes of oysters have been picked by hand in the last seven years and since we’ve opened up for pick your own oysters, the people who come out here have changed. They are people who care about life, politics, nature and how to protect it. To come out here, wading through 3km of cold water you have to really want to. I love doing it, it makes me feel alive.”
After our wet adventure, we stop by in Ribe, Denmark’s oldest town, for some lunch at Restaurant Kolvig, on the waterfront. Set in the old stable of a former warehouse, the restaurant is all old brick walls, bare wood and candle light; very Nordic. We tuck into plates of Wadden oysters prepared two ways: with rosehips, onions and vinegar and gratinated with parmesan and little astringent capers made from pickled elderberries. Then it’s on to smørrebrød (Danish open sandwiches) of local brown shrimps with roasted dark rye bread and dab: dried fish in a thyme cream. It’s not just the seafood we enjoy that’s local, over our lunch we get to sample some of the fantastic local artisan beers, including a rich, malty oyster stout (brewed with oysters) made by the Fanø Bryghus microbrewery on the island of Fanø Vesterhavsbad in the Wadden Sea.
That night we drive to Henne Kirkeby Kro, the best inn in south Denmark, for an indulgent spread cooked by its chef, the charismatic British expat Paul Cunningham. Previous to cooking at Henne, Cunningham famously ran his Michelin-starred The Paul in Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, but made the move to Denmark’s ‘wild west’ last year to take up the reigns here. The inn has over 200 years’ history of vegetable and herb production, boasting extensive, well-kept kitchen gardens and its own island where vegetables are grown, and this is something Cunningham is making the most of, basing many of his bold, brilliant dishes around home-grown produce.
In his signature flamboyant style, Cunningham produces an innovative and memorable take on both Wadden and native Jegindo oysters: like the juicy Wadden oyster topped with a gel of oyster stout on a bed of fresh horseradish from the garden and native Jegindo oyster cooked on his Big Green Egg with Marmite, butter and honey-rye croutons. They might sound like unlikely combinations, but both were utterly delicious.
The following morning we depart for Skive in northern Jutland, to visit Glyngøre Shellfish; a native oyster and seafood cultivator that supplies top restaurants like Noma and Alsace with oysters and mussels from the Limfjord, whose mineral-rich waters give them an intense, meaty flavour. We meet our host, the twinkly-eyed oyster fisherman Sven Bonde, who shows us the process of harvesting and caring for the last large, disease free population of European oysters, which grow slowly in the water and can only reproduce in waters above 20°C. Because these wild oysters are so sensitive to temperature, the cold winters that followed the 1950s have meant that stocks have depleted, but they’re finally on their way back up, though numbers will probably never be as plentiful as they were in the 1800s.
Bonde and his team use fishing methods and tools that are almost the same as those used 100-years-ago, using classic wooden oyster fishing boats and cleaning and packing all of the oysters by hand. After he’s shown us around the seawater tanks where hundreds of the flat, round oysters are kept before being graded and packed, we’re taken upstairs for an oyster lunch prepared by Bonde, himself a budding chef. We enjoy course after course of the purest, most intense and delicious Limfjord oysters, natural and poached, with a meaty taste and a lingering vitamin flavour, thanks to their slow growth. They’re the best I’ve ever tasted.