Customers – and the owner – of the Church Street Tavern can’t get enough of the Mersea Island oysters served up at this popular Colchester restaurant by head chef Ewan Naylon. “Do you need all these oysters?” Piers Baker, owner of the Tavern, sweeps through the kitchen and barely waits for an answer from head chef Ewan Naylon before picking a shell from the heap waiting to be prepped.
Ewan isn’t too concerned. “When I was in Ireland I loved oysters so much I’d eat them for my starter, main and dessert. Now I think I’ve over-oystered! I still love to cook with them but I leave the eating to our diners – and Piers.” He’s also thrilled to spend time with Richard Haward, seventh-generation oysterman and owner with his wife, Heather, of the famous Company Shed on Mersea Island. At 72, Richard still keeps a close eye on the business from the water’s edge, his son Bram now the one to go out on the boat and land the oysters. “Together we get the blame for bringing the tourists to the island,” he jokes. “But you can’t please all the people all the time.” Dredged from the River Blackwater, the oysters are laid on the Hawards’ own oyster beds. There they lay over the summer months in warmer waters to fatten and strengthen and take in rich nutrients from the surrounding marshland. This is what gives Mersea Island oysters their distinctive saline taste and silky plumpness.
Once at their prime, they are taken to the processing building – a simple wooden hut next to The Company Shed –that at low tide overlooks the hulls of mud-stranded yachts on the shoreline. There, the oysters are cleaned in large tanks of purified, running sea water before being packed in wooden boxes and either used in the Hawards’ restaurant or sold to chefs in Essex and around the world.
Ewan has oysters on his menu all year, the Colchester Natives, a flat round oyster available from September-April (these spawn from June through to August) and Rock oysters which look like the name suggests and are available year round. Back in his kitchen, he’s in his element preparing a ‘surf and turf’ with sirloin beef and oysters. “It’s a classic. The oysters add a distinct rich saltiness, and I use either Dedham Vale or rare breed beef that’s been hung for up to 45 days to give it a full flavour. It’s a bit special – you can’t go wrong with this quality of beef and these oysters.” It’s not always an elaborate affair though. Oysters are popular year-round at the Church Street Tavern, prepared simply on ice with lemon, or perhaps in a light tempura batter and served with a punchy wasabi mayonnaise.
Ewan loves to cook his bold-flavoured, colourful, Mediterranean-influenced menu through the summer months. “It’s frustrating to have to wait, but I love working with summer produce –aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes – and I’ll only use these ingredients when they are in season. I also love all the summer fruits; the colours you can create on a plate are stunning. Summer is definitely my favourite time to cook; you get all the good stuff! Going through the winter trying to write a colourful menu when stuck with just a pear or an apple can bring challenges!” Ewan grows chillies, tomatoes, runner beans and courgettes at his home. “If I have a glut I’ll bring them to the restaurant but mainly I grow to cook at home. I love going to pick-your-own farms too on a sunny day, then coming home and cooking what we’ve picked.”
Simple starters such as Violetta di Chioggia artichokes, ricotta, radicchio and walnuts, or a plate of bresaola with Taleggio, rocket and pine-nuts typifies his style. He might follow this with a gutsy seafood stew with aioli, or Mersea Island lamb chops with asparagus, girolles and bone marrow. Puddings could include a strawberry bavarois with pineapple salsa, or a classic baked Alaska with elderflower, honey and nougat.
Ewan started his chef career a bit by accident, working as a kitchen porter at a hotel on the ski slopes of Tignes in France. “I did A-level psychology, design technology and IT then at the end of the exams I was over-studied; I knew I didn’t want to do that anymore so I took some time out. In Tignes it was just me and the head chef and sous chef so when the sous broke his shoulder I was asked to step up and was really thrown into cooking!” He was hooked, came back to the UK and took jobs in this country (as well as France and Spain) that would progress his career. “I always chased the best restaurants in town for a job. It was worth it; I had to work really hard, but if you’re in a good kitchen you learn from the best.” He’s glad now to be settled in Essex, where he met Jess, a wedding event manager. “It’s great because being in hospitality too, she understands the hours chefs put into their job!”
Writer Stephanie Mackentyre
My role in Essex Feast: One County, Twenty Chefs was to tell the story of how the selected chefs met their local suppliers and why they are so passionate about using local produce. Each chapter reflects a different ingredient so researching the book found me interviewing chefs and producers along the Essex coastline and deep into the county’s countryside. My many travels saw me visiting Ardleigh to see a highly productive line in colourful baby vegetables, inadvertently scaring off some hens with my umbrellla in Great Bentley, and foraging for wild nettles and garlic with Sherri the owner of the Mistley Thorn and Lucca Enotecca at Manningtree. Each chapter features a different ingredient and it was a pleasure to be part of the creative team responsible for this the latest cookbook from the Feast Publishing stable.