THE Romans were incredible engineers, but imagine how they would have marvelled at the sight of the Queensferry Crossing, ablaze with coloured lights, spanning the River Forth in one immense, graceful curve suspended by an intricate cat’s cradle of cables. From their vantage point a few miles down-river at Cramond, it would have seemed as awesome as a feat of the gods.

The Firth of Forth has long been a crucial shipping route and fishing ground. The Romans didn't travel much further north than here, but they regarded the native mussel and oyster beds of Cramond Island as a vital natural resource. Their fort, built at the mouth of the River Almond, defended the Firth and its coastline. Oysters were eaten then, and in subsequent centuries, as nutritious everyday food. Some may have regarded them as the food of the gods and the Romans exported them in seawater tanks to other parts of Scotland, as well as to far-off European cities. Cramond Island was a prolific, highly regarded oyster fishery for many centuries producing 30 million oysters annually at its peak. By the late 1800s, however, production began to collapse due to over-fishing, disease and pollution. The oyster became an expensive luxury. Production ceased altogether in 1920. Research carried out in the River Forth, a few years before the first road bridge opened in 1964, declared the native oyster extinct.

Oysters were unknown to me as a child growing up in Scotland. It was with some trepidation that I dared to swallow my first raw oyster, preferring by far, the Black Velvet I was drinking with it at the time. By then I was living in London and beginning to experience a whole new world of food and drink. It seemed so lavish at the time, but a few years later, I was deftly opening dozens of oysters every day, for customers in our Skye restaurant.

Loading article content

Oysters have become synonymous with Skye since a local man, Kenny Bain, began cultivating them commercially in Loch Harport. I remember the evening Kenny approached me in the kitchen, following his meal in the restaurant, enquiring if I would like to buy his oysters for the menu. I readily accepted, and 30 years on, The Three Chimneys remains a customer to this day, though the business is now run by Kenny’s son-in-law, Paul McGlynn, known locally as the Oysterman. Paul has taken the operation to new heights, with his hugely successful Oyster Shed, selling and serving Skye seafood and other local specialities. He will demonstrate how to shuck an oyster and even lend you an oyster knife for a small fee. A visit there is a great experience to build into every holiday in Skye.

Oysters were widely sold in the taverns and oyster-cellars of Edinburgh, along with a jug of ale. Recent excavations have revealed whole middens of oyster shells, denoting the long-lost floors of some of these ancient places of revelry, good food and companionship. Steak and oyster pie – also known as Musselburgh pie – was a favourite dish of this era. The abundant oyster and mussel beds around Inveresk, also the site of a Roman Fort, went on to supply the city taverns, and over time, the town became known as Musselburgh and remains so today.

Several oyster and mussel farms are in full-time operation around the coast of Scotland, particularly in the cold, clear waters of the west Highlands and Islands. There are moves afoot to reintroduce native oyster beds as an integral part of managing our in-shore waters and sea lochs. A project was recently launched by Heriot Watt University to reintroduce native oysters to the Dornoch Firth. At Loch Ryan, by Stranraer in the south-west, native European oyster beds are already well-established. The more commonly cultivated Pacific oyster is more like a tear-drop in shape compared with the almost-round, native oyster. Pacific oysters are available all-year-round, but native ones are only available between September and April. During the remaining months, the oysters are breeding and the texture of the meat becomes soft and a little less palatable. This year, Stranraer is staging Scotland’s very first Oyster Festival, which will include an oyster-shucking competition. It takes place next weekend and a drive down to Dumfries and Galloway would be very worthwhile, especially if you have not explored the beautiful area before.

Halibut with oyster sauce

(For 4 servings)

For the sauce:

12 fresh oysters

575ml good quality fish stock

275ml dry white wine

3 banana shallots

50g button mushrooms

50g unsalted butter

275ml fresh double cream

For the halibut:

4 pieces of halibut fillet, approx 150g per person (aim for fish to be of similar thickness)

12 fresh Scottish oysters

4 slices of 1 lemon, plus the juice of half

25g unsalted butter

2 sprigs fresh parsley

1 bay leaf

A sprig of fresh fennel, chervil, lemon balm – or all three

Method

Prepare ingredients ahead of cooking. Alternatively, prepare sauce in advance and re-heat just before the fish is cooked and ready to serve.

1. For the sauce, shuck the oysters, remove the flesh and capture all the juice. Place in a small bowl and refrigerate. Peel and finely chop the shallots. Wash and dry the mushrooms. Chop finely. Melt the butter in a wide saucepan. Add shallots and cook until soft. Add mushrooms and stir together until soft. Pour over white wine and bring to the boil. Retain a high heat to enable the wine to evaporate until it has almost disappeared, leaving a syrupy consistency with the vegetables.

2. Pour over the fish stock and bring back to boiling point. Simmer on a medium heat until the liquid has reduced by half.

3. Add the double cream and return to just over simmering point. Maintain this heat until the sauce begins to coat the back of a wooden spoon and thicken slightly.

4. Strain sauce through a fine sieve. Discard the contents of the sieve and retain all juices. Return to a clean saucepan.

5. For the halibut, butter a shallow, ovenproof dish and preheat oven to 190°C. Lay the lemon slices and herbs on the base together with a sprinkling of sea salt and pepper. Place fish on top, sprinkle with lemon juice and add a tiny dab of butter on top. Finally, sprinkle the fish with a pinch of salt. Cover and seal the dish with a lid of aluminium foil, ensuring the foil does not touch the surface of the fish. Place in centre of oven and bake for 15 minutes.

6. Lift the cooked fish portions on to each plate, placing on a lightly cooked portion of green vegetables of your choice. I used salsify in the photograph, but fine beans are also ideal.

7. Just before serving, add the well-strained oyster juice to the sauce and stir. Place the oysters carefully in the sauce for half a minute at most, before lifting from the sauce and placing on the plate alongside the cooked halibut and green vegetables. Strain the sauce again to ensure no shell or grit is present. I use a fine tea strainer for this job, but you could strain the sauce through a square of muslin. The sauce should not need seasoning, as the oyster juice is salty, but check before serving. To finish, pour the hot sauce over the oysters and serve.

Shirley Spear is owner of owner of The Three Chimneys and The House Over-By on the Isle of Skye www.threechmneys.co.uk