Concentration, Confidence and a Very Sharp Knife: Bruno’s Guide to Oyster Shucking
Bruno lives at the top of a thin white house, right on the seafront. From a high window he can watch the sun dip slowly into dusk in summer, and storms crash in and roll out in winter. It has a small garden, where he likes to entertain and barbecue a whole fish from time to time. In a previous life he was a carpenter, a vocation that he believes has helped him to master the steady hand and subtle techniques required to shuck oysters. He’s served them for 1,000 people at a little hotel called Claridge's, and at fancy shindigs for Bono and Apple’s Jony Ive. “Nice guys.”
“You need confidence!” he says, confidently, gripping an oyster shell gnarled by the salt and sea. “Hold it solid and then dig away.” The oyster looks impenetrable, like a very old stone, a natural ballast against predators, but it’s no match for Bruno and his favourite knife. Small and sharp with a thick blue handle. “I’ve got loads of fancy shucking knives, but these £5 French ones are the best.” With his left hand, wrist dripping in silver, he clasps one end of the shell with his thumb and the other with his fingers. In his right hand, illustrated with an oyster tattoo on one side and a saw on the other, he leverages the knife into a minuscule gap and begins to rigorously-but-expertly wrangle, searching for Just. The. Right. Spot. “Wiggle the knife in a little bit. Turn your thumb underneath and… job done.”
“If it’s tough to open, that’s a good sign!” He produces a Tupperware full of homemade mignonette from a small red and white plastic bag. “I’m not too keen on lemon or Tabasco. This is just shallot, red wine vinegar and sherry. Easy. Now you just need to slurp.” Do you ever cut yourself shucking, I ask? “Not often,” he says, “but I heal quickly. Just wrap something around it and away I go!”
We were introduced to Bruno by our friend, Marcelo Rodrigues, the former head chef at the much-lauded Margate restaurant Sargasso. An oyster shucker (who also likes to forage for mushrooms and rare disco and funk records in his spare time) with the air of the oracle about him. Bruno is big and tall, or at least seems it, with an enormous shipwreck-survivor-meets-Rick-Rubin beard and hands covered in jewellery. Originally a Londoner, Bruno has been around — even mixing with Michael Drake himself back in the day. “He was the fella with the scarves, wasn’t he?”
He sets up his small folding wooden table overlooking the shore, an early winter's day with pastel blue skies, wispy clouds and lethargic grey waves. A single metal detectorist paces up and down the beach below, hunting for some unseen treasure.
“You can tell when an oyster is off,” says Bruno, reaching for another sealed shell in the box. “There’s a dull sort of thud. Stay away from those. You don’t want any air getting in there, which is what creates that sound.” He raps it vigorously against a piece of granite, listening for that dull warning siren. “This is a good one. Grey, green or blue, those are all fine. Bruno’s favourite variety come from nearby Mersea Island in Essex, supplied by a family that has been in the oyster business for eight generations. “Mersea is where the Romans got their oysters from, but the ones here are quite good, too.”
There’s something atavistic about the oyster, even more so when you’re having one (or four) at 10AM on a weekday facing out towards the sea. An ancient shellfish that needs to be pried open and then slurped down. There’s not much to really add to it, except your own take on a mignonette, and a cold glass of Muscadet or a Bloody Mary, if one’s to hand. Our ancestors didn’t have those. “I like to return the shells to the sea,” says Bruno, wiping down his knife and packing up his work station. “Oysters like to grow off other oysters.”
We collect our shells and find a spot overlooking the water, not too far from Bruno’s thin white house. We offer the remnants back to the sea. It's the least we can do.