Freelance writer and journalist based in west London.
Published February 12th 2014
Fish Hall Wonder
If you're going to try an oyster for the first time, I'm not sure there's a better place to do it than at The Company Shed in West Mersea, Essex. The nearest train station is Colchester, about a half an hour drive away. For a start, you really are going to eat in a shed, so there's none of that Michelin-starred restaurant pressure about whether you're doing it right. At The Company Shed, all they want you to do it chow down on fresh seafood; and you won't eat seafood fresher than theirs. Well you certainly won't if you don't get there early; they don't take bookings so it's first come first served. In the summer if you don't arrive before 1pm you run the risk of not getting in at all, last orders for eating are at 4pm. If you arrive and it's full, they'll put you on a waiting list and you'll be told roughly what time to come back to ensure your table is ready. Our party of twelve arrived just before noon on an off-season Saturday lunchtime. We were told to return at 1.20pm. There are a couple of pubs nearby so it's easy to retire for a drink in the meantime.
The Company Shed was opened 25 years ago by a woman called Heather Haward, who thought it would be a great idea to sell fish from local boats, many of which can be seen as you walk up to the restaurant, and oysters produced by her husband, Richard.
In the beginning, there were only a few tables and chairs for people to perch on whilst they ate their pots of seafood, but it became apparent that more and more people enjoyed coming to the shed to eat in and make it a proper dining experience, so the restaurant gradually evolved into what it is today; a collection of mismatched chairs and tables, lino table cloths and glasses of varying sizes. It's completely charming.
You bring your own bread and butter and drink. For the latter they don't charge corkage, if you forget they have some drinks for sale, but the fact it's 'bring your own' really fits in with the no frills feel of the place. You can also buy bowls of salad, but it's totally unnecessary. You're there for the main event, the seafood, and it doesn't need to be decorated.
The menu at The Company Shed is at the mercy of what the fishing boats bring in. Their speciality is the seafood platter, upon which you'll usually find smoked salmon, smoked mackerel, peeled and shell-on prawns, a green-lip mussel, a crevette and half a crab. You can get extra portions of everything on it as well as lobster, langoustine, jellied eels, rollmops, salmon terrine and smoked cod's roe. There are a few hot options available, on our visit it was mussels, but the other big draw at the restaurant is the oysters. Colchester Native oysters have been raised in the waters around The Company Shed since Roman times. Richard Haward is the latest in a long line of Hawards who've run an oyster business here; William Haward began it in 1792. So we ordered three platters, which I think are a snip at £11.50 per person, and two-dozen oysters.
You can really taste how fresh the seafood is at The Company Shed; there is such depth of flavour in everything and with the merest hint of seawater, it's absolutely delicious. Lots of kitchen towel is put on the table beforehand so you can just dive in, get messy and still come away clean at the end. For me the mackerel and the crab really stood out. The mackerel had a lovely pepper topping. The crab comes served in its shell so you can have fun scraping every last bit out with the handily provided crab-crackers and picks. I only discovered as we were leaving that you can also peep out the back door and see where the crabs are steamed on the barbecue before arriving at your table.
As for the oysters, salt, pepper, lemon and Tabasco are provided so you can dress them as you please but they are the best oysters I've ever had, just the right combination of firm, juicy and salty. Because everything we chose was served on big plates, the 'company' element of The Company Shed really came to the fore; we passed the oysters between ourselves, and dipped into what ever we fancied from the seafood collection in between conversation.
The Company Shed won't appeal to everyone. You do need to make a checklist before you leave home; drink, bread, butter, cash or your cheque book (they don't take any cards). You need to time it right to ensure you get a table; you need to be accepting if they don't have everything available. You have to respect the 'rules' of the Shed and understand that no exceptions will be made for anyone. You also can't escape the fact that you are actually sitting in a flimsy shed where décor is not important in the slightest. But I think therein lies the beauty and appeal of the place. If you really can't cope with all of that, it's worth going to buy some of the fresh fish they have for sale on the counter. But if you do that, you'll miss out on an eating experience that's quite unique.
I've never heard of a 'bring your own bread & butter before'. Not a particularly convenient thing to carry around with you. I could imagine you'd get a few odd glances carrying a tub of butter into a restaurant!