Just sixty miles from London, Mersea Island is a great weekend getaway if you like buckets of cheap seafood, a handful of decent pubs and very few people for miles around. I dare say it's a busier fish kettle mid summer but then you don't get yer oysters and the weather is probably rubbish anyway. Go now, it's good.
When Sheds Collide
The draw for many is The Company Shed, barely more than a shack on the shoreline serving straight-up seafood and very little besides. Fancy it ain't, but ours would be a nicer world for a few more honest places like this. Communal tables decked out in wipe clean tablecloths, BYO bread, wine and mayo and a wall of help yourself glasses give the place the warm informality of a very relaxed supper club. Even in chilly, off-season January it's totally full, so arrive either by midday and grab a seat or a good half hour - apparently up to two hours in busier months - before you want to eat, stick your name on the list and toddle off and build a sand castle.
How much of the menu is locally sourced is questionable - I've yet to eat a tiger prawn pulled from British waters - but everything we ordered save for a bowl of slightly gritty mussels was damn fine. We left the cold mixed platters alone preferring to spend a bit more - we're talking a mere few quid - on individual plates of seafoody stuff, all a well-rehearsed exercise in simple-but-great. It went a bit like this, this being two meals' worth given we were so happy on day one we returned for seconds the next.
Colchester native oysters. You can bet your boots on the bivalves not having travelled far. A salty, zinc-fuelled slap and proper taste of the sea, served on a built-for-purpose oyster plate (I NEED ONE OF THESE IN MY LIFE PLEASE?). When in Rome...
Big prawns, little prawns, E5 bread. The Hackney Wild sourdough is so very awesome that it's all I'd consider taking with me. Team it with oyster stout - containing actual oysters! - from the Mersea Island Brewery and Vineyard and a load of hot-dang seafood and you're basically winning. Sweet, succulent crevettes at a pound a pop - very reasonable - and a bowl of small prawns left me crying out for a blob of good mayo but were nonetheless delicious with a healthy squoosh of lemon.
Stonking-fresh scantily dressed crab - just seasoning and no messing it seems - and tiger prawns hot from the grill with aioli. A few pounds a plate and as good as the best tapas in Seville (good, then).
More hot stuff. Massive, perfectly - barely - cooked scallops grilled with streaky bacon and cherry tomatoes, served with baby leaf salad (such frippery!), flour-dusted, seasoned sprats with bread and butter, oysters grilled with Parmesan and cream. All excellent, the scallops and the oysters particularly so.
Play with your food, eat your friends: the remnants.
And the damage? You can't really spend more than £15 a head unless you're an enormous fatty, and I can eat Quite A Lot
...proven by this. Very fine fish and chips at the West Mersea Oyster bar after sinking a few at The Victory. Homemade tartare sauce, mushy peas, the lot.
So stick a fork in me, I'm done. A great weekend of great seafood and a reasonable quantity of decent beer. Still winning.