“ Address: 129 Coast Road / West Mersea / Colchester CO5 8PA / Essex „
Mersea Island is not far from us and we visit regularly, usually around 3-4 times throughout the year. Already the drive down to Mersea, we always take the long way over winding country lanes and through plenty of chocolate box villages, finally over the single causeway onto the island, promises that such a day will be a special for the whole family.
Mersea is different from anywhere else in Essex: quaint and quiet, laid back and far from the hustle and bustle of Colchester and Chelmsford or, even worse, London if you happen to work there. You are looking forward to limited cars, clean air, walks along the Colne and Blackwater estuaries, bird watching, stone and sea shell collecting at Cudmore Grove, picturesque beach huts in West Mersea, marshlands, surprisingly few visitors - and probably the best oysters you will ever be able to taste !
Our day trips to Mersea normally start early, we take some coffee and snacks for a mid-morning break and otherwise just enjoy working up an appetite in the fresh air. Once this is achieved we are off to West Mersea, down towards the marina where the Company Shed is located.
So what is the Company Shed ?
Tricky question! It is clearly not your average restaurant but also clearly more than just a fishmonger. A shed it is indeed ...
The Howards are traditional oystermen, in the meantime in the 8th generation. The oysters from this area are famous; apparently it is the mud of the river Blackwater that gives the Colchester Oyster its distinctive flavour. The Gigas oyster is served throughout the whole year while the Colchester Native is only available in months with an "R". The Howards are selling their produce throughout the whole country, in the meantime also internationally, but they are not the first ones who have exported the delicious Colchester Oysters. According to the Romans they were the "only good thing that has ever come from Britain".
25 years ago Mrs Howard had the idea that it would be nice not just to sell their fresh produce but also to prepare some directly on-site, so that customers would be able to consume the seafood right away.
A few cheap plastic chairs and tables were put up for hungry costumers to sit down, salt, pepper, vinegar and a kitchen roll placed on top of colourful plastic table cloths - and the interior décor was ready. This is still pretty much what you can expect. Forget about china and silver, colour co-ordinated furnishings and refined lighting, a bare stone floor and neon lights is what you get, at the far wall the basins where the live produce of the family's main business wriggles along.
Especially if you want to visit on a weekend you need to arrive early. It's a small place, around 10 tables, and if they are full you can put your name on the blackboard and wait. On a nice and warm summer's day this can take, and might not happen at all. Alas, we've always been lucky so far and never even had to wait all that long.
Once you've secured your table it's off to order. The choices are limited, it's seafood and fish or fish and seafood. No chips, no bread, no veggies - the only other food they serve is salad. They also didn't use to serve drinks at all, however they do have a small selection of wines and soft drinks nowadays. You are most welcome to bring your own drinks and bread, but nothing else than that! So don't get the idea to visit the local chippie before and arrive with a portion of oily potatoes - you don't want them! They'd only spoil the taste ! There is a Tesco in town that is open 7 days a week and here you can get a fresh baguette and a bottle of white wine if you either have forgotten to bring them or didn't know that you are supposed to bring your own supplies.
Once you are close the shed you'll see people walking along the road with the usual suspicious bags, a bottle and a baguette sticking out are a sure sign that they are heading the same way as you are. Some are holding Tabasco bottles in their hands while others have a glass of mayonnaise peeping out of the pocket of their jacket
In our bag is fresh baguette, a bottle of Tabasco and sparkling water, juice for the kids.
Daily specials are written on the blackboards at the counter, here you'll also place your order.
The regular menu offers you scallops, grilled mussels, tiger prawns (served with an awesome garlic mayonnaise), Gigas oysters served in different varieties, smocked salmon, crab, jellied eels, smoked fish pates, lobster and langostinos and the highlight of our days to Mersea: The infamous seafood platter !
This mixed platter offers you smoked salmon and mackerel, prawns (mixture of peeled and shell on), cockles, a green lip mussel, a crevette, and half a crab. You don't need to worry about the crab, they give you all the tools you need to get the meat out. And what a meat it is ! Simply perfect and delicious!
Feeding the kids might proof a bit harder than in your average restaurant, especially if you have a fussy little eater. Our little one is no problem at all, she tries everything and loves her tiger prawns and smoked salmon, it's our older daughter who is a bit harder to please. The daily specials have so far always provided a solution for this problem and she's really happy to eat their salmon fishcakes, which are "the best I've ever tasted".
The food usually arrives quickly and the portions are huge! We take two seafood platters, a few oysters, a portion of tiger prawns for the little one and the salmon cakes for young Miss - and one portion of salad . The little one takes whatever she wants from our platters to accompany her prawns, the salad plate goes in the middle and is big enough for the four of us.
The atmosphere is as relaxed as the place is unpretentious - and eating is just pure fun and enjoyment of the delicacies in front of you. There are no hushed conversations, no piped music, just a room full of people enjoying their company and their food.
To make things even more enjoyable, it is cheap to eat here ! The seafood platter is still less than £12, a dozen of oysters will set you back £9, and our little daughter's prawns are £3.95. The large salad bowl that feeds us all is £3.75, and the whole dining experience costs us less than £50, an amount that, if you look at what we are eating, the freshness and the quality, would easily be spend per person if we'd decided to have the same somewhere in London.
There are no deserts and no coffee, so our visit must end here, of course not without taking some smoked salmon for tomorrow's breakfast.
Afterwards it is back to the great outdoors to burn of some calories, and to visit the Art Café for a nice cup of coffee and some of those wicked pancakes or homemade cakes. But that, of course, is a totally different review ...
For all those who are still wondering if I recommend it : Yes, I do! If you ever get a chance to visit Mersea and the Company Shed, don't miss it! For the simple pleasure of eating some absolutely delicious seafood, go and try it, it's pure joy!
Thanks for reading !
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