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Issue 6 - Fyne Oysters

Scotland Magazine Issue 6
February 2003

 

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Fyne Oysters

TOM BRUCE-GARDYNE INVESTIGATES SCOTLAND'S PIONEERING ROLE IN THE RESURGENT POPULARITY OF SHELLFISH

Let us roister with the oyster – in the shorter days and moister
That are brought by brown September, with its roguish final R
For breakfast or for supper, on the under shell or upper
Of dishes he’s the daisy, and of shellfish he’s the star.

This little ditty appeared in the Detroit Free Press in 1889, a time when the British were eating more than a billion oysters a year. As a deliciously cheap source of food they were guzzled by rich and poor alike, and had been since pre-Roman times. Indeed, it is said that Julius Caesar was so passionate about them he invaded Britain just to get his hands on her native oyster beds. Yet there were already signs that this thousand-year-old feeding frenzy was drawing to a close. In Scotland, a combination of overfishing and pollution was helping to wipe out the native stock. Once the beds lining the Firth of Forth had been stripped bare to feed the good folk of Edinburgh, those gathering the oysters were forced to look further afield. At some point they reached Loch Fyne, a long, slanting sea Loch on the Argyllshire coast, and soon the oyster was gone from here too.

Fast forward to the mid-1970s and two men began to ponder whether oysters would ever grow again in the Loch. One was Johnnie stick to deep-fried scampi. Despite this, Loch Fyne Oysters was established and 10,000 seed oysters purchased and placed along the shore at the low-tide mark. At the first proper inspection the following spring, they found to their horror that nearly all of them had died. It turned out they had been affected by TBT, an anti-foulant used by small boats that has since been banned. A few did survive however, and these were the gigas, an imported species that had recently saved the French oyster industry. “If you want a reasonably apt analogy, gigas are like grapes, they produce a very different wine depending on where they grow. In warm waters they can grow absolutely huge, but become oily and tasteless.” The conditions in Loch Fyne appear ideal – a cool, relatively constant temperature to allow gentle growth. And as well as being hardier they have a
further advantage over the native edulis Noble, whose father had just died, leaving him the Ardkinglas estate at the head of Loch Fyne, and the other, a marine biologist called Andy Lane. What with the rising cost of cattle feed and 70% death-duties, the estate needed something more than traditional farming if it was going to sustain itself.

“Oysters looked like a good thing to get into,” says Andy Lane. “Not least because you could buy the seed stock relatively cheaply and you don't feed them.” But it was a bold move all the same. Oysters are notoriously sensitive to their environment, demanding the purest water, and are pernickety in their choice of plankton. Moreover, neither of them really knew if there was a demand. Somehow UK consumption had polarised between the oyster bars in the working-class resorts of Blackpool and Bridlington and the exclusive, overpriced fish restaurants in central London. As for the rest of Britain, if people thought of oysters at all, it was probably with a degree of dread. The idea of swallowing something raw and slippery was not for the squeamish – better to stick to deep-fried scampi.

Despite this, Loch Fyne Oysters was established and 10,000 seed oysters purchased and placed along the shore at the low-tide mark. At the first proper inspection the following spring, they found to their horror that nearly all of them had died. It turned out they had been affected by TBT, an anti-foulant used by small boats that has since been banned. A few did survive however, and these were the gigas, an imported species that had recently saved the French oyster industry.

“If you want a reasonably apt analogy, gigas are like grapes, they produce a very different wine depending on where they grow. In warm waters they can grow absolutely huge, but become oily and tasteless.” The conditions in Loch Fyne appear ideal – a cool, relatively constant temperature to allow gentle growth. And as well as being hardier they have a further advantage over the native edulis oyster. “With good gigas, you can chomp away on a dozen or more – they have a distinctly moreish taste. Natives have a more metallic, minerally zest to them – you can eat six and that’s enough.”

To learn more, Andy spent a season among the oyster-growing families of Arcachon, in southwest France. “It was so bewitching – you’d set off in a flat-bottomed boat to catch the tide and while waiting for it to settle on the sand, they’d open a bottle of red wine and have some bread and cheese at six in the morning.” Back in Scotland, the hours spent in the middle of the Loch trying to apply the knowledge in a pair of leaky chest waders never had quite the same charm.

Eventually a practical solution was found, that of growing the oysters in net bags attached to low metal trestles which could be lifted in and out of the water on fork-lift trucks. Covered by the tide, the oyster gets down to what it knows and loves – pumping water. In 24 hours it can drink the equivalent of five municipal swimming pools and while doing so feeds on the plankton. They are also serial hermaphrodites, changing sex as the mood dictates, and have no distinct brain, which should keep the animal rights activists at bay.

Mention of sex provokes a weary laugh from Andy. “I don’t know, it’s so easy to descend to the nudge-nudge, wink-wink stuff with oysters. The key seems to be the zinc, but I’m not sure if it’s in the virility or the fertility stakes. Zinc is certainly essential for reproductive health, especially in men.” At 52, he reckons he’s “a reasonably good example”, having just had two little boys. It is not a huge brood, but there’s plenty of time – after all Charlie Chaplin was still making babies at 80, even if he couldn’t pick them up afterwards. Though on a more serious note, Andy adds: “so much of our food doesn’t have any trace elements at all, because of the way we farm vegetables and so on. Yet there are so many in oysters, it can’t but help your vigour, your immune system and every working part of you.”

The life of an oyster farmer is ruled by the tides, and as we chat in his office overlooking the loch, Andy suddenly stands up and beckons me to follow. By the time we get down to the shore, the water has ebbed sufficiently to reveal the metal trestles poking above the surface. Having waded in to retrieve some oysters from one of the bags, he deftly prises them open with a short knife and hands me a couple. They slither down the throat pursued by a few salty drops of water from the Loch, with a flavour that is hard to describe because eating oysters is perhaps more about texture than taste. There is something incredibly invigorating about the feel of these slippery molluscs in the mouth.

Of course, eating Loch Fyne oysters beside the Loch itself is hard to beat, and is a sure-fire way of converting potential customers. Perhaps this was how the company persuaded the UK supermarkets to overcome their fears of food poisoning and litigation and to stock oysters for the first time. On a summer’s evening when the plankton are in bloom and the loch is coated with a phosphorescent glow, surely even the most hard-bitten buyer would soften against a backdrop like that.

The company now has its own chain of Loch Fyne restaurants and has diversified into smoked salmon, mussels and even native breed beef and lamb under its Glen Fyne brand. Yet the core activity remains oysters, and this year Andy expects to sell around 1.6 million from the restaurant and shop beneath his office to markets as far afield as Hong Kong. And thanks to modern, refrigerated transport and the fact
that gigas don’t breed here, you don’t have to worry about the ‘r’ in the month. Whatever the poet at the Detroit Free Press believed, you can now enjoy them all year round.

OTHER CRUSTACEANS
Andy Lane, and Johnnie Noble who sadly died earlier this year, are not the only pioneers behind the renaissance of Scottish shellfish farming. To the north of Loch Fyne, Walter Speirs decided to try his hand at mussel farming in Loch Etive – a small Highland sea loch near Glen Coe – in 1985. Since then the operation, known as Muckairn Mussels, has become the largest of Scotland’s 50-odd mussel farms, with a harvest last year of more than 200 mussels. With additional sites in nearby Loch Ailort being developed, this is expected to double over the next five years The natural mussel spats (larvae) are collected in the spring and grown on thick, 700-foot ropes for around two years. Like oysters, they graze on plankton and require no additional feeding or chemicals which makes them just as environmentally friendly. As well as supermarkets and wholesalers, Walter supplies his own restaurants – one in Edinburgh and one that opened last year in Glasgow. Both are called the Mussel Inn and serve mussels by the kilo in pots with a choice of flavours that includes Moroccan, Thai, Smoked and Fennel. The restaurants are also a great place to try scallops, like those farmed by Anthony Walford on Scalpay, an island off the east coast of Skye. Scallop farming was pioneered by the Japanese in the 1930s and uses microscopic spats collected from the wild which are later transferred into lantern baskets, suspended from longlines. After a couple of years, the queen scallops are ready for harvesting, while the king scallops take four or five.