Oysters have long been considered a rich mans food, a luxury. But some time ago oysters were a cheap way to bulk up casseroles and stews when meat was not so abundant or affordable. There are in fact many traditional recipes for Lancashire hotpot that call for oysters to be included. It seems the cheaper cuts, offal and seafood that were once seen as paupers food have come full circle and are now the mainstays on high-end restaurant menus around the world. With higher demand and an increasing popularity, I was surprised to find out that there is an exceptional oyster farm on our doorstep here in Poole. The Othniel Oyster farm has been established since 1985 and now produces around 400 tons of organic rock oysters a year. I’ve long had a penchant for oysters and to hear that there was a farm just a few minutes drive from my house, I had to go and try some. Gary is a happy guy who’s passionate about his farm and is more than prepared to take the time explaining the methods and engineering that he has developed to make the Othniel Oyster farm what it is today. I met Gary and his team on Poole Quay and boarded the barge along with two pallets of oyster seeds. I was handed my lifejacket and leant against the cab whilst we pootled across the shipping channel and over to the farm. After a short journey we moored up at the mouth of the old Sandbanks chain ferry that Gary has bought, converted and anchored just off of Brownsea Island that’s now converted into a floating warehouse, processing and seeding unit. Eight years ago, the time came for the Sandbanks chain ferry to be replaced. The Othniel Oyster farm was operating from several rafts that featured internal cages to seed the oysters. Obviously this entailed a lot of logistical problems between rafts and also man-power. During the crossover period Gary managed to buy the old chain ferry and had it converted into what is essentially a warehouse unit that floats. The ferry, now painted blue, has many seed cages fixed to the outside, increasing the speed in which they can bring oysters up to a size that the crabs and fish can’t break into. Gary has also acquired a forklift truck that obviously saves a lot of time and man-power when getting the sacks and pallets of oysters ready for shipment. This seems to be the nerve centre of the operation and with the added mystery that not many people know this place exists, it left me feeling a little like James Bond discovering a secret hideaway, sadly without a Bond Babe in sight. We have such rich waters here in Dorset and mixed with the position of the farm Othniel’s oysters grow much faster and consistently than in other regions. Due to the nutrients and food in the water, from a thumbnail sized seed to a respectable sized oyster takes just eighteen months. Gary produces around five million oysters a year and has recently been awarded organic status from the Soil Association due to the delicate and ethical way in which they farm and harvest.
The method of harvesting oysters varies from site to site and subsequently Gary has engineered a unique process that he has also replicated for other farmers on similar sites in Canada. The grounds dry out very rarely on the Othniel Farm and so a conventional tractor based harvesting process can’t be used. Gary has, over time, developed a unique conveyor harvester that blows the shellfish out of the substrate using water jets. They are then gently transported into the boat via a stainless steel mesh belt where the correct sized oysters are picked whilst the smaller mollusks not yet fully grown continue along the belt and fall back into the water. Standing in Gary’s converted chain ferry, anchored just off Brownsea island, I endeavoured to find out where most of these oysters end up. A large proportion of the oysters wind up in Hong Kong and China and amongst vast customers across the UK. I am told Mark Hix uses these oysters in his restaurants and was recently out on the barge to check out the operation. Hix has a restaurant in Lyme Regis and obviously has many suppliers available. His choosing to use these oysters, really does speak volumes of their quality. Just before we were about to head back to Poole Quay, Gary called me over the conveyorbelt, shucked a palm-sized oyster open, cut the anchoring muscle and flipped it over in its own juice for me to taste. I had, after a long day, finally managed to taste what I had come out here for and it was easy to see why Mr Hix, who has cooked at the Oscars ceremony in Hollywood, buys Oysters from our very own Poole Harbour.
Some of you will want to take advantage of yet another great producer here in Dorset. If you are interested in getting hold of some of these locally farmed mollusks, get in touch with Pete Miles.
Pete Miles, who distributes these oysters is also a keen and multi tasking foodie to boot. Pete not only owns and operates Storm restaurant in Poole but also fishes prawns, crabs and lobsters amongst other fish and seafood which he supplies to his restaurant. He is a keen horticulturist and his own crops of veg can be found on his menu along with his county fair winning honey produced from the bees he keeps. Some people just don’t let time get in their way. Pete is a thoroughly nice bloke and should you have any enquiries for Oysters, contact him at Dorset Oysters.
01202 666057 or visit www.dorsetoysters.com.