I was born on an oyster farm in Cork. My parents started the business in 1969, breeding native oysters in 22 ponds. Because the ponds get warmer than the open sea, the oysters breed slightly better and it produces a good crop. Later, when I got older, I became involved in selling the oysters in London. I still spend my summers in Cork.
Scotland’s last commercially harvested wild oyster bed in in Loch Ryan. It dates back to 1701 when King William III granted a Royal Charter to the Wallace family, who still hold the rights today. in 1996, the family asked me and my father to get involved in helping them to develop the fishery. I do a bit of everything working across the harvest and selling sides.
To harvest the oysters, we use a 12-metre fishing boat called The Vital Spark which has a dredge behind the stern. Our two-strong crew Rab Lamont and John Mills only bring back the largest of the crop. They put any small oysters – those that wouldn’t fetch a high price – back into the sea in well-marked beds, so those can breed for future years.
In the past, the dredge has recovered unexpected pieces if history from the Loch. One such find was a Swastika marked piece of Nazi crockery from a Second World War German U-boat that was sunk nearby. They have also found some old bullets. We have been fishing there for quite a while, though, and those finds are getting less as the years pass. What makes a good oyster? The shell needs to be a deep, cupped shape on the bottom and flat on the top. When you open the oyster, it should have plump, juicy meat inside. When cutting the meat away, the shell should be hard so that it doesn’t crumble under the knife. Shucking is the terminology used for opening an oyster. You put a short, stumpy and pointed knife in at the hinge, then wiggle it from side to side until it is about a centimetre in. Twist the knife to pop open the two shells and scrape across the top to cut off the muscle.
The Scottish Oyster Shucking Championships were launched in 2017 as part of the Stranraer Oyster Festival. I took park that year and won. I didn’t enter in 2018 but won the title again last year. The competition uses’s what’s known as the “Galway rules’ where you must shuck 30 oysters as quickly as possible and then serve them as beautifully as in a restaurant. There are time penalties for things such as grit, dropping the meat on the floor, or getting blood in an oyster.
Are oysters and aphrodisiac? Well, I have four children… Oysters are high in zinc (which is important for male fertility). Valentine’s Day is our second busiest time of year after Christmas. The most we have sold in Valentine’s Day week is 11 tonnes – that is 110,000 oysters.