24/11/2013 Helford Oysters

Historic Oyster Husbandry in the sheltered clear waters of the Helford River on The Lizard Peninsula in SW Cornwall.

We have the Romans to thank for our love of Oysters and the peaceful, clear waters of the Helford River for helping to save the oyster from extinction. A gastronomic roller coaster ride for this rock hugging, filter feeding creature who's popularity pendulum has swung between the pauper and the prince over the centuries. Today, one of the biggest and finest examples of sustainable oyster husbandry in the UK is to be found on the Helford River on the Lizard Peninsula in SW Cornwall.

Prior to the Roman invasion, Britons had to be incredibly hungry before they bothered to comb mud and rocky shorelines for any form of shellfish. However, archeological shell remains from coastal and inland Roman forts and villas indicate the extensive consumption of oysters, whelks, cockles, mussels and limpets. It seems there was a new kid on the kitchen block and it wasn't long before Britain was exporting Oysters back to Rome.

When the Romans withdrew, Britons reverted to form and the oyster lost its status as a delicacy. For several centuries they were rarely eaten, but by the early 8th Century they returned to favour. Well before the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century, the old Roman practice of transporting shellfish inland had been revived, and by the 1400's the oyster was a popular foodstuff for rich and poor alike.

By the Victorian Era oysters were as cheap as the modern day chip and as Sam Weller remarks in Dickens Pickwick Papers, 'Poverty and oysters always seem to go together'. Unfortunately, by the middle of the 19th Century oysters were being dredged in such huge numbers that their natural reserves or beds became exhausted. Since then it is only deliberate artificial breeding that has saved the oyster from extinction. Three cheers for oyster farmers!

So, it is to the tiny river creek and village of Port Navas nestled on the Helford River that I find myself paying homage to the Duchy of Cornwall Oyster Farm. It is here at this ancient fishery, part of the private estate of the Duke of Cornwall, HRH The Prince of Wales that Wright Brothers Oyster Merchants now cultivate and harvest over 5 million native and pacific oysters per annum, making the Duchy Oyster Farm one of the largest oyster farms in the UK.

The Helford River has been known for its oyster colonies since the 12th Century. It's unique ecosystem of sheltered brackish creeks and the rich natural sources of plankton from the Gulf stream that make this tranquil corner of Cornwall the perfect home for these delectable little sea critters. Its basically a marriage made in shoreline heaven.

It takes about three years for an oyster to become larger enough to be taken from the farm to the fork and during its life an oyster will have changed sex at least once. It would seem far from being boring and crusty, an oyster is complex and dare I say it rather clever. To put it in an oyster shell, baby oysters are made when daddy oyster juices mix with mummy oyster eggs in still, warm salty water. Once oysters are spawning and trying to create baby oysters (a process officially known as external fertilisation), harvesting stops. So from May to the end of August it's best not to interrupt that process. This is why the oyster season is traditionally associated with months that have an "R" in them. In actual fact oysters are edible all year; it's their husbandry that curtails this from happening from mid May to the first day of September.

In the Helford River a variety of cultivation methods are used, including traditional sub-tidal bottom cultivation and a pioneering low-impact system of cage cultivation allowing the control of key quality-factors such as temperature, salinity and depth. Wright Brothers reserve 20 hectares of Helford River exclusively for fattening oysters at low densities in the final six months of their cultivation cycle.

The Duchy Oyster Farm is one of the few UK oyster farms with official organic accreditation from the Soil Association and use no chemicals, feeds or artificial processes at any stage. By sourcing pacific oyster seed from a hatchery, Wright Brothers ensure their farming is entirely sustainable and that they do not deplete any wild stocks.

So the next time you are messing around on or near the Helford River give a thought to the millions of oysters quietly growing beneath its water line. If you can (and there is an "R" in the month) book a table at The Ferry Boat Inn located in the hamlet of Helford Passage and experience probably the freshest and finest tasting oysters in the UK.

For further information on The Duchy Oyster Farm visit www.thewrightbrothers.co.uk/oyster_farm_fishery/

For further information on The Ferryboat Inn visit www.thewrightbrothers.co.uk/restaurants/the_ferryboat_inn/

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