Published: 00:00, 14 September 2017
| Updated: 13:15, 14 September 2017
The start of the native oyster season was traditionally a celebration with top restaurateurs and big wigs from Billingsgate welcoming the famous Whitstable smacks back from sea.
Years later and I’m standing in the middle of the Swale estuary with a venerable crowd of oyster aficionados staring at rock oysters growing in bags on trestles – the natives are back at the East Quay, the smacks are gone. Times have changed.
The resurrection of this historical day is a reminder of how this ancient industry is once again thriving following its near-collapse in the 1980s.
Standing by the beds even seems controversial, back in February councillors discussed the possibility of compulsorily purchasing the land due to their proximity to the shore and perceived danger.
But in July the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) accepted the oyster farm was not likely to cause an obstruction or danger to navigation.
Company boss James Green has consistently maintained the area is safe and is now on hand to show me the oysters in various degrees of growth.
Positioned in the intertidal zone between the Swale estuary and the sea it’s part of an operation that includes traditional dredging out on the flats and is a method they are keen to exploit thanks to expansion.
The company exports six tonnes of oysters to the Continent every year and it’s a fast-growing business.
Mr Green’s family has run the business for 30 years.
He said: “There is a huge market in France (70 times greater than UK) but they are overfarmed.
“The quality of our oysters is better, they have plenty of food due to the estuary waters producing the algae and they have plenty of space. They taste better. The French know this, they can tell the quality.”
And so follows the inevitable question: is he worried about Britain leaving the EU?
“The exchange rate is good for us at the moment and, worse-case scenario, World Trade Organisation tariffs on exports would be low,” he said as dignitaries and restaurateurs crowd around the beds to view the rock oysters in various stages of growth.
It’s a laborious process, oyster seed is bought from the Seasalter Shellfish Reculver Hatchery which is owned by renowned oyster farmer and scientist, John Bayes.
The oysters are then regularly turned and cultivated – taking three years to reach maturity. Great, but why the rock oysters? Where are the natives?
“They refuse to be farmed,” said Mr Green.
At their peak in 1850 about 80m were being sent to Billingsgate every year – by the 1970s a succession of bad winters, disease and pollution had virtually wiped out the entire stock.
Today a method to farm the ancient and world-famous native remains a mystery – they prefer the oyster beds further out on the flats and even then only one out of a million will survive for consumption.
“We are 3,000 years behind farming technologies, there needs to be ways to improve processes in aquaculture,” said Mr Green who has a degree in marine biology.
On the other hand, rock oysters are available all year around and are far hardier – their quality and popularity is growing.
He said: “Young people like to know where there food comes from these days which I think has helped the industry. We sell 3,000 a week locally.” Back at the company-owned Lobster Shack he points out the nutritional poster on the wall: omega three, zinc...the list goes on. It seems the shellfish has joined the ‘good food’ zeitgeist.
The operation behind the shack is small – a machine to clean and sort the oyster noisily spits out molluscs by weight – some destined for Michelin restaurants.
From here they are then placed in purification tanks; using UV light and sea water the oysters self-clean for 48 hours.
Even at this part of the process the native demands respect. “You can’t just drop them in the water - they die,” said a technician. Further tanks house large local lobsters. On a good weekend the restaurant sells 1,000, indicating the increasing importance of food tourism to the local economy.
Back in the Shack the shucking begins and by this time and I am eating a native.
They have a unique metallic taste which is meaty and tender. The rock is of equally high quality but sweeter.
The Whitstable Oyster Company’s love of the town’s heritage is evident – they own a hotel, fishermen’s huts, restaurant and brewery.
But misty-eyed nostalgia over the ancient trade is sincere and it helps that the tourists are arriving to eat the natives.
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