The best of Dorset in words and pictures

A taste of Dorset – Oyster source

Nick Baines visits Poole Harbour’s Othniel Oysters, and finds a food company combining gentle harvesting with commercial success

It is a function of the modern obsession with ‘good-looking’ food that cheaper cuts of meat, offal and seafood, which were once considered to be poor man’s food, are now the premium dishes on fine-dining restaurants’ menus around the world. Oysters are considered an epicurean luxury but, as recently as Victorian times – when meat was neither so abundant nor affordable as it is now, oysters were considered a cheap way to bulk-up casseroles and stews. Traditional recipes for Lancashire hotpot, for example, call for oysters to be included.

From poor man’s food to gourmet treat; oysters from Poole Harbour are a sought-after commodity all over the world

From poor man’s food to gourmet treat; oysters from Poole Harbour are a sought-after commodity all over the world

With increasing popularity has come higher demand, and one of the producers fulfilling this worldwide demand is Othniel Oysters, based in the heart of Poole Harbour. Established in 1986, Othniel started out originally as a clam and cockle farm, but now grows up to 400 tons of oysters every year on 51 hectares (126 acres) of shellfish beds in Poole Harbour, which are leased from the Crown, through the local Sea Fisheries Committee. But Othniel’s success owes as much to the innovative harvesting methods as to the natural resources of its idyllic Dorset location. Gary Wordsworth, founder of the business, is passionate about his farm, his methods and, of course, his produce, and is happy to take the time to explain the methods and engineering that he has developed, which have made Othniel Oysters what they are today.

Gary and his team are at Poole Quay, loading their barge with two pallets of oyster seed, when I board. We slowly cross the shipping channel, over to the farm and, after a short journey, we moor up at the mouth of what was the old Sandbanks chain ferry, which Gary bought, anchored just off Brownsea Island, and converted into a floating warehouse, processing and seeding unit. The ferry, which nestles just south the shipping channel to the north of Brownsea Island, has seed cages at its edges, in which oysters can be brought up to a size at which they can no longer break into by crabs or fish.

The converted Sandbanks ferry, which is now a warehouse, seeding and processing plant

The converted Sandbanks ferry, which is now a warehouse, seeding and processing plant

Oyster harvesting techniques vary widely depending on where, and at what depth, the oysters grow, and Gary has developed an innovative process which he has replicated for farmers on similar sites in Canada. The Othniel oyster beds are almost always underwater so a conventional tractor-based harvesting process could not be used; instead the company have a unique conveyor-harvester, which lifts shellfish, without damaging them, from the beds’ substrate using water jets. Once lifted in this manner, the oysters are then gently transported onto the boat by means of a stainless-steel-mesh-equipped conveyor belt, from which correct sized oysters are picked, while those that are not yet fully-grown continue along the belt and fall back into the water. The boat has been dubbed the ‘eco-harvester’ as it is so gentle on the shellfish and the seabed. On well-stocked ground it can catch five tons per hour and, even more usefully, can harvest all the species that Othiel farm, with the one piece of equipment.

The species of oyster grown is Crassostrea gigas, the Pacific oyster, which is obtained as 6mm seed from a hatchery in Kent, and grown in a rearing system, hung from the converted ferry, which has a capacity of two million seed. The seed are regularly washed and graded until they reach a weight of five grams and are supplemented by ‘ready to lay’ seed. The seed are sown onto the seabed until they have grown to a suitable size for market – around eighty to a hundred grams – then collected by the conveyor-harvester, transported in baskets to the barge, where they are washed and packed ahead of dispatch.

The ‘eco-harvester’ above the shellfish beds in Poole Harbour, with Corfe Castle beyond

The ‘eco-harvester’ above the shellfish beds in Poole Harbour, with Corfe Castle beyond

The rich waters flowing into Poole Harbour, combined with the position of the oyster beds away from the shipping channels, allow Othniel’s oysters to grow much faster and more consistently than they would in other regions. Thanks to the nutrient-rich waters, it takes just eighteen months for a thumbnail-sized seed to grow to be a respectably-sized oyster.

Gary produces around five million oysters a year and the company was recently awarded organic status from the Soil Association, thanks to the delicate and ethical way in which his seafood is farmed and harvested. A large proportion of the oysters end up in Hong Kong and China, but the oysters that are to stay in the UK are taken to a site in Poole, where they are purified in continually-moving fresh water. This process removes loose grit and dirt from the oysters and keeps them alive and fresh until they are dispatched to customers. Pete Miles, of Dorset Oysters, where this process occurs, is distributor of Othniel’s organic rock oysters to several of London’s top restaurants and also runs Storm fish restaurant in Poole. Mark Hix, the chef who made his name at The Ivy and now has three restaurants of his own, chooses to use the oysters from Othniel for their meatiness and fuller flavour. His choosing to use these oysters, as opposed to those from the many other suppliers available, really does speak volumes of quality and consistency of the Poole Harbour produce.

A freshly-shucked oyster, flipped it over in its own juice and ready to eat

A freshly-shucked oyster, flipped it over in its own juice and ready to eat

Just as we were about to head back to Poole Quay, Gary called me over to the conveyor-belt, shucked a palm-sized oyster open, cut the anchoring muscle and flipped it over in its own juice, for me to taste. As is the case in all aspects of food, there is just no substitute for the best in local produce. If this is poor man’s food, bring on poverty.

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