Standing proud on the dockside, white scruffy hair, proud smile, weathered face and bright yellow PVC fishermen overalls, Richard Haward is the stereotypical vision of a fisherman from a children’s story.
Oyster farming is in Richard’s blood. His family began farming off West Mersea, near Colchester, in the mid-18th century, when the catch would be transported by boat to London and sold at Billingsgate market.
One of Richard’s earliest memories is working with his dad during school holidays. “I used to be out in all weathers. I loved the excitement and fresh air. I wanted to join the family business when I left school, but I was encouraged to get a ‘proper job’, so I went to college and learnt a trade,” says Richard, who now runs Richard Haward’s Oysters along with his sons and several other staff.
Oysters have long been a favourite within Europe. The Romans first farmed them; they would manage vast quantities for the purpose of pearl farming, and later for food. The practice was introduced in England during the Roman invasion, and with Colchester being of significance to the Romans, it was natural that the mudflats around West Mersea would be utilised.
The farming of West Mersea oysters, known as Colchester Native oysters, is something of a craft. Richard is keen to emphasise there is more to the industry than meets the eye. “We create a sustainable aquaculture, farming the oysters for between four and eight years to gather optimum flavour and growth,” he says. “We are not fishermen; there is a lot of work to farming native oysters. You wouldn’t do it unless you enjoyed it.”
Oysters are dredged from the deeper waters and then relayed into the creeks, where they will fatten up and continue to grow for a few more months. Back on land, the oysters are put in purification tanks for 42 hours and then graded, ready for sale.
It’s heavy manual work and not for the faint hearted. The battered 1940s skiff, which was built by Richard’s dad and remains part of the family, leaves at around 7am each morning, in pretty much all weathers. Richard’s son, who also now works in the family business, told me about his experiences last winter: “We were on the boat dredging, it was freezing cold and snowing. I was standing on a polystyrene lid to keep some warmth in my body from the feet up. There is no cover or anywhere to make a pot of tea, so it can be really intense sometimes.”
Like fine wine, oysters tend to have specific qualities that reflect their origin. The Colchester oyster has a reputation of a salty taste; this is caused in part by the mudflats surrounding Mersea Island, which help to create some of the saltiest waters in the UK. The unique, crisp, salty taste of the native oysters doesn’t appeal to all, and while Richard also maintains a roaring trade in rock oysters, he is persistent with the sale of the natives, which deservedly have a huge reputation.
With a nation that for the large part has been reared on fish and chips, getting Brits to try oyster is at times a challenge, but one Richard enjoys. “We go out of our way at markets and shows to explain about the native oyster. After they’ve tasted them they say ‘Oh, I like these’.”
Richard is also keen to grow the business abroad. “We are just about to break into the top end of the Italian market, which is really exciting for us,” he enthused. The future looks pretty strong for the Colchester Native, given it is now on the EU protected regional specialities list, which will further enhance its reputation.
While in the company of a true oyster expert, it was naturally imperative that I get some tips on how to enjoy the perfect oyster. After all, there is lots of different advice on how to eat oysters, such as adding lemon or salt. However, Richard believes there is only one way to enjoy them: “Open it up, tip into your mouth, have a couple of small bites and then swallow. This will release all the flavours.”
Native oysters are at their best from September to April, with the peak season in December. They are not allowed to be sold during the early summer months. Theoretically, you can buy them from mid-August, but as Richard says, “It is better to wait until the end of September.” The oysters then have a slightly more intense flavour and more meat.
The French traditionally eat large quantities of oysters on Christmas Eve, but while traditions involving oysters in the UK are certainly more unusual, over the last few years Richard has noticed a slight increase in sales in the run up to Valentine’s Day “The reputation they have as aphrodisiacs is pretty immense,” says Richard. “We get lots of partners buying them in the hope they prove fruitful.”
As well as being famous aphrodisiacs, oysters are also – of course – home to pearls, so I was keen to ask Richard about the possibility of finding a pearl in one of his oysters. Apparently the grit and wash around Mersea are not ideal for pearl farming. In fact, Richard, who has yet to find a pearl himself, knows of only one person to have got a pearl from his oysters: “A regular customer phoned me last year and sent me a picture of a magnificent pearl he had found in one of his oysters. It was completely flawless. It is the only occurrence I know of where a pearl has been found from these waters.”
Richard not only sells his oysters to top London restaurants and fish markets, but they are also sold through the adjoining business called The Company Shed, which his wife Heather runs. The building was originally bought as a storage unit, but then Heather started selling some of the oysters and it suddenly grew into the eatery it is today.
The ethos of The Company Shed is unpretentious food in beautiful surroundings. Seafood and salad are all that is served; if you want bread, water or wine, it is a case of bring your own. Oysters, local lobster, crab and Scottish salmon are just some of the fresh seafood available, and with booking unavailable it’s a case of turn up, take a table or wait. With queues often forming outside the door, expect to wait a while. But the Shed is so wonderfully simple that it is worth the wait, if only to try one of Richard’s Colchester Natives.
Photo credit: BBC/Richard Haward meets Matt Baker for Countryfile – 28 February 2016
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 41 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE