Quality of West Mersea
Oysterman Richard Haward talks about growing oysters on the Essex coast.
In West Mersea, a small harbour on the banks of the Blackwater River, Richard Haward’s family have been oystermen since the days of King George III. “In 1792, William Haward used to sail from here to London with oysters,” says Richard. “I’m seventh-generation.” These days Richard grows his oysters out on the shallow creeks leading from the river Blackwater to the west of Mersea Island.
An oysterman’s year begins in the spring. Only ones of above certain size may be taken, the smaller oysters put back. Even some of the bigger ones are thrown back to ensure that wild stocks replenish. “We reckon we were using sustainable methods before the word was even in the dictionary,” says Richard. “We’ve always had to look after the oysters and make sure we don’t take too many.”
The oysters are laid in the plankton-rich, shallow creeks and left to fatten up through the summer months. “They seem to get more and better food in the creeks. If you get an oyster straight out of the river, the meat will be okay, but not great. Yet put them in the creeks over the summer and they’ll fatten up a lot.” These tubby oysters are then caught from September onwards.
Richard grows two types of oysters Colchester natives and Gigas (rock oysters). “The native oyster is the one the Romans found 2,000 years ago,” says Richard. “The rock oysters originated in the Pacific and have been grown in this country for just over 40 years.”
The British native oyster season starts on 4th August and ends on 14th May. “But in everybody’s mind you eat oysters in months with an ‘R’ in – so from September until April,” explains Richard. “This is good, because September is plenty early enough, but really they are at their best in November and December.” Rock oysters, on the other hand, may be eaten all year round as they are spawned in hatcheries and then released into the wild.
So how should one eat an oyster? “As far as I’m concerned the best way is literally as it is,” says Richard. “If you must then perhaps just a little pepper or lemon, but personally I don’t want anything on them.