How we farm Brancaster Oysters

Native oysters

The two most common oysters found in the UK are the Pacific oyster (Crassostea Gigas) and the Native oyster (Ostrea Edulis), the latter was once a staple diet for British people. Overharvesting in the 18th and 19th centuries has resulted in this species being quite rare today. They are still cultivated and occasionally they can be found wild.  Native oysters are more expensive as they take at least twice as long as the Pacific oyster to grow to an edible size. Native oysters spawn in the summer months, therefore, by law, they can only be harvested in months with an R, September - April. The shell is similar in shape to a clam.  The taste is different to the Pacific oyster.

Native Oyster

Pacific oysters

Pacific Oysters are by far the most cultivated as they grow much faster than any other species.  The spat is produced by specialist seed growers who then sell them on to the Oyster cultivators. On receipt of the spat, they only measure about 4-5mm in size.  The image here shows how small they are.  At this stage, the spat is placed in a very fine mesh container or bag. They can double in size every week.  As the spat grows it is constantly transferred manually by the grower to larger bags with a bigger size mesh. Therefore a lot of time and effort is spent caring for the young oysters.

 

Oysters, mussels, and most other shellfish feed on plankton, so the better the flow of water the more they can feed and the quicker they grow.  A general marketing size would be about 8-10 centimeters. Eventually placed in a large mesh bag and regularly thinned out to give plenty of growing room and cleaned of any accumulated silt.  Another positive from a growers point of view is the pacific oyster doesn't spawn in the colder waters of the UK, and therefore can be marketed throughout the whole year,

There are several ways different growers proceed, but here in Brancaster, the oysters are cultivated in the marsh creek, where they benefit from the tidal flow both when the tide flows out and when it flows in again.  The oysters open their shells to capture as much plankton as possible.

Although the water here is among the purist in the UK, the oysters are placed in the ultraviolet purification tanks before going to the market.

                                                                                                                                     Oysters were first cultivated and farmed in Brancaster about 45 years ago when the AFFA experimented with producing pacific oysters in the waters of BrancasterStaithe.  The results were very positive and showed an excellent growth rate for oysters.  Also, the waters were shown to be among the purist on the UK coast.  Following that, several shellfishermen began to cultivate oysters here, although there are only a couple of producers active today.

Pacific Oyster spat
Pacific Oyster
Ready to taste
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Mussels (Mytilus edulus)

The mussel men are a hardy bunch as most of the hard work is done in the winter when the weather is generally cold and windy.  As with the native oyster, mussels can only be marketed in the months with an R in, and even then September can be a little early some times, depending on the weather. Mussels produce spat in the summer months when the water is warmer, and tend to be a little milky during this period.
The mussel beds in the Wash produce the spat which is collected by the fishermen in the spring and summer.  Then transferred to the mussel lays in the creeks of Brancaster Staithe marshes and left to grow over the summer and autumn months.  When they grow to an edible size, they are forked from the lay manually into the flat bottom boat and taken to a hard area to be riddled.  Riddling is an essential part of preparing the mussels for the market.  When they are forked onto the boat that usually lifts some shingle, old empty shells, and seaweed which is picked out when riddled.  Years ago this was done by hand with a round riddle, but today it's done with a diesel-powered cylinder-shaped machine as in the bottom left image.

         Samphire

(salicornia europaea)

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There are several different types of samphire and different areas in the UK where it grows.  Some gatherers cut the green off and leave the root in the ground, saying that it will grow again from the root.  Locals here would dispute that and pull it up with roots attached.  The roots don't play a part in the following season's crop as Samphire is a self-seeding plant.
Usually picked during the months of June, July, and August.  Samphire begins to go to seed in August, the end of the season.  Single strands (bottom left) can be seen all over the marshes, but are not really worth picking.
High in vitamins and iron, Samphire is thought to be a very healthy food.  To prepare and cook Samphire, it is normal practice to cut off the roots and wash before cooking.  Place in a pot of boiling water and simmer for about 10 minutes.  The Samphire is cooked when the green can be easily pulled from the stem.