Before the Fal
People have been gathering oysters
on the Fal estuary for 500 years. And no one’s mentioned shucking until we turned up…
It’s a strangely silent business, fishing for oysters. Well, I will learn later on that it isn’t strictly fishing at all – it’s ‘gathering’. But as I pull on the yellow wellies and rubberised waterproofs that Chris Ranger has given me, it certainly feels as if I’m going fishing. An oysterman at Mylor Bay near Falmouth in Cornwall, Ranger sails an old wooden Falmouth Working Boat, using a hand-dredging technique that dates back to the 1750s. Raised in nearby Portscatho, he bought the boat – called Alf Smithers – in 2008 with a settlement from an industrial tribunal after he lost his job in marketing. He decided to restore the boat and teach himself the historical way of the oysterman.
Now 39, Ranger does every aspect of the job by hand: hoisting the sails, hauling in the dredges, grading the oysters, purifying them in tanks and then packing them in boxes to be delivered by courier. To his great satisfaction, the Fal Oyster was recently awarded a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) name, which means that to be called a ‘Fal Oyster’, it has to be produced, processed and packaged in the area using traditional know-how.
Today, the Alf Smithers is in the nearby dock being refurbished to compete in a race in Falmouth harbour, so Ranger’s friend and colleague Adam Spargo is taking me out in his boat. If the term ‘landlubber’ is still actually in use, then that is what I am, and so it’s a relief to find that Spargo is an impressive figure: tall, taciturn, weatherbeaten, solid as timber. Our boat will at least contain one proper seafarer.
We are not alone in our pursuit of the oyster. Silently slipping into the Fal estuary are five other sailing boats, each with one or two men on board. They don’t appear to acknowledge Spargo, nor he them, as he starts the little engine that is permitted for manoeuvring us out of the harbour. Even this emits only a muted putter, and soon he cuts it and raises a sail to the sound of canvas stretching like a skin pulled across a drum. He puts on his waterproofs, unscrews his Thermos and takes a swig of coffee. ‘These are the dredges,’ he says, producing two lightweight contraptions made of steel, wood and orange netting. ‘I’m going to drop two of them and then let us drift with the current until we reach the edge of the channel.’ With that he lowers the sail, as have the other boats, already floating out in a line across the hidden oyster bed, perhaps a half a mile off shore.
‘Cultch board,’ he says, propping against the outer rail of the boat what looks like a wooden drawer with the back panel missing. When he pulls in the first dredge, this is where he dumps the catch. The cultch board is about five feet wide by two deep and worn smooth from years of sorting and rummaging. In his right hand Spargo wields a cul tack, a blunt eight-inch steel blade that he taps the catch with in a rather dainty manner, assessing what the dredge has brought up, cleaning and separating the oysters. To his right is a by-catch bucket, into which he lobs the odd mussel and anything he fancies eating later on, also known as his ‘crib’. Behind him to his left is an ordinary black bucket. To qualify for this bucket – to be one that can be sold and eaten – an oyster must be measured against a brass ring whose diameter is two and five-eights of an inch, or 66.7mm. He tests an oyster, which passes through the ring: it’s too young, and must be thrown back.
While he empties one dredge onto the cultch board, the other combs the sea bed. This technique is called bottom-towing and is only permitted from sailing boats, whose motion causes minimal disturbance. If the technique itself – and the notion of sailors searching the sea for food – seem ancient, then what emerges from the bottom and crunches onto the cultch board is positively primeval. The colour is a ferrous dark red to black, with patches of deep violet glinting from old oyster shells. Spargo explains that although this is wild oyster fishing, the oyster bed or fishery is like a field that has been harvested and tended over many years, the new oysters forming on the shells of old ones, which the oystermen return constantly to the sea floor. The catch is a pre-mammalian lucky-dip of limpets, queen scallops and mussels, knotted together with coppery brown seaweeds. As he pokes around for good-sized oysters, crabs and hermit crabs launch themselves back into the sea.
‘Wind should pick up a bit soon,’ he says, scanning the skyline after he has judged a dozen or so oysters fit for the bucket. He chucks a dredge back overboard, the splash no noisier than a child throwing its bicycle in a pond. ‘If it gets too windy, I just go home,’ he laughs, distinctly unHemingwayesquely. I ask him if he minds me asking how much he paid for the boat. ‘Eight thousand for this and the punt,’ he replies, explaining that for his investment he has a winter income – the permitted oyster-gathering season runs from October 1 to March 31 – but also a boat to sail for pleasure, even to France, where he was last weekend. ‘Two buckets is 50 quid,’ he says, and tosses in another qualifier. ‘See that bloke there?’ He motions to the nearest boat. ‘He’s been doing it 40 years.’
The Romans brought oysters to Britain, initially to Kent and Essex, where they are still gathered today in places such as Whitstable and Mersea. Around Falmouth there are also Pacific rock oysters to be found, but it is flat European or native oysters – descendants of the Romans’ – that are most in demand, for their firmer texture and metallic tang. Although they are now eaten as a delicacy and often perceived as an amuse-bouche for the wealthy, for centuries oysters were a cheap and plentiful source of nourishment for the common man: ‘Poverty and oysters always seem to go together,’ says the Dickens character Sam Weller in The Pickwick Papers (1836). The oysters Spargo amasses today, however, will be sold on by Ranger and are likely to be washed down with champagne in the ritzier postcodes of London.
I am not staying onboard for the full six hours, and as Spargo deposits me on a jetty at the edge of the marina. I walk back to find Ranger, whose company, Cornish Native Oysters, ships to London restaurants such as Bentleys and Mark Hix, as well as selling locally. Ranger is tending to tanks that purify the catch, housed in a container in a corner of the harbour. He explains why the Fal estuary has been rich in oysters for more than 500 years. ‘You have a meeting here of the Atlantic and water from the river Fal, whose source is at Bodmin Moor,’ he says. ‘The Cornish soil gives the water a strong metallic element as well as calcium from its China clay. It takes four to five years for an oyster to reach 70 grammes, which is about the size my customers want. Here – try one.’
He produces a stony grey bi-valve and a knife that is sharper and pointier than I expected. On the journey to Falmouth, I have been looking forward very much to using the verb ‘to shuck’, and this is surely my cue. ‘Aha,’ I say, as he eases the point of the knife into the hinge. ‘Now we’re shucking oysters!’ Ranger winces momentarily and twists the blade, revealing the pool of flesh that glistens in its nacreous pocket. He holds it up for inspection. ‘Well, you can say shuck. It’s an American word. We tend to say open – opening oysters.’ He shows me the way that the shell shows ‘rings’ of growth, not unlike those of a tree trunk. Then he pours away the water and hands me it to eat.
Ranger tells me to look out for notes of melon and cucumber, but if it recalls either of those it is in the texture, which is soft but with a bite. To wash it down with, he hands over a bottle of the Rebel Brewing Company’s Fal Oyster Stout, ‘made using oysters in the brewing process’. The beer is light and mild and works well against the briny and slightly metallic flavour of the seafood. I last ate an oyster more than 20 years ago, but this is delicious: the taste, the aftertaste – a pleasing tang about the throat – but also the sensation of swallowing a concentrated dose of stuff that’s very good for you. And with high levels of protein, iron, omega 3 fatty acids, calcium, zinc and vitamin C, that’s just what it is.
More pressingly, though, can we address the one thing that everybody knows about oysters, apart from the verb to shuck? Casanova was said to eat 50 for breakfast: are they really an aphrodisiac? Ranger looks slightly fatigued, but as a former marketing man he must see that in terms of shifting units this is not an area to overlook. ‘People always ask me this,’ he says. ‘There is a lot of zinc in an oyster, and zinc is very good for the circulation, so obviously that may help. We did have one couple who got married at our oyster fair one year, then conceived at the next one, and then conceived again at one after that.’ After my taster, I’m convinced I can feel something stirring, but maybe it’s more wishful thinking than zinc.
Lining an inlet that runs behind his container, Ranger points out a row of ‘withies’, tall sticks in the water that mark out the position of ‘lays’ – beds where he can store oysters to fatten once they have been harvested. As with so many aspects of his work, there is much bureaucracy and form-filling surrounding these, and on the wall of his container I count 17 laminated certificates that he has been required to obtain, not least his ‘licence to gather oysters and mussels’. Sometimes, he says, he wishes his fellow oystermen would all pull together: ‘there is no Cornish word for collaborate,’ as he puts it. When I ask what he does in his downtime he laughs. ‘I don’t take time off,’ he says. ‘If I took myself to an employment tribunal against myself I would win.’ And with the payout, one assumes, he’d do the whole thing again.
Words Tom Horan
Photographs Alan Clarke