Porlock Bay Oysters: A pearl of a producer

Nothing beats the taste of an oyster straight from the sea (c) Maureen Harvey

Nothing beats the taste of an oyster straight from the sea (c) Maureen Harvey - Credit: Maureen Harvey

Andrea Cowan spends an afternoon in the Bristol Channel, checking out an innovative, community- focused company

The oysters are checked whatever the weather (c) Maureen Harvey

The oysters are checked whatever the weather (c) Maureen Harvey - Credit: Maureen Harvey

It is not often that you find yourself standing in the sea on a cold February afternoon. But timing is everything: it is only once every two weeks when the tide is low enough for the oyster tables in Porlock Bay to be reached. There’s no choice but to brace the icy water, as well as the threat of quick sand that exists along the North Somerset coastal stretch.

Oyster Perch, where we are standing, is based around medieval fish pens with their original stone walls still visible at low tide. They were subsequently used in the 1800s as holding pens for the fish before being taken off to market.

Today they hold 40 metal trestle tables, made locally by Allerford Forge and providing a stable base for 80,000 oysters at any one time, divided into nets according to age and size.

I am being shown around by Roger Hall of Porlock Bay Oysters and, like the others directors, a volunteer driven by passion and enthusiasm.

Setting up the trestle tables (c) Maureen Harvey

Setting up the trestle tables (c) Maureen Harvey - Credit: Maureen Harvey

“The company is set up as a community initiative,” explains Roger. “We were looking for ways to grow industry locally, create jobs and ultimately encourage young people to stay in the area. We had a couple of ideas, which we might still explore further down the line, but it was Porlock Bay Oysters that really sparked our interest. We are delighted to be reviving an ancient, local food heritage.”

Oysters in the bay go back to the early 1800s. But a sudden halt to the industry came in the 1890s when some sailing ship dredgers were sent to the Bristol Channel by the fishing communities of Whitstable and Colchester whose own oyster beds were failing. With no law in place to stop them, they completely stripped the channel beds.

There have been a few attempts to reintroduce oysters into the area but with little success – until now. “It’s probably a combination of the fact that Porlock Bay now has some of the cleanest waters in England, backed up by our persistence in securing grants to financially support the venture,” continues Roger.

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It’s a lengthy business, taking up to three years for the oysters to reach the commercial ‘restaurant’ size. Hundreds of thousands of seed oysters, the side of half a finger nail, are kept in a nursery bed in the River Avon. When they are of the right size, they are brought to Porlock, placed in mesh bags attached to the trestle tables and put in the sea to mature. They are pretty self-sufficient, filtering between four and five litres of water a day through their bodies, taking their food and nutrients from the sea.

Porlock Bay oysters are the finest Pacific oysters (c) Maureen Harvey

Porlock Bay oysters are the finest Pacific oysters (c) Maureen Harvey - Credit: Maureen Harvey

“We use Pacific oysters as they have the advantage of being available all year round,” says Roger. “They are regularly tested, and we are very proud to be one of the few sites in England and Wales to have achieved a class A rating for Pacific Oyster purity from the Food Standards Agency.”

This is the first really commercial year for the company, with 4,000 oysters per month available for local restaurants and stockists. And what a delicious beginning it is. Even standing ankle deep in icy water, I can safely say there are few more evocative tastes than a freshly shucked oyster straight from the sea.

From oyster seed to fruition...

2012: Having hit upon oysters as a viable business idea, David Salter, Alan Wright, Tony Kenyon, David Hancock, Mike Lynch and Roger Hall began applying for grants. With lots of help from the Shellfish Association of GB, oyster trials begin.

2015: Porlock Futures C.I.C. (PFCIC) was registered. This ensures that company profits go back into the community. Further grants were secured, including local crowdfunding, which was set up for households in Porlock Vale and successfully achieved funds of £140,000 for the business.

2016: The company was able to acquire hundreds of thousands of seed oysters to nurture and grow.

2018: This is the first really commercial year.

For more information, visit the Porlock Bay Oysters website here.