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Going native: meet the eighth-generation oystermen behind Colchester’s world-famous oysters

Going native: meet the eighth-generation oysterman behind Colchester’s world-famous oysters

Kayleigh Rattle 21 January 2019

Colchester oysters may be celebrated around the world, but where they come from – a tiny island off mainland Essex – remains relatively under the radar. Kayleigh Rattle meets Tom Haward, an eighth-generation oysterman, to find out more about the humble family business which processes more than 30,000 oysters a week. Photography by Zoe Gibbs.

Mersea Island, located nine miles southeast of Colchester, Essex, is at the mercy of its tides. Twice a day, water from the adjoining Colne and Blackwater Estuaries can cover the causeway leading to the island, cutting it off from the mainland. It’s a relatively small island too, divided into two parts – East and West Mersea respectively – with a population shy of 7,000. It’s also home to Colchester’s world-famous rock and native oysters, which were introduced to the region by the Romans, although surprisingly few are actually eaten in Colchester today.

Cultivating oysters has been in the Haward family since the 1700s. ‘We’re the oldest cultivated oyster family business in the UK, possibly the world,’ explains Tom, an eighth-generation oysterman who has been learning the ropes from his father, Richard. ‘I can’t think of anywhere else that has a family with eight generations of oystermen.’

For such a small team (just twelve people are working when I visit) the output is impressive, to say the least. More than 30,000 rock and native oysters are processed weekly from the Hawards’ fourteen acres of oyster beds before being sent to markets and restaurants around the world. Outposts include a stall at London’s Borough Market – which sells up to 10,000 in the five days a week it’s open – plus Harrods, Billingsgate Market and further afield: Belgium, Germany, Spain and beyond. Notable chefs regularly placing orders include Chiltern Firehouse’s Nuno Mendes and Hide’s Ollie Dabbous.

In spite of these accolades, it remains a modest and largely familial operation. ‘I”ve worked across all elements of the business, and now I’m supporting my Dad,’ explains Tom, who like his father Richard, grew up immersed in the world of oysters. Keeping it in the family, Tom’s elder brother Bram also works on the oyster boats, while Tom’s sister runs the family restaurant The Company Shed, a Mersea institution famed for its fresh seafood and, naturally, oysters. At Mehalah’s, on the eastern part of the island, Tom’s mum serves up everything from grilled oysters with cheese to hearty fish pies, washed down with local wine and beer.

The operation is already in full swing when we arrive at 9am: crates of oysters are being washed and loaded into the filtration system or packed into boxes for distribution. To get an understanding of where the oysters started their journey that day, Tom takes us out on the water in one of the family boats. With us, we take two crates of rock oysters to put back in the water – they’re not yet meaty or sizeable enough so they’re being returned to the ocean to grow some more.

The boat splutters, oystercatchers shriek above us and there’s a chorus of seagulls in tow. It feels surprisingly calm and luckily for us, the predicted rain manages to hold off. The seagulls circle in as the rock oysters are thrown back into the beds to plump up. ‘Seagulls do like to nip at the oysters,’ Tom tells us. ‘They throw them in the air, drop them, watch them smash on the ground and then eat them. We think this could well be how humans came to decide to try an oyster – maybe they watched the birds and tried it for themselves!’

Large sticks, standing upright in the mud, handily mark the location of the oyster beds – at high tide the water will cover the mud and the marshes beyond. Tom tells us how the oysters have to be laid in separate beds. While they cultivate both rock and native oysters, they don’t mix well as they tend to compete.

Seeing these mollusks in situ, the beds surrounded by an expanse of fertile marshland and greenery, it’s easy to understand why these particular varieties taste so distinctive and why they are celebrated around the world. ‘Their flavour definitely sets them apart,’ agrees Tom. ‘The Colchester natives get a lot of their nutrients from the marshland, which can really determine their flavour. They’re not too salty or zincy either – they’re perfectly balanced.’

Once back on terra firma, Tom leads us to where the oysters are cleaned, weighed and sorted, a small shed not more than a couple of minutes’ walk from The Company Shed. This is where the oysters come to be pressure washed before being placed on a giant grader – essentially a conveyor belt that sorts the oysters into six different sizes, determined by weight. Native oysters are being sorted when we arrive. ‘We process about 10,000 of them a day,’ explains Tom. ‘Customers can be very specific about the size and weight of oysters, so we need quite a few different grades.’

Tom puts a Colchester native in his hand and considers its beautiful layered shell, each rivet indicating a new layer of growth. ‘Natives are beautiful things. They’re what the Romans discovered, what my ancestors were hatching and what Mersea Island is famous for,’ he contemplates, while shucking the bivalve with effortless dexterity to reveal a perfectly plump oyster, glistening in the sunlight. ‘There, that’s exactly what we want.’

The mollusks are then taken back up the road to the Company Shed, where they’re put into trays and filtration tanks to remove any dirt or grit. There, each oyster is purified – in sea water passed through UV lights – for forty-two hours before being boxed and transported across the UK to be shucked and devoured.

Despite being home to this world-famous operation, Mersea Island remains rather quiet, unassuming and at times pretty deserted. It’s ever so humble too – just like the Hawards themselves. ‘I’m so proud of our history and legacy,’ smiles Tom. ‘Generations of Mersea oystermen have worked so hard to keep this product alive and well. I’m so humbled to be a part of this story.’

It’s this endearing story that sets the Hawards’ oysters apart, making them something to savour and to return to time and time again. ‘When you’re eating something that you know has a story, a legacy and a romanticism associated with it, the pleasure of eating it only increases. It might be a cliché, but I honestly believe it’s true.’

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