Beef and oyster pie was one of Victorian England's most popular recipes. Not because everyone had the extravagant means to shuck oysters on gold-plated tableware every night, but because the shellfish were the Pot Noodle of their day: cheap and readily available. The poorer you were, the more oysters you would use to bulk out the highly expensive cow-meat.
Today, oysters are synonymous with the kind of people who "guffaw" and drink Champagne, rather than the red-faced washerwomen of Dickensian London. This demand for their protein-ous, slimy gold and the impact of ruthless trawlers on Britain's seabeds, have left some strains of the oyster a protected species.
In the small coastal town of Porlock in Somerset, five volunteers are working to change this. The Porlock Bay Shellfish Project harvested its first oysters from the bay last month. They were also the first oysters to be cultivated in the area for 120 years, after trawlers motoring the Bristol Channel swept the beds clean.
"We've come to the end of the trial which has been a success," says Roger Hall, one of the volunteers and a spokesperson for the group. "We're now setting up what we call a community interest company. Those are like limited companies, limited by guarantee, but there are additional legal safeguards to make sure that all the money is safe in the community. For example the five of us we won't be taking any money out of the company at all. The profits will be ploughed back into either another venture or something the community needs."
Hall and his fellow volunteers—who call themselves Porlock Futures—came up with the oyster farming idea after researching cottage industries that could benefit locals. Porlock is a remote coastal town with high unemployment rates and an aging demographic.
At first, they were looking for business ventures that honed in with the romantic image of Exmoor National Park until one of the members, Tony Keynon, came up with an idea that could harness the power of the sea. Top lad. Although Hall doesn't reckon Porlock Futures' project will be fully up-and-running until summer 2016, they're hoping to have something local ready for the coming summer.
"We've got 9,000 oysters which are big enough to sell," he says. "It sounds a lot but it's not that many, not if you've got a restaurant that wants a regular delivery."
When the project has caught up with its growing oyster demand, Hall hopes they can expand their business to include a microbrewery, in the hope of creating even more local jobs.
"We think Porlock cider and oysters could be an interesting combination," he says. "We might have even an oyster and cider festival."
But it's not just restaurants and the local community appreciating oysters. Porlock oysters have also received the Grade A classification from the Food Standards Agency, as advised by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science. In shellfish terms, that's a pretty big deal. Only one other place in England and Wales has received the top grade.
"They took ten samples of the oysters at monthly intervals. They sent them off to Porton Down, not to turn them into biological weapons, but to go to the government testing agency. They tested for things like E coli. If you get the desired reading—which we did—then you qualify for a Grade A classification," explains Hall. "They also came to check all the fresh water streams coming in to Porlock Bay because if a stream goes through a farmyard it can pick up a lot of bacteria and cow manure."
They took ten samples of the oysters at monthly intervals and sent them off to Porton Down, not to turn them into biological weapons, but to go to the government testing agency. If you get the desired reading—which we did—then you qualify for a Grade A classification. They also came to check all the fresh water streams coming in to Porlock Bay.
Porlock Futures have also cracked the don't-eat-oysters-when-there's-an-'r'-in-the-month conundrum. When oysters engage in sexy-time (and the few month period it takes them to recover, sounds awful), they can lose around 70% of their body weight. This means that outside of the summer months, there's no point in eating them.
The oysters that are being farmed in Porlock Bay do not spawn during the summer, in fact, rarely at all. The project has set up using Pacific triploid oysters that originate from Asia, so they're not even native to the English Channel.
Oysters are farmed on what are known as 'trestles' and Porlock Bay Shellfish Project have kept it local with those as well, commissioning West Country Blacksmiths to make them.
"We then hammer those into the beach when the tide is low. On those trestles we grow them in open mesh plastic sacks so the water can go through the holes. You just turn them and discard any dead ones; you do get about a 5 percent mortality rate," explains Hall. "You throw away the old discarded shells, also because the top shell grows faster than the bottom one you chip that away a bit leaving you with a nice shapely oyster. Other than that, they just look after themselves really."
Hall and the rest of the volunteers' innovative oyster farming methods have captured the interest of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, a kind of trade union for all things shellfish-y.
"The whole emphasis of what they're trying to do is a community-based project to re-establish a small scale artisanal fishery and generating employment on the coast," says director, David Jarrad. "It's the first I've heard of in the UK. There are examples elsewhere in the world of people doing this; there's a very large one going ahead at the moment in New York harbour."
In fact, when it comes to eco-friendly businesses, cultivating shellfish is one of the most sustainable ventures you can come across.
"What tends to be forgotten about shellfish production—that is, oysters, mussels, and clams—is that the ecosystem services that they provide by way of cleansing the water and being a carbon sink," says Jarrad. "It's environmentally a benign operation that is going to produce good quality seafood."
With innovative community projects like the Porlock Bay Shellfish Project providing a solution for the growing issues of unemployment and sustainable food, oysters could again becoming a food of the people—albeit for a different reason.