Cornwall Bites - The Oyster Man
“My day starts at eight am at Mylor Harbour when I check the weather and set the sails,” says Chris Ranger or “Ranger” as he is known in and around Falmouth. “Then I will be out on the water hunting for oysters between nine and three in my boat Alf Smythers.”
Ranger is an oysterman, gathering oysters from the Fal Estuary, known for having the last wild oyster beds in the UK. Not only are the oysters not farmed, but here the oysters have been harvested in more or less the same way for more than 500 years. A law dating from 1868 makes it illegal to gather the oysters with mechanical means or from crafts other than sail boats or row boats. It is very likely this is the last oyster fishery in the world to use such traditional methods.
"The oyster men rely on the tides, the wind, their skill, and their local knowledge of the fishing waters,” says Ranger.
The oyster season runs from October to March in Falmouth. The start of the season is celebrated by The Falmouth Oyster Festival, the end of the season by The Oyster Gathering.
Oyster gathering is an important part of Falmouth’s maritime heritage with Cornish families deriving their livelihood from the industry for centuries. Many of the oyster boats were built at boatyards around the Fal, with some of the oldest boats dating back as far as 1860.
It is, however, an industry that is becoming increasingly fragile. “In 1908 there were 128 oyster boats,” says Ranger. “Now there are 10.”
“I’ve been out sailing with him, and you can’t beat his passion and his knowledge,” he says.
Both Dale and Ranger share a passion for changing perceptions around oysters. “If you think you don’t like oysters, I would love the chance to try and change your mind,” says Dale. “There are lots of different ways to eat them.” And if you happen not to be a fan of oysters, Dale is the person to change your mind. Michelin-starred chef Nathan Outlaw has described Dale's starter of "Cornish Native Oyster set in Camel Valley Jelly" as one of the best dishes he has ever tasted.
The unique taste of the Fal oyster is said to come from the rich mineral and biological content of the water in the area; salty and sweet with flavours of lettuce and cucumber. It also has a light copper finish. Some of the top Chefs in the UK are fans as the oysters landed by Chris Ranger end up on plates at some of the most prestigious restaurants in the UK.
"I used to think you shouldn’t really cook them, but now, I would say try one cooked, try one raw, whatever it takes for people to fall in love with Fal Oysters,” says Ranger.
About the Fal Oyster Festival:
The 21st "Fal Oyster Festival" will be held on 12 - 15 October 2017 in Falmouth.
The Fal Oyster stall sources the best-sized natives from a number of boats, and strict traceability means the boat, the skipper, the date and location of each oyster are all recorded. Fal Oyster Ltd. then purifies the oysters on the edge of the fishery in Mylor Yacht Harbour before tempting customers with a unique product: the only oyster with a protected food name.