When oysters are your world

shellfish breeders
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The Independent Online
Terence Large is proud of his pedigree. "Members of our family have been shellfishermen for generations: it was probably a Large who supplied the Roman camp at Branodonum, less than a mile from here. You can still find oyster shells on the site - they were supposed to be the best in the whole Empire."

The 49-year-old oyster-and-mussel farmer has just begun a new season. With his son and partner, Thomas, he will spend the coldest months of the year up to his waist in icy Norfolk waters, combing up to five tonnes of mussels and oysters every week from the creeks around Brancaster Staithe. But although Terence says their shellfish are as good today as they were when his ancestors were fighting the invading legions, he finds himself facing fresh threats to his livelihood.

One problem is the seasonal nature of the trade. Shellfish are not normally sold in months without an "r" - a tradition dating from pre-refrigeration days when hot weather and bacteria made summer oyster-eating a perilous activity. Although modern hygiene and storage methods mean this is no longer true, old habits die hard. Until recently the income from winter sales was enough to tide mussel farmers through the slack summer months, but prices have stagnated for 10 years and so now the Larges find themselves fishing for crab and lobster while preparing for future crops.

Oysters are bought in as "seed" - tiny babies a few milimetres across - and are suspended in big plastic baskets just below the water's surface. "Because the water is so pure, they grow exceptionally well here," says Thomas proudly.

When it comes to mussels, the backbone of their business, the Larges find their own supplies of youngsters, dredging up the one-inch "scalps" (pronounced "scorps") from breeding beds in the Wash. These are transplanted into the creeks behind their home. From then on Thomas says his principle role is to maintain the banks around the beds. These not only mark out ownership and ensure the crop is not washed away, but increase the water flow. This is vital to the growth of both mussels and oysters because they are filter feeders, sieving minute particles of organic matter.

It is the quality and volume of the tidal flow which ensure the Larges' shellfish remain graded among the best in Europe: "There are several grades of shellfish - from A through to D," says Terence. "Our oysters are grade A - so pure we can sell them straight from the sea without doing anything to them. Although the mussels are just as safe, they are in group B, because they grow in the creek silt and so need to have the particles of grit washed out of them."

The Large's oysters are ready at a year and a half while their mussels can be harvested in as little as six months. Although these are still collected by hand, multi-tined potato forks, nets and rakes, technology intervenes once the mussels are ashore where they are graded in a revolving mesh cylinder which shakes them into varying sizes. Small shells are returned unharmed to the beds to finish growing, while those destined for market have to be processed according to EC regulations. This means a two-day wash in fresh water while beng doused in ultra-violet light to kill bacteria.

This last part of the process irks the traditionalist Terence. "We were told all the expensive machinery was there to make a level playing field across Europe," he says. "Now we find that while we are processing our mussels for 42 hours, the French only wash theirs for half the time." And the rules are strictly policed here, with one fisheries officer to just five local ports: "He's on duty every day and is always on the dock in one port or another so we're constantly being inspected," he says. "In Spain there are just three officials for the whole of the country - and they're based in Madrid."

In general Terence is more concerned by competition from fellow Britons. "Our biggest threat comes from middlemen who sell cheap and in bulk," he says. "They are just there for a quick buck and some break the rules."

Over the past 30 years the business has also been affected by changing consumer tastes. Until recently the bulk of their products went to traditional Cockney fish stalls, but the advent of fast food and McDonald's has largely destroyed this. "We now make most of our money selling directly to local restaurants," says Terence. "That's how we manage to get a decent return in spite of prices not changing for a decade.

"Personally, I don't really like oysters," he adds. "I can't see the attraction - but if people want to buy them, who am I to disagree?"

His wife, Melody, agrees. "I think oysters taste like congealed seawater," she confesses. "But mussels are different - I love them." But she leaves the cooking of these to her husband.

"My favourite dish of all is mussels for Monday breakfast," says Terence. "Just fry up the shelled fish with smokey bacon, garlic and a bit of gravy from Sunday dinner, then serve them on toast. It's rich and satisfying - the perfect start for a long cold day on the beds."

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