The native Cornish oyster, oyster edulis, found in the Fal Estuary is prized for its sweet and delicate flavour. Oysters (or estren in Cornish) were once a staple food of the poor – these days, as we all know, they are most definitely a luxury.
Whether you like them raw with a bit of lemon juice, or teamed with beef for a hearty pie, or perhaps fried in a tempura batter, oysters are delicious; and the Fal oyster has a lovely, fresh zing to it. It’s sea air on a plate. If you want a dish that truly captures the taste of Cornwall, try a Fal oyster.
Cornish fishermen have been harvesting oysters on the Fal for centuries. The earliest reference to oyster fishing comes from a document of 1506, giving the lord of the manor a claim to the best fish and shellfish from the Helford River. Twenty-first-century oysters are still harvested in the same way, by punt and sail, with no mechanical power. The oysters are not cultured or bred; however there is an element of farming, as the beds are “harrowed” to keep them in good condition, which encourages the young oysters to settle.
As the oysters propagate naturally, a careful eye has to be kept on their numbers. The council-employed “Oyster Bailiff” (a great job title) oversees the operation, and all fishermen have to be licensed.
Fal oysters have recently been awarded the EU protection of designated origin status (DOC). The Cornish pasty and clotted cream are also protected – now there’s the basis for a delicious three-course Cornish meal! To qualify as a Fal oyster, the shellfish has to be caught in the River Fal, using only traditional methods.
The oyster fishers use the “Falmouth Working Boats”, built around the Fal, powered either by sail or by oars. The dredge is a smallish (1 meter) frame which is dragged across the silty estuary bed. It scoops the cultch (the old shells, stones etc that form the oyster bed) into a net, which is returned to the sea after the gatherings, and makes a great feeding ground for other local species such as shrimps and crabs. It’s a sustainable method of fishing, and the only deviation from the old ways is that you can now order your Fal oysters online! Visit Fal Oyster to have your Cornish oysters delivered.
Or, you can come and sample the Fal oyster this Easter with the annual Gathering in Falmouth. Held on the Prince of Wales Pier from Friday 25 March to Sunday 27 March, this first event in Cornwall’s foodie calendar celebrates the end of the oyster fishing season which runs from 1 October to 31 March. The event also highlights lots of other delicious Cornish foods, as professional chefs and food producers come together for a weekend of cooking and eating.
Even those who feel a bit squeamish about oysters can eventually be won round by their gorgeous, ozoney, rockpoolishness. Try them in Falmouth this Easter – or for a selection of perfectly prepared Cornish seafood, visit us at The Cornwall!