iLoveMyGrub visits the Scottish highlands to see the pioneering sustainable fishing techniques in progress behind the scenes at Loch Fyne Restaurants and shop.
iLoveMyGrub visits the Scottish highlands to see the pioneering fishing techniques in progress behind the scenes at Loch Fyne Restaurants. You may be more familiar with Loch Fyne restaurants than the highland location itself, but in terms of taste, they speak from the same place. Back in 1977, Johnny Noble who lived on the Ardkinglas Estate overlooking Loch Fyne, decided to revive the oyster trade that had once thrived in the area. He formed Loch Fyne Oysters with Andy Lane, a friend, colleague and fish farmer by trade. Their aim? To produce oysters of exceptional quality, that they could sell to restaurants and stockists around the country. Ten years on, the duo had established a smokehouse, an oyster bar and a restaurant to give diners a taste of their efforts. The oyster bar, which started out in a former cow shed on the banks of Loch Fyne in Cairndow, initially comprised a bar and a handful of stools for locals to sample the occasional oyster. There was so much demand in the first few weeks of opening, that the oyster bar expanded to become the first of Loch Fyne’s now 37 restaurants around the UK.
In the days when airport security wasn’t quite so all encompassing, Johnny Noble would frequently fly out to New York by Concorde with a box of 12 Loch Fyne oysters under his arm. Once the plane had levelled out its path some 30,000 feet up in the air, Noble would hop out of his seat and charm passengers into sampling Loch Fyne’s oyster fare. Inevitably, the combination of Scottish charm, kilted attire and the taste of the Loch in an oyster shell, would win over potential customers on countless airborne occasions. The oyster bar at Loch Fyne also continued to win over customers, so much so, that Noble and Lane decided to branch out with two more restaurants in England, extending Loch Fyne’s offerings South of the border. With these extra restaurants well received, Noble and Lane looked to the expertise of Mark Derry and Ian Glyn – two entrepreneurs who had successful track records running and developing restaurant chains, with the likes of TGI Fridays and Country Style Inns under their belts. Loch Fyne Restaurants was established and the company now runs 37 restaurants around the UK. Although the restaurant group has expanded quite considerably since Noble’s modest oyster bar first opened up on the shore of Loch Fyne, environmental preservation and balance has always been the ethos of the company. Each Loch Fyne restaurant serves fish and shellfish almost exclusively from Loch Fyne Oysters, and whilst it would no doubt be profitable to expand further and faster, the balance of aquatic life at Loch Fyne would be tipped towards that sad state that is over-farming, which is something Loch Fyne endeavour to avoid at all costs.
Accompanying Loch Fyne’s philosophy "to respect the animal and its habitat", is the guiding principle “to underpin the economy of the community by the provision of skilled work, fairly rewarded and inline with the traditions of the locality.” When Johnny Noble passed away in 2003, he was largely missed by friends, family and employees, but left a lasting legacy, handing the reigns of Loch Fyne Oysters over to the employees at Loch Fyne. Since 2003, Loch Fyne Oysters has run as a cooperative and has continued to harvest mussels and oysters from the head of the Loch Fyne at Ardkinglas with the same level of passion that Noble started with.
Noble’s niece Virginia Sumsion is Loch Fyne’s marketing manager and his nephew still lives on the Ardkinglas Estate where over 100 years of family life for the Noble’s has been based. The kitchen at Ardkinglas is still very much in use and has been the base for many a recipe inception that has made its way onto the menus at Loch Fyne restaurants. Still very much missed by friends, family and employees, our guide Laurie Thorndyke recalls Noble’s much-loved character as she shows us around Loch Fyne. “He was larger than life”, she smiles, and fondly tells us about Noble’s own pet oyster, which he named Hamish and carried around with him until the oyster passed away at the grand old age of 25 – not a bad innings for an oyster. These sought-after shellfish are apparently quite able to last for a few days at a time out of the water, so long as they’re not opened whilst they’re out on dry land. The beginnings of Johnny Noble’s oysters start on the bed of Loch Fyne’s shoreline where they are grown in large mesh bags under the peaty depths of the loch’s waters.
We meet Mick Haines, who has been working with Loch Fyne Oysters as their Oyster Production Manager for many years, and overseas the whole process from oyster farm to fork. Funnily enough, Mick can’t stand eating oysters and is slightly bemused at the attention they garner on restaurant plates, but his approach to growing and harvesting these little gems of the sea is meticulous. He takes us through the sorting, grading and cleaning processes that each oyster goes through before it can be it’s packaged and sent off to suppliers.
The oysters feed entirely naturally on plankton from the loch, and are never fed artificially. It takes around four years for the oysters to grow to the right size for harvesting and during this time, monitoring the temperature of the waters is essential as a slight rise can scupper an entire crop.
Iain Mackay is the head of mussel growing at Loch Fyne and has been working for the company since he was a lad. As we clamber into Iain’s boat to take a look at the mussels growing out in the middle of the Loch he grins when I ask him if this beats working in an office. “On a day when the sun’s out, there isn’t a better place to be”, he says, shouting over the wind. We buffet about on the boat until we reach what looks like a long line of tyres bobbing around in the water. They’re actually buoys, strung together to form what quite comically looks like a never-ending Loch Ness monster, lounging around in its aquatic surroundings.
Each buoy has a 10 metre-long rope suspended from it which the mussels attach themselves to. Iain explains how the mussels take around 2-3 years to grow fully, feeding on the natural resources of the loch. Each rope, once the mussels are ready to harvest, holds around 70-80kg of mussels. Initially when the mussels first latch onto the ropes in the peaty waters of the loch, they’re about the size of a peppercorn. By the time they’re ready to harvest, they’re around 6cm in length. The rope is also mightily heavy by that point as Iain demonstrates, pulling the head of the rope up out of the water to show us the full-size mussels and gritting his teeth with the strain. Remarkably, these ropes used to be pulled in-shore by hand when it was time to harvest the mussels, but now with around 80,000 tonnes harvested each year the staff use a mechanical winch to haul them in.
Loch Fyne works with the RSPCA, Marine Conservation Society and Marine Stewardship Council to maintain a healthy marine eco-system at the loch. The whole premise of Johnny Noble’s endeavour with Loch Fyne was to create a sustainable fishing source and a sustainable work force around it. In succeeding, Noble brought life back to the loch with a plentiful harvest of oysters where they had once been so aggressively depleted that they ran the risk of disappearing altogether. Loch Fyne Restaurants mirror this ethic, which is why you won’t find endangered fish like swordfish on any of their menus around the UK. Loch Fyne were in fact the first in their industry to remove endangered species from their shelves and restaurant menus. Since then, many supermarkets and fishmongers have followed suit, whilst Loch Fyne’s own focus on sustainability was recognised by the industry recently when the company was short listed for the 2006 Fit for the Future awards for outstanding achievement and innovation in aquaculture. Although the mussels and oysters are largely grown on site by Loch Fyne Oysters, other local producers supply their restaurants with the likes of salmon, langoustines, butter clams and cockles. These artisan producers fit Loch Fyne’s high standards and follow the principles of sustainable fishing and maintaining a balance of aquatic life. None of the fish that Loch Fyne or its partners supply has been sourced by deep-sea trawlers or industrial long-liners, and depleted fish stocks are never sourced from. One of the greatest hurdles Loch Fyne battles against, is consumers choosing to eat wild salmon over farmed. The misconception that farmed salmon compromises on quality and animal welfare standards has led to wild salmon stocks becoming worryingly endangered. Loch Fyne source their farmed salmon from producers at Loch Duart who bear the RSPCA’s Freedom Food accreditation.
Much of this salmon finds its way into the smoke house tucked away behind the Loch Fyne oyster bar. Kevin Farrell, Quality Manager at Loch Fyne, takes us through the maze that is the smokehouse. First off, boxes of gleaming salmon are boned and prepared for curing, where they’re marinated in salt, sugar and pepper for around 18 hours. The cure is then dusted off the salmon and the fish are laid, skin side down onto metal racks and stacked in the smoking room.
Each member of staff smokes their batch of salmon a little differently from the next, but the salmon is smoked for up to 48 hours before its ready to consume. Incidentally, Kevin tells us about one occasion when a member of staff was preparing a batch of smoked salmon, ready for sale at one of Loch Fyne’s farmers’ markets. By mistake, the batch was left smoking for longer than usual, so the salmon cooked right through and ended up with a darker crust on the outside. With no other batches ready, they decided to try it out at the market and people loved it. Rather than a smoked salmon, the fish was poached inside due to its longer cooking time and smoked on the outside. It went down so well, that it now features regularly on Loch Fyne shelves and menus under the name of Bradan Rost. It’s then deftly sliced, (some still by hand) and carefully packaged, ready to be delivered to Loch Fyne restaurants and other stockists around the country.
Wood chippings from whiskey and sherry barrels are used to smoke the fish at Loch Fyne and Kevin dips his hand into a huge tub, bringing out a handful of shavings and chippings for us to smell. The shavings, which are damped down before they’re piled into a 600 °C oven, impart a delicately sweet scent. The smoke is cooled to a mild 22 °C before it makes contact with the salmon and gives the fish a wonderfully dark coppery finish. Kevin pulls out one of the fillets and slices it open, revealing the smoky orange flesh. A serious amount of respect goes into the smoking process at Loch Fyne with the staff retaining the kind of skills that are sadly dying out elsewhere. The smokehouse itself is Soil Association accredited, as are the fresh salmon and trout that are smoked on the premises.
Once we finish our tour of the smokehouse, Kevin ushers us into Loch Fyne’s shop next to the oyster bar and leaves us there to gawp at the goods on offer. As well as Loch Fyne’s own offerings of oysters, mussels and plenty of fish, the shop also stocks other local produce, including some wonderful orange marmalade, which is served up on the breakfast menu at the oyster bar. It took us about half an hour to walk from the cheese shelf to the whiskey shelf, not because it’s a huge shop – it’s actually quite modest in size, but it’s packed with so many things you’d like to try, you spend an age trying to downsize your shopping basket before looking at something else. The company is about to open its second shop in Edinburgh, and so long as the location falls in its favour, it would be hard to see how it could fail. This new opening will no doubt will follow Loch Fyne’s ethos. Rather than favouring profit over produce, it’s very likely to be like everything else Loch Fyne embraces: respectful of its environment and passionate about quality.
Loch Fyne oysters, and many other products from the highland region are available to purchase online at http://www.lochfyne.com
Love oysters? Try this recipe from Loch Fyne:
***Oysters au naturel ***
Open oysters, retaining as much liquid as possible and serve on ice with brown bread and butter, lemon slices, black pepper or Tabasco sauce. Baked oysters with spinach Open six oysters, drain liquid and arrange shells in an ovenproof dish. Place finely chopped fresh or defrosted spinach leaves on top of the oysters and cover with mornay sauce. Bake in a hot oven for five minutes until sauce is bubbling. Grilled oysters Open three oysters per person and drain the liquid. Top each oyster with a knob of garlic butter and sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Place in a hot oven for five minutes, or until cooked. Oysters with smoked salmon For each person, take three opened oysters and three thin strips of smoked salmon. Roll each oyster in a strip of smoked salmon and secure with a cocktail stick. Bake in a hot oven for 3-4 minutes and serve on a small square of toast.