One minute I’m clutching an extra hot double shot flat white at Heathrow in the vague hope that it might, despite it being 5am, transform me into a sentient being, and the next I’m having my senses blasted by the most beautiful loch views and the breeze from our boat as we speed toward the mussel beds at Loch Fyne. And I’m wearing bright yellow waders.
It’s still morning in Scotland, and, along with Fred Sirieix and Andre Garrett, general manager and head chef, respectively, of London’s Galvin at Windows restaurant, I drive out of Glasgow airport—past pine trees, waterfalls and spring water creeks—and into the Highlands, to visit the 60/70 mile loch. We’re on a mission to see how Loch Fyne Oysters, which supplies Garrett with seafood for his Michelin-starred kitchen, farms and cultivates quality seafood in the clear, fertile waters.
Once we reach the estate I’m astounded by the remoteness and beauty of it all. It’s absolutely massive, too—stretching further than the eye can see. While the company is famous for its oysters—the original product was pioneered by founder John Noble 30 years ago—there is now a wealth of quality seafood being fished and produced here, including smoked and cured farmed salmon, mussels, langoustines and scallops.
Hill-tickling clouds hang low over the loch as we don our lurid waterproofs for a visit to the mussels, which are reared on ropes near the loch’s headwaters at Ardkinglas. The mussel farm has been operating as part of Loch Fyne Oysters since the 1990s, under the management of specialist farmer Iain Mackay.
“These are officially Scotland’s best mussels,” the company’s Richard Hunt Smith proudly declares as we examine the black shiny molluscs that grow on top of each other in columns over almost 70 miles of rope. In spite of the scale of the operation, there is little to see from the surface, with the farm occupying just a tiny space in the loch and providing a fruitful floating habitat for birds, fish and mammals. “We’ve just won the Best Mussels of 2012/13 at the Scottish shellfish growers Association awards. Not only are they delicious, as you’ll taste, but they are especially rich in iron thanks to the fantastic quality of the waters, and the fact we get all the nutrients from the mountain rivers. “By growing them on ropes in the loch and carefully managing their growth while harnessing the natural processes to bring them to harvest, we achieve award winning mussels,” adds Iain MacKay.
After our boat trip, we get to hold these two to their word, as we visit the loch-side Oyster Bar restaurant—which gets so full with seafood lovers that famously even Gordon Brown and John Prescott were turned away when they tried to get a table. The restaurant has just celebrated its 25th anniversary of trading on this site at the head of the loch in Clachan, and has also just undergone an impressive and extensive refurbishment.
We feast on the sweetest, plumpest hand-dived scallops with garlic and parsley butter, the company’s famous oysters, smoked salmon, moules marinière, and deliciously sweet langoustine—all of which come from the loch’s waters. “WOW, those are the biggest langoustines I’ve ever seen,” says André Garrett—clearly the chef is impressed. “You’d think that being that big they might be tougher than usual, but they’re so sweet and tender—just delicious.”
With our bellies stuffed with amazing fresh seafood, we meet up with David Atwood, the Aquaculture Director, to hear about the new cultivation process the company is pioneering. “We’re the only organisation in Scotland to be using a system called IMTA: integrated multi-trophic aquaculture,” he explains. This means that Loch Fyne is cultivating various different species of seafood—including oysters, salmon, mussels, seaweed, scallops and sea urchins—in the same waters, in the scientific-based belief that it improves living conditions and therefore, flavour and quality of the product.
“The idea is you have a salmon farm and you put the oysters near to that, with mussels and sea urchins, and you try and get them all to take the different nutrients out of the water and polish up the water. You’ve got the seaweed, which filters out the dissolved organic stuff, then the bi-valves—the mussels and oysters—which are filtering water; and the queen scallops and sea urchins, which are grazers, so they graze, which drops plankton to lower levels, so it’s clearer for salmon to see and helps drop lice levels.
“It’s been proven that mussels filter sea lice—they are like little pumps. We’re not sure what it will do, but we’re starting a big project and we’re going to monitor it. It’s been done in Canada but no one’s done it on a large scale. We’ve been working on this for six to seven months and we’re also looking into seaweed quite heavily and have three different types of seaweed being grown for us.”
That evening, we head to the George Hotel in the tiny fishing town of Inverary—an historic family-run hotel with a restaurant that heavily features Loch Fyne seafood. In the bar, I get talking to a couple of local langoustine fishermen, including Donald Clark Jr—the brother of the hotel’s owner. He supplies the hotel with langoustines, or ‘prawns’, as he calls them, which he fishes from the loch’s waters with baskets or ‘creels’.
“It’s a good living, but it’s tough—you work for your money,” he says, nursing a pint of ale. “40kg a day is a good day. The prawns cost about £20 per kilo but people are quite secretive about it because prices fluctuate.”
These days, langoustines are a highly sought-after product and most of those caught in Scotland end up in Spain. The langoustines live in burrows in the hard bed of the loch, at around ten fathoms or deeper. Supply is generally consistent and of good size and quality, as the immature crustaceans escape through the mesh of the creels. But they haven’t always been so highly regarded.
“35 years ago no-one was interested in prawns,” says Donald. “If they reeled them in they were thrown back over. Now we keep them alive all the way to Madrid where they’re sold live. We use herring to bait them. There’s virtually no boat traffic and no industry, so the waters are clean. Plus there’s a lot of water coming into the lochs from the mountain rivers, so it’s very nutrient rich.”
Another local fisherman, Ralph Newell, who supplies the Oyster Bar and Loch Fyne’s onsite shop with langoustines, has been fishing for langoustine for 25 years, using a boat equipped with 30 creels. “They come into shallow water at summer time,” he says. “I sink them down and leave them overnight. But it can be a real waiting game as they can be very allusive creatures. They can disappear for up to six months because they burrow down into the silt.”
It’s not an easy job. Newell works alone on his boat and when he throws the creels down they pull the boat around. He has to run to the other end to straighten, careful to make sure his leg doesn’t get caught in one of the ropes. “I carry a knife, just in case,” he smiles.
“This trip has been very inspiring,” says Fred Sirieix, who’s impressed by what he’s seen at the loch. “It’s been so refreshing to see the care, quality and the hard work that goes into these products. I think for a restaurant like us it’s fantastic to know where the product comes from and to know it’s sustainable and produced in such a careful environment makes you feel good. These are fresh, quality products that come from nature and not overly processed. It gives me confidence at Galvin at Windows to know that we have such fantastic suppliers.”
©Andrew hasson/rex features