Peaches of the Sea

Leonard Lea Frazer

While exploring the coastal district of Preseli Pembrokeshire, in south-eastern Wales, I made my home base on an “oyster farm” near Pembroke. I soon discovered the fascinating art of growing oysters as I was walked through the various stages and procedures involved in producing this ancient form of shellfish.

When Joe and June Folder purchased a derelict Welsh farmhouse and acreage back in 1975, and started a small nursery for oysters, they never dreamed where their semi-retirement hobby would take them.

In just 15 years time they were producing over one million adult oysters, per year, for the British market. The “Tything Barn” is the original name of the Folder’s property and is located on the site of an ancient limestone quarry, across the Cleddar River from the 13th Century Carew Castle. The success of the “Carew Oyster Farm” is due to the plankton (good oyster food) carried up the arm of the river, the extremely high tides, and the constant determination of the Folders.

During my first day at the farm Mr. Folder showed me around his property. “Every estuary is going to be slightly different,” he explained. “I think we’re the only oyster farm in Europe that has such a big tide. Most of them are working with a 12-foot tide.” With plankton-rich water from the 25-foot local tide and one earth dam, Joe and June converted the old quarry into a lagoon. By pumping seawater over the dam into the lagoon and circulating that water through various containers of oysters, the Folders were able to get their business off the ground.

Each year, Joe buys a two-gallon bucket containing water, plankton and 1 million baby oysters, or “spat.” Each one is the size of a flattened pinhead. The spat are initially divided up into four or five barrels on a partly submerged raft. Within a couple of weeks, as the tiny oysters grow, they are divided into ten barrels. Two weeks later there will be 20, and so on. During this growing stage the water in the lagoon will be circulated through the floor of the raft with a small pump and, as all the barrels have open nylon mesh-covered bottoms, the oysters are able to feed on fresh plankton. This process is called the “Horizontal Flow System.” As the spat is divided into different barrels they are also graded for size by using a vibrating sieve. After the oysters are too big for the raft they are put in nylon mesh bags and placed on metal rakes in a nearby canal where they continue to grow.

The nursery work, of feeding and dividing the young oysters into different size groups lasts from May until October. All the mature oysters, in mesh bags, are moved on pontoon rafts to an area in the river were they will be able to feed on larger particles of plankton. Joe Folder explained about this growing stage. “To give our stock of four million oysters an adequate share of all the food supply brought in by each tide we have constructed timber trestles on five acres of seabed. When the tide comes in the water passes over and around our oysters so that they get a rich and varied diet just by being in the right place at the right time.” During the three-year growing time in the river, the oyster bags are turned over periodically by the workers and washed off with a powerful jet pump spray. Any mud, silt or marine growth that has built up on the bags can be blown off.

The oyster bags are also sorted into three grades, from time to time, as some oysters mature faster than others. Before the adult oysters are ready to be shipped to market, they must be pressure-washed and then purified. On the Folders’ farm, incorporated with their packinghouse, is a room that contains three tanks of seawater. This water is circulated past several ultra violet lights. According to English set regulations the mature oysters must sit in the purification tanks for 48-60 hours. The oysters are then pressure-washed again prior to packaging in white, waxed fish boxes.

Before leaving the Tything Barn I bravely sampled one of the Carew Oysters. With a dash of paprika, a squirt of lemon juice and a drop of Tabasco sauce I let that slippery little guy slide off the side of an open oyster shell right into my mouth. Of course it was nothing like the sautéed oysters I had tried back in Canada. This was a very different experience. Joe Folder insists that raw oysters should be chewed, just like other foods, so that the taste can be savoured. He explained that while one of his regular customers was visiting the farm, he consumed a dozen oysters while waiting for his order to be filled. I declined a second oyster myself.

Just as I was leaving June Folder passed me one of their Carew Oyster brochures. Under the farm’s logo on the cover was the following verse:

“Where waters of the land and sea combine

And flow between the sandstone and the lime

Rich planktons nourish and oysters flourish

Like peaches of the sea sublime! 

Joe Folder, an oyster farmer-extraordinaire.
Joe Folder, an oyster farmer-extraordinaire.
 
A farm worker pressure-washing crates of mature oysters that are ready for the purification tanks.
A farm worker pressure-washing crates of mature oysters that are ready for the purification tanks.

In the packing room mature oys­ters are made ready for delivery.
In the packing room mature oys­ters are made ready for delivery.
 
The tiny baby oysters are divided into ten barrels during the beginning stages of their growth.
The tiny baby oysters are divided into ten barrels during the beginning stages of their growth.