A Day with an Eighth Generation Oysterman
“It’s very pure. The human side of it.. oysters they’ve been here for millenniums and they haven’t really changed and when you’re out there picking oysters and it’s like today, there’s not really annyone about, it’s empty, you realise that it’s ok to slow down. That you don’t have to be at this hundred mile an hour pace. I think that’s part of the great thing about the oystering. It takes a really long time for the oyster to get to the point where it’s ready to sell, it’s a slow food, it’s a patient food. And I think it’s a good reminder that we should also try and slow down. I’ve been working too much and too hard through a good period of my life, but every now and then you can just stop. It’s nature, this is beautiful. The oysters are growing in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, it’s lovely. You can just hop on a boat and within minutes you can be away from everything, people and the busyness… and it’s just easy as that.” - Tom Haward
Colchester and the surrounding areas are a hive of foodie delights and small businesses creating their own success through using fresh, local produce and having the passion to create food. Mersea Island is no exception to this. Last week, Indre and I spent the afternoon with Tom Haward of Richard Haward’s Oysters, a small business operation on Mersea Island.
Mersea Island is famous for its oysters and as Tom told us, it was the first place the Romans landed when they came to England and it was them who discovered the molluscs. It is believed that birds would pick them up repeatedly and drop them on the ground until they opened and would eat the meat inside, this is believed to be the reason that people learned how to eat oysters. It is rumoured that the Romans shipped oysters back to Rome as they thought that oysters were the only good thing to come out of England.
Love them or hate them, you’re guaranteed to come across them on Mersea. Tom’s family is rich in history and the Haward’s have been cultivating oysters for over 300 years. Being eighth generation is something that Tom is immensely proud of and he has a lot of passion for the family business. The Haward family started farming oysters in the 1700’s and are the oldest cultivators in the UK. At the end of the 19th century, the Haward’s oyster business were sending 100 tonne of oysters into Billingsgate Market in London. Now, it is a large operation that exports oysters over the world, local and high-end restaurants, and into Borough Market where Richard Haward’s Oysters have a retail unit.
Tom is an eighth generation oysterman and the operations manager who runs the ‘land side’ of the business. His older brother, Bram, runs the boat and goes out dredging for oysters daily. As well as working for his dad, Tom has worked for both of his mother’s businesses. Heather Haward opened The Company Shed in the 1980’s and it has since been a popular place to eat for locals and tourists. Over the years, it has seen numerous celebrities and journalists visit to sample some of the simple, yet delicious seafood and, of course, oysters from Richard Haward’s Oysters. You’re also able to take your own bread and alcohol - something that is an attraction for customers. You can get the rock oyster all year round, and the Colchester native oyster from September to April. Tom’s sister, Caz now runs the Shed and Heather has since opened a new restaurant, Mehalah’s which is situated on the East side of the island.
Tom initially helped to set up Mehalah’s and was head chef there for the first three years. Before that, he was maître d’ for The Company Shed. Tom is a natural talker and his relaxed approach with customers ensured they would return to visit on numerous occasions. Despite enjoying his roles within the family businesses, Tom wanted to do something for himself, so he applied to do a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Essex and embarked on a part time course.
Tom will graduate this year and is already a quarter of a way through his own novel that he hopes to get published. Being an oysterman is something he is inherently proud of and wants to see the business continue to thrive and flourish in a competitive market. But he also wants to see his name in print and continue to push himself creatively. Tom enjoys reading thrillers and cooking at home.
During our afternoon with Tom, we saw where and how the oysters are processed so they’re ready for consumption. They have to be washed, and then graded into the right size, then the oysters are loaded into depuration tanks that have UV lights to help to kill any bacteria and they’re purified in sea water for 42 hours, before being packed ready to be sold. We then went out on the water to the Packing Shed. The Packing Shed used to be used to land and process oysters in the 19th century, hence the name. It is now used for private functions, afternoon tea and for the annual dreading match, held in September at the beginning of the native oyster season.
In the future, Tom is hoping that Richard Haward’s Oysters will continue to grow and export to more places in the world, and it continues to employ local people, educating them on oysters and his family history, and of course, have his novel published.