A morning on Cork’s biggest Oyster farm

In a new four-part series, RICHARD GORDON spends the day with some of the producers supplying Cork’s Farmers’ Markets. Today he writes about his visit to Cork’s biggest oyster Farm, Rossmore Oysters
A morning on Cork’s biggest Oyster farm

Oysters from the farm are sold at local markets. Picture: Joleen Cronin

I WAS told to be at the farm for 8am. There, I would be given ‘wet gear’ so I could get involved and have a proper look at the farm from the inside. The inside in this case being a wet, Wednesday morning deep in the belly of an icy winter.

To do this, I had to get cold and muddy and potentially drenched.

I was pointed to the wall of the shed by Rupert Hugh-Jones, the owner, and told to “find a pair that fits and hope they don’t leak”. This was met with a sleepy laugh by the crew, who were still yawning and rubbing their eyes, waiting for the rising sun to wake them up fully.

I slid into a pair of cold and damp waders, threw a thick, yellow, waterproof anorak on, and trounced around to the back of the shed where we all jumped onto a trailer that was hitched to a tractor.

The engine growled as it sat, like a mechanical horse, waiting obediently to pull us along the shoreline to where the barge was docked.

The driver of the tractor, Trevor, with his fisherman’s beanie and beard down to his chest, turned around to see was everything on board, and with a thumbs up he released the clutch and we began to roll along the rocky strand.

Squatting on bent knees holding onto the sides of the trailer, we bounced along, having our heads shook back and forth. Light was beginning to break from the east through the clouds and it shimmered across the plateau of water that flows between Great Island and the mainland north of it.

ENJOY: Rossmore Oysters.
ENJOY: Rossmore Oysters.

Rossmore Farm is located south of Carrigtwohill on the banks of the estuary. It was built in the 1960s by Rupert’s father David Hugh-Jones. Rupert and his brother Tristan were raised on the farm and immersed in their father’s craft from an early age.

Today, they oversee the running of the farm, with David taking on a consultant’s role; his many decades of knowledge still a massive asset. A lot of the work takes place in the shed that David built, but the actual growth of oysters happens out in the water of the harbour.

We pulled up to the barge and we began to pull it in with the rope that was tied onto it. Just as it touched the banks, the troop began to haul the bags of tiny oyster seedlings onto the barge.

This particular species of oyster, the Pacific Oyster, isn’t native to Europe, but has been introduced from Asian waters. Also known as the Japanese Oyster, it’s been exported around the world for its soft and plump, gloriously edible texture.

The waters around Great Island have been known oyster grounds for many hundreds of years. The rich flow of inland freshwater and the sea tide creates a swell of nutritiously dense water; perfect for filter feeding molluscs, such as oysters.

It’s this rich habitat that enables them to grow as well as they do. They can take up to three years before they’re market ready.

Once the hundreds of rectangular, stiff, mesh bags were stacked on the barge, we headed east toward the lower harbour at East Ferry. The barge chugged along slowly with the dawn wind blasting at our faces.

This place is special early in the morning. With the sun barely peeling its way through the overlapping clumps of clouds, beams of light would occasionally bounce off the marbling river flow. Like a molten mirror it carried us south, along with the high-pitched buzz of the two-stroke engine.

We passed the Holy Trinity Church on our left, nestled in greenery, sitting there a stone’s throw from the water in pure silence. And we passed Marlogue Forest on the right, with its pine trees standing steep on the gradient, being glossed with patches of breaking sun.

As the tide was out (which is when this work has to occur) many rows of steel trestles were left exposed. The goal was to now unload the bags and hook them onto the trestles, leaving the tides to do the rest of the work, washing these baby oysters with food-filled water.

Rupert showed me an older bag that had been attached to a trestle for a few months. It was nearly filled with perfectly formed, tiny oysters a few centimetres in length.

If the bags were left to sit there for too long, the oysters would be pushed into a corner of the bag by the motion of the tides and then they would grow into one another — rendering them useless for market.

A job of the day was to unhook these older bags and separate any oysters that might be too cramped by spreading them throughout the bags, by hitting the sides of the bag with a stick and loosening them up from one another.

Men working at Rossmore Oyster Farm, located south of Carrigtwohill. 	Picture: Joleen Cronin, courtesy of Rossmore Oyster Farm
Men working at Rossmore Oyster Farm, located south of Carrigtwohill. Picture: Joleen Cronin, courtesy of Rossmore Oyster Farm

The rows of trestles were manned at either side and it was time to get to work, leaning over and unhooking, lifting up, whacking the sides of the bags until the oysters rested in the loose and spacious centre, and then hooking them back on again. An arduous process, but on a relatively calm morning, the serene surroundings made it a peaceful endeavour.

Trudging alongside the trestles, mud would easily slide up past the ankles and, in certain spots. I’d sink to halfway up my shin. Occasionally I’d come across old oyster shells — huge and possibly many years old. In the wild they can grow for decades.

The morning was mostly hours of turning bags — with long periods of silence and occasional outbursts of banter to keep ourselves amused. Once the job was done we jumped back on the barge and headed north to the warm and dry shed.

I was eager to get changed as I picked a pair of waders with a tiny puncture hole so my right leg was searing with frost. I wanted to experience a morning on an oyster farm and having a leg that needed defrosting was simply part of the trade.

Rossmore Oysters can be found at Mahon Point Farmers’ Market every Thursday, and at Douglas Farmers’ Market every Saturday. You can order online through their website too. www.rossmoreoysters.com. Also follow them Instagram: @rossmoreoysters. You can also check out the Farmers’ markets at @douglasmarket @mahonpointmarket

Next week: An Orchard in West Cork.

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