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Standard bearers: Wright Brothers

Categories: Behind the stalls

The story and philosophy behind Slow Food approved trader Wright Brothers

Gary Hooberman, wholesale operations director at Wright Brothers, has recently returned from Jersey when we meet on a bitter winter afternoon in Borough Market. “We were there on the coast at low tide, wandering around in the middle of the sea looking at oyster beds until the waters started to rise. It was beautiful,” he concludes simply.

Short of catching it themselves, nurturing such close relationships with their producers is as much as the Wright Brothers can do to ensure they source and supply fish and shellfish in accordance with Slow Food principles. “For me personally, it is vital: to see these people, to understand what they do and to build relationships with them.” The weekend in Jersey involved at least one visit to the local watering hole. “There’s not much else to do there,” Gary grins.

Needless to say, there’s more to oyster buying than that—and there’s more to the Wright Brothers than oysters, as Gary’s at pains to point out: lobsters, crabs, clams, mussels and an array of wet fish can all be found at their restaurant and wholesale stall. The smoked salmon comes from Severn and Wye Smokery, where “nothing is added but salt and smoke” to salmon either caught wild in accordance with MSC standards, or sustainably farmed.

“For the wet fish, we focus on small to medium fish merchants, who respect the quotas within their fishing area and cause minimum environmental damage,” Gary continues. Many of these producers he has known for more than two decades, reflecting the strong family feeling instilled in the Wright brothers’ company by virtue of it being run, as you may have guessed, by the eponymous family and their friends.

Old, established ports
“We stick to the old, established ports—Brixham, Plymouth, Newhaven, Grimsby—which are watertight, if you’ll excuse the pun, when it comes to monitoring these things,” he continues. Such stringency might sound a bit dry, but it is a vital framework in the sustainable fishing game, without which the Wright Brothers promise, ‘from sea to plate’, would struggle to hold.

“In terms of wet, wild fish you want rod and line caught, or small net, ideally,” he says. As many as possible are caught by small Cornish day boats, but for certain fish such as red mullet, squid and mackerel, Wright Brothers will go as far as Boulogne, or Dunkirk in France, to ensure these quality standards are assured.

In fact, Wright Brothers arguably began over the Channel, when Ben Wright and his brother-in-law Robin Hancock started delivering Jerome Miet’s Speciales & Fine de Claire oysters to London restaurants in 2002. At that time, in the UK oysters were regarded the preserve of the wealthy—a stark contrast to their everyday, everyman status in France. They set out to bridge this divide, starting with French oysters and adding British oysters—including the rarer, more seasonal and flavourful native rock oysters —to their range in accordance with steadily growing demand.

In 2005, they started leasing an oyster farm on the Hereford River, whose owner, the Duke of Cornwall, no less, had recently launched an ambitious regeneration project. Cold winters, pollution and a devastating parasite in the eighties had decimated native oyster stocks country-wide, and farming mismanagement had compounded Helford’s problems. But with the river being home to some of the most perfect natural conditions for oyster cultivating, restoring the native oyster and the hardier, more common Pacific oyster to its former glory was a matter of care, attention, and time.

Prime conditions
Lots of time. Even now, with the bed established and prime conditions restored, the more common Pacific oyster takes two and a half to three years to reach market size; the native, double that time. Seed is sourced from a hatchery in Guernsey in order not to deplete wild stocks, and during its time at Wright Brothers’ Duchy oyster farm in Helford, each oyster is graded, graded again, ‘turned’ (to ensure the oysters don’t grow into each other or trap each other) and filtered before being deemed ready for Wright Brothers restaurants, along with Slow Food protected Fal oysters from the Cornish Estuary and many others, all of which equally carefully sourced.

“We source the best produce we can supply: the best clams, the best oysters, the best scallops”—hand dived from the Isles of Mull and Skye and leagues apart from anything dredged—“and we don’t cut corners. It’s tough to turn away business, but if it’s from the wrong place or not good enough,” Gary concludes simply, “I’d rather not have it at all.”