Standard bearers: Richard Haward's Oysters

Categories: Behind the stalls

In a regular series that explores the story and philosophy of the Market’s Slow Food approved traders, this month we talk to Richard Haward, owner of Richard Haward’s Oysters

Three hundred years. That’s how long oyster fishing has been in the Haward family, making Richard Haward, the current proprietor, the seventh generation. When it comes to being steeped in tradition, this Slow Food standard bearer and stalwart of Borough Market is about as steeped as it gets.

“Seawater runs through our family’s veins” he says, and it’s hard to argue otherwise for—while the familyy no longer use sailing boats—they still use traditional methods that date back centuries, Richard’s father learning from his father, he from his and so on. And there’s no sign of it ending. Richard’s own son is out on the water as we speak.

Diligently dredging the oysters from the River Blackwater, they take “only what we can sell” before throwing back the smaller ones to go forth and multiply. “Oysters live for three years at least before spawning, so we don’t take those that are any younger than four years old,” Richard explains.

Plump, flatter, firmer
The tidal nature of the shallow, plankton-rich oyster beds to which they transfer the wee molluscs means they are rich in nutrients, drawn in on the tide from the estuary marshes. The resulting shellfish are plump, flatter, firmer than their crusty rock oyster contemporaries and, Richard would argue, tastier. Yet they are also far rarer, hence their inclusion in Slow Food UK’s increasingly precious Ark of Taste.

“They are in short supply, the native oyster, for a number of reasons”: climate change leading to warmer waters, run-off from fertilisers, weed-killers and pesticides—and, looming on the horizon, the possibility of a new power station makes them one of Britain’s more endangered food sources.

Richard is currently applying to be a Slow Food Presidia producer. “That means we’ll get extra protection and support for our case against the power station. My fear is power stations use a lot of water. That’s a lot of oyster and plankton larvae that will be dead by the time the water comes out again.”

Long-term viability
Richard hopes to be in the Presidia by June, and he’s already one of the slowest of Slow Food traders. His approach is all about maintaining the long-term viability of the oyster population. By law, native oysters can only be harvested  between 4th August and 14th May, and no more than 20 per cent of stock is taken annually.

Distinctive not just to Britain, but to the exact area in which they are harvested, each plump, carefully cultivated bivalve is the very epitome of what Slow Food aims to represent. “If you take a native oyster from Cornwall or from Ireland, they are totally different. I know, I’ve tasted them.”

Blessed as they are with the Blackwater River’s unusually high salt content, the natives Richard finds are saltier, crisper, “with slightly more bite” than the rest.

The old skiff
Processing is minimal: indeed, it’s hardly a process. Having been dredged from the deeper waters off the back of the old skiff Richard’s father used, they are transferred to the creeks to fatten for a few more months. Once on land, the oysters are put in purification tanks for 42 hours, as required of all oysters by law.

They grade them by hand—a task that is largely Richard’s, now his son’s at sea and he is “a little old” for oyster dredging. “Then take them to market and sell them. That’s it really,” he says simply.

Raise your champagne glasses to the Haward’s oysters remaining that way for 300 years more.