Fyne Time

 

There are 3 million oysters in Loch Fyne. That's a fact. Well, at least it's what Loch Fyne's marketing manager Virginia Sumsion told me. And as the sun began to set and the tide ebbed out of the head of the loch, there they all were; bagged up in plastic mesh sacks and resting on what looked like rusting metal sun-beds. The mollusks spend a total of 5 years doing nothing but eating plankton and growing; the first three in the oyster nursery at Oban sixty miles west of Loch Fyne, the final two in the loch itself. Lucky oysters - even on a misty day in September, the Loch surrounded by majestic mountains and glens was an extraordinary sight. ??As remote and peaceful as it felt, we were in fact little more than an hour's drive from Glasgow airport. But what a drive. We passed so close to the shore of Loch Lomond we could have cast for pike without getting out of the car. As we drove over Rest, and be Thankful, the highest point of the Glen Croe pass through the Arrochar Alps, the landscape visibly changed. Gray granite became black slate and we knew we were in the Highlands.
But the best way to experience all that the natural splendour is from the water. Yanis, one of a team of just seven that run the oyster and mussel farm (although in total, Loch Fyne employ around 120 staff) was waiting for us with his boat. Donning wellies and life jackets, we clambered inelegantly aboard. As we motored gently over the placid waters, I couldn't help but feel a little jealous of what seemed like an enviable job.
That was until Yanis explained about the storms, the winds that hurtled down the loch from the sea and the rough waters that had been strong enough to break several of the 10 metre-long mussel ropes that hang from lines of black bouys that bob on the surface of the water like world war two mines.

You might imagine that a company that processes millions of oysters and around a hundred tons of mussels a year would need some pretty substantial plant. In fact, all it takes are a few very ordinary looking, single storey buildings tucked away on the loch's southern shoreline. There you'll find a couple of relatively small processing machines, a room full of holding tanks where the shellfish are cleaned in UV filtered water (a belt and braces process as the loch water itself falls way below permitted pollution levels), some packing materials and that's about it.
All of which fits in nicely with Loch Fyne's ecological goals. "Nach Urramach an Cuan" proclaims the company website. Gaelic for "How worthy of honour is the sea", Loch Fyne say it encapsulates the way they run their company - "respect for animals, people and ecology. Commitment to independent producers using sustainable methods to produce high quality foods." It's a vision that goes back to Johnny Noble who started growing oysters, unsuccessfully at first, back in 1978 with business partner, the mairine biologist Andy Lane (Nobel, the Laird of Ardkinglas, died suddenly in 2002 but the family connection is maintained by Virginia Sumsion, Noble's niece).
Luckily, our visit coincided with the start of the harvesting season which runs from September to April so we're able to sample the goods at source. There is nothing quite like the salty tang of an oyster plucked fresh out of the water. At Loch Fyne, they reckon the freshwater from the mountains mixed with the loch's seawater creates the perfect environment for oysters and makes for a distinctive yet subtle flavour. Well, they would say that, but chewing (you don't have to swallow them down in one) on that nugget of marine goodness, it was difficult to disagree.     
On the opposite shore is the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar. As well as restaurant and shop serving and selling the companies own products along with top quality Scottish seafood, it also houses a fish processing plant and smokery where Loch Fyne's famous smoked salmon is made.
"Oysters are the icing on the cake business wise," explained Virgina over coffee and homemade scones in the baronial splendour of the dining room at Ardkinglas House. "The mainstay of the business is the smoked salmon and other smoked products we make in the smokehouse, simply because more people eat smoked salmon than eat oysters."
You can watch the fish filleters, hard at work dressed in their white caps, blue overalls and yellow aprons through a picture window in the shop. Razor sharp knives sliced effortlessly from tail to head, separating salmon flesh quickly and efficiently from bone. Each person will process up to 250 fish a day, more at Christmas when around 7,000 fish will fall under those flashing blades.  
It's only when we went "backstage" for a closer look that we discovered that this timeless scene was being enacted to a deafeningly loud techno soundtrack. I tried to forget how ridiculous I looked in my disposable hairnet, white coat and shoe covers and concentrate on production manager Raymond Macaffer's explanation of how Loch Fyne make their smoked salmon.
It's a simple enough process: the fillets are first washed in fresh water to remove the salt the filleters use to grip the fish to the work surface. The fish are dry cured in a mixture of salt and brown sugar for 17 hours at a temperature of 8ºC and then transferred to one of four kilns. Two smaller kilns are used for hot smoking which both cooks and flavours the flesh, and two larger kilns for cold smoking which produces the smoked salmon we're all familiar with.

The cold smoking process takes between 12 and 24 hours depending on air temperature and humidity. Cold and dry conditions mean a faster smoke, hot and humid slower. The fish is ready when the skin has become dry, the flesh turned an orangey-red and the fish begins to "perspire" and beads of oil appear on its surface. The fire box is stoked with wood chips made from old whiskey barrels which lend their own particular smokey notes. Wet sawdust, made from the same barrels prevents the box catching light and creates the smoke.  
The result, as I discovered at dinner at the Oyster Bar that night is quite different from most of the smoked salmon you'll find on the high street. Pale orange in colour, the delicate smokiness lends complexity but doesn't completely dominate so that you can still taste the fish. A squeeze of lemon is all it needed and definately no brown bread which would only have masked those exquisite flavours.
My second journey over Rest, and be Thankful was less enjoyable. The scenery was just as magnificent, but promised only a boring couple of hours at the airport rather than the Fyne time that had been in store for me the first time I'd passed through those black hills. I'm told that all it takes is one Loch Fyne oyster and you're right back in the Highlands - the culinary equivilent of clicking your heels three times. It hasn't quite worked for me so far, but I haven't given up yet. A dozen of your finest please barman, and a cheeky glass of Sancerre while you're at it.
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