Oyster shortage on the horizon as French seek new supplies
October 22 2012 Lewis Smith
Oysters at Ondine
Romantics hoping to tuck into the food of love are facing a shortage of oysters in the UK, producers have warned.
The French, who have a reputation as the world’s greatest lovers, are so hungry for UK oysters that they are buying up all they can find, causing a shortfall in the UK.
Intense competition from across the Channel for UK oysters is also pushing prices up to record levels, with increases of up to 30 per cent for each of the last three years.
The surge in demand is a welcome boost for producers but is forcing chefs to reconsider whether oysters should remain on their menus, and is a severe dampener on the ardour of romantic gourmets.
Oysters have been considered an aphrodisiac since at least Roman times and Casanova, the 18th century Venetian lothario who claimed to have seduced 122 women, used to eat 50 for breakfast. Modern science suggests that there is more to it than just an old wives’ tale - they are high in zinc, which is important for the libido of both men and women, and they are high in rare amino acids which have been linked to the production of sex hormones.
French demand for UK oysters is being driven by a disease, a new micro-variant of oyster herpesvirus (OsHV), which is killing stocks in France in their millions. Occasional outbreaks have been known in the UK but in France the disease is widespread and is wiping out a large proportion of the country’s oysters before they even have a chance to breed to produce the next generation.
In the UK 1,100 tonnes of oysters are produced each year and French buyers are thought to be taking up to 15 per cent of the fully grown shellfish. In France there is a much greater appetite for them and in a good year annual production is 130,000 tonnes.
David Jarrad, director of the Shellfish Association, said the French are looking not just for oysters to eat now but for the young shellfish that can be used to restock their lost oyster beds.
“The French have been over to the UK and are buying as much as they can, both in market size oysters for market use but also in half-grown stocks and in seed stocks,” he said. “It is squeezing our growers at both ends. That’s undoubtably had an effect on production and there is very likely going to be a significant shortage this winter in the UK.
“Where six or seven years ago we were grumbling that the price hadn’t changed for 20 years but all the costs had shot up, prices have now shot up by 20 to 30 per cent per year for the past three years. Prices are dramatically on the move.”
The main shortage in the UK is going to be for rock oysters but there is also a knock-on effect on native oysters. Restaurant owners looking for supplies are facing costs of 40-65p per rock oyster and up to £1.25 for each native oyster. Diners can pay £15 or more for half a dozen rock oysters, also known as gigas or Pacific oysters.
Richard Emans, director of the Malden Oyster Company in Essex, is delighted at the French interest and said: “There will be a shortage. The French are just very hungry for oysters and are holding the price up. Demand is outstripping supply. I think it’s brilliant. We might actually earn some money. Five years ago we used to struggle for customers. Now we have more customers than oysters.”
Roy Brett, chef and owner of Ondine restaurant in Edinburgh, said oysters have become increasingly popular in the UK in recent years but fears the price rise and shortage will stifle the growth and make them, once again, a “rich man’s food”.
“We have a growing culture for oysters in the UK. There’s a genuine excitement for oysters at the moment,” he said. “If they take the price so far up and send too many to Europe, it’s only going to affect our demand.”
Andrei Lussmann, of Lussmanns Fish and Grill restaurants in St Albans and Hertford, said oysters are a now premium-end food: “We generally don’t do oysters because of price, availability and for other reasons. They’re very expensive. If we did do it we would need to do it properly and sustainably. We steer away from them–but we’ve just put on some fantastic mussels.”
Matt Sankey, of Sankey’s in Tunbridge Wells, has been relatively unaffected, which he puts down to always paying on time and having a long-standing relationship with his suppliers: “We’ve been using these companies for years. While they do have a lot of trade with France they know that trade is now but it might not be there next year. We will. What they are very keen to do is look after their bread and butter.”
The herpesvirus affecting stocks in France can be present in stocks for long periods without affecting their health until something, and scientists are mystified as to what, triggers it to kill the oysters. Once it strikes, mortality is high, usually 85 to 100 per cent. It is not thought to have any implications for human health.
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