Fal Oyster is the name given to oysters caught in the designated area using traditional sailing and rowing vessels between the period of October 1st and March 31st.
The ‘Fal Oyster’ is of the oyster species Ostrea edulis commonly known as a flat oyster or native oyster. It has a less than round or uneven, oval-shaped shell with a rough scaly surface. The shell is brown or cream in colour with light brown or bluish concentric bands on the outer surfaces. The inner surfaces are very smooth and pearly and white or bluish-grey, often with darker blue areas.
The two halves (valves) of the shell are different shapes. The left valve is concave and fixed to the substratum, the right being flat and sitting inside the left. The oyster can grow to about 110 mm. The ‘Fal Oyster’ is only harvested between October 1st and March 31st using traditional methods unique to the area.
The organoleptic qualities have been characterised as follows by the Shellfish Association of Great Britain -
Finish: lingering light tin and copper finish
Texture: firm and salty
Appearance: the flesh is cream coloured while the fringes are opaque and grey.
After harvesting and depuration, the oysters are sold live ‘in shell’ to retail outlets or delivered to restaurants throughout the United Kingdom as well as being exported abroad. The shelf life of the live product is approximately five days.
The area where the ‘Fal Oyster’ is produced can be described as within the Truro Port Fishery. The legal limits of which are described in the fishery order (1936, amended 1975) as all those parts of the Truro and Falmouth Harbours and of the bed of the Truro, Fal and Tresillian Rivers containing an area of 2 721 acres (1,101 hectares).
This area can be described as north of a line drawn between Trefusis Point and St Mawes Castle to Mean Low Water Mark of an Ordinary Tide. The edge of the fishery is the Mean Low Water Mark and this coincides with the coast except at the entrance of each creek indicating the upper limits of the fishery at Mylor, St Just and Malpas.
The defined area is the only regulatory oyster fishery for the native oyster in the south-west of England.
The Fal is a natural and wild fishery where the oysters are not cultured or bred. There is a small amount of ‘husbandry’ of the wild and natural beds as during the process of fishing the substrate (cultch) is moved by the dredge. This keeps the fishery in good heart, and the occasional extra dredging of the beds without harvesting (described as harrowing) further improves the oyster beds and encourages a good spatfall (young oysters) to settle.
The rivers of the Fal area are fed from steep sided valleys and have rich mineral and biological content. The estuary is also very deep and so the water circulates as well as changing through each tide. This unique environment generates plankton on which the oysters then feed. In addition, evidence shows that the mines around Cornwall are all wet mines which have to be pumped or are naturally emptied into the Carnon Valley which leads to the Fal estuary and catchment area. This water is high in minerals which are unique to the area. It is these minerals, specifically copper and zinc, which contribute to the distinctive metallic taste of ‘Fal Oysters’. Consequently, the ‘Fal Oyster’ is organoleptically different from other oysters in the area.
The strong link between the fishery area and the product is evident from the records of the fishery which describe the operation of catching, growing and marketing the ‘Fal Oyster’ in and around the Fal River and adjacent rivers. Historic records describe sailing and rowing boats fishing by using dredges. The descriptions are very similar to the methods and equipments used today. There are numerous records describing historic and contemporary catching methods, which no other area uses. Following historic and traditional methods, the dredges are towed by sailing or rowing boats and there is no motor power used to harvest the oysters. This long-standing tradition of fishing is evident in the knowledge and equipment passed down through generations of fishermen. There is evidence that the vessels used have been passed down through generations and some of the vessels are over 100 years old. Examples of the skills handed down include the ability to locate the oysters, the careful handling of the catch and the methods of dredging particular oyster beds depending on the tide and wind. Historic references throughout the 1800s refer to the trade in oyster harvesting and growing in the Falmouth Harbour area which included fishing, growing, sorting and selling the oysters.
During the 1900s bye-laws were made to restrict the fishing methods to the traditional techniques, particularly only allowing sailing and rowing, and also to protect the fishery for the long term. However, the fleet of about 100 vessels was catastrophically reduced in the 1980s when an oyster disease severely reduced stocks and made fishing unprofitable. The recovery from the disease has been slow but the fleet has gradually expanded and a group called the Oyster Fishery Management Group has brought together fishermen, processors and the regulator to manage the fishery.
The characteristics of the ‘Fal Oyster’ are linked to the area on the basis of the local tradition of the harvesting method which is unique to the area. The fishing method uses dredges which are towed across the seabed by sailing and rowing vessels. These dredges and vessels are in the same style as those used historically and which date back to descriptions from 1750.
The use of the name ‘Fal Oyster’ and its reputation for fine taste and quality has grown through the hard work of the processors and members of the Oyster Fishery Management Group. All members use the name ‘Fal Oyster’ and present a high-quality product for sale via the wholesale supply chain and then onwards where they are highly sought after for the restaurant trade both in the United Kingdom and further afield.
Since 1996, the Fal Oyster festival has been held to celebrate the start of the oyster dredging season, the diversity and quality of Cornish seafood and in particular, one of the last remaining traditional oyster fisheries, dredging by sail and hand punt. The renowned chef, Rick Stein supports the festival and has opened a restaurant in the town of Falmouth which includes a seafood bar to celebrate the ‘Fal Oyster’. The ‘Fal Oyster’ has also been celebrated in film, cookery books and by food journalists.
‘Fal Oysters’ haves been recognised by the Slow Food movement’s ‘Ark of Taste’ and are described as being from one of the only remaining stocks of native oysters in the United Kingdom.