Scottish isle's uncommon crop Oysters: Most farmers in this remote area of Scotland raise sheep and cattle, but Patrick Cadzow has found contentment and a steady trade in growing the shellfish.

Sun Journal

August 10, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SEIL, Scotland -- Like his forebears, Patrick Cadzow is a farmer. But instead of raising crops and cattle on this wind-swept spit of land that looks over the Firth of Lorn, he grows his crop in the frigid, salty water.

Cadzow raises oysters.

"We'll never be rich," Cadzow says. "But it's a way of life."

In an emerald corner of northwestern Scotland, where the sky is gray, the landscape is rugged and the sheep outnumber the people, Cadzow has found contentment -- and a steady trade.

He is the oysterman who clings to the land, a big, bluff 50-year-old with a firm handshake, a strong back and a ready smile.

Unlike those who dredge for native oysters, Cadzow doesn't have to wait until certain times of the year to pluck his crop. At low tide, he can pull on waterproof boots, walk through marshy land, wade into the water and tend his oysters like a jeweler rooting through a bag of diamonds.

Thousands of oysters are arrayed in mesh bags that look like potato sacks and sit on trestles that extend a quarter mile across an inlet toward the open sea. They lap up the water and grow.

"An oyster is drowning as the water filters through," Cadzow says. "It's the water that is important. It has to be cold -- but not too cold. And it has to be clean."

It takes three years of nurturing, of turning bags, sorting sizes and thinning the crop, so that only the best oysters remain, ready for market.

From each fist-sized shell comes a succulent oyster that fetches about 30 cents wholesale. The oysters are shipped to supermarkets and fancy London restaurants, where they might command up to $1.60 each for one sweet, slimy mouthful. Cadzow harvests 250,000 shells a year.

"In the old days in Edinburgh, oysters were a poor man's food," Cadzow says. "They used to supplement steak and kidney pie. They used oysters to give the pie that kidney taste."

Now, growing oysters in Scotland provides a way to scratch out a living.

"It's not romance," Cadzow says. "It's commerce."

Cadzow's firm, Lorn Atlantic Oysters, is part of the 18-member Scottish Shellfish Marketing Group, a farmers' cooperative.

"We're just getting out of the cottage industry stage," says Phil Marshall, who heads the marketing group. "A lot of people are just not turned on by eating live oysters. One minute, you open the shell, and then, the next, you bang the oyster down the throat."

Oyster farming was introduced here some 20 years ago. Cultivating oysters goes back to ancient Chinese and Romans.

Scotland produces nearly 3 million shells of oysters annually, which is about the number harvested in one large-scale family business in France, Europe's oyster-leader. In Scotland, the farmers cultivate so-called Pacific oysters, which are hardier than the domestic oysters.

"You look at the native oysters in a farmed environment, and they die," Marshall says.

Native oysters are still harvested in pockets around the Scottish west coast. But the native breed is a rare catch.

"Gatherers come at low tide and harvest the native oysters," Marshall says. "There are some divers who go for them, too."

It takes a patient man like Cadzow to grow an oyster. His family has lived in this remote stretch of Scotland since after World War II, when his father came home from battle and bought 4,000 acres of nearby land to breed cattle.

"I think it's the honesty that keeps you in a place like this," Cadzow says. "You've got openness. Everyone knows each other.

"The worst part of living here is the weather. Sometimes, you go two and three weeks with rain. There is a grayness about the place. I think you have to be from this area to appreciate the way of life. Only a certain type of person would like it."

It's hard living. Londoners who come up here often claim they're in a time-warp, Cadzow says.

"They say it must be terrible," he says. "But we're not so fat-cat up here."

Beauty is imprinted on every rock and at every bend. To get on the island, you snake 16 miles south from the port town of Oban, and then put your car in low gear and climb up the arched, limestone Clachan Bridge, built in 1791 and crossing water that flows from the Atlantic Ocean.

Then, it's best to stop in at the Tigh-An-Truish Inn, a popular tourist stop where the ale bites the belly and the fire warms the feet.

Seil is a place of small farms and whitewashed cottages. It's a haven for fishermen. And it provides shelter for those who want to quietly retire. There used to be a slate quarry nearby, but it closed in the 1950s. Those who work often commute to Oban, with its string of shops and hotels and its ferries to Scotland's western islands.

Away from the main road, down a dirt track that leads to tTC pasture, is where Cadzow does his work with a hired hand or two. He has been farming oysters since 1989. Before that, he spent 20 years raising cattle and sheep on rented land.

"Farming oysters is management -- just like cattle," he says. "It's husbandry, basically."

Cadzow calls the farming "quite fun." But he has to supplement his income selling feed and fertilizer.

He works outdoors, amid scenery so spectacular it looks as if someone has just haphazardly draped the hills with miles and miles of plush velvet. Sheep graze on a bank. The nearby island of Mull is enveloped in mist.

Cadzow bends over the water and turns the bags. He keeps track of the oysters, shaking them, making sure they're alive. And finally, after years of waiting like an expectant parent, he takes his catch into a garage and washes and weighs the oysters before sending them to market.

"Each oyster probably takes 10 minutes worth of work over three years," he says.

Is all that time -- multiplied by hundreds of thousands of oysters -- worth it?

Just taste the product.

"There's nothing better than a cold oyster on a hot day," Cadzow says. "Put them on a bed of ice, with a wee touch of lemon and hot sauce. Lovely."

Pub Date: 8/10/98

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