THE NORTH East’s only oyster firm has shored up new wholesale orders after investing in equipment allowing it to massively ramp up production.
Lindisfarne Oysters are supplying top London restaurant supplier Wright Brothers, which could lead to extra jobs on the oyster farm and fulfil the family run business’s ambitions to export oysters to France.
The business, based off the rugged coast of Holy Island at Ross Farm in the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, received grant funding from the UK’s Marine Management Organisation and the European Fisheries Fund (EFF) to pay for the new Linear Grader and Washer.
The £100,000 plant, comprising of machinery made by French company Forge Marine Hardouin, means a dramatic increase in the number of Lindisfarne Oysters that can be processed.
The machine, installed by Berwick-upon-Tweed builder George Hepburn, is capable of washing and sorting up to 9,000 oysters an hour, which has paved the way for the company to clinch larger, wholesale contracts such as supplying Wright Brothers’ requirements of between 4000 to 5000 oyster a week order.
The farm has now set itself the initial target of supplying 250,000 oysters a year and ultimately aims to process one million shellfish per annum by 2015.
Christopher Sutherland, who runs Lindisfarne Oysters with his wife Helen and their three children, said: “The equipment sorts and grades the same quantity of oysters that we used to do in a day using a pair of scales, in two hours.
“It means we can supply lots of oysters which we couldn’t do before.
“When I first took over the farm from my father in 2003 the numbers of oysters we produced was very low, but we’ve continued to build our knowledge and skills and hope to eventually produce up to 250,000 a year by 2013.
“This is the second grant we’ve received through European funding schemes, the first was in 2007 for a specialist oyster boat, which made the process of farming the oysters significantly easier.
“The latest grant will help us significantly with our expansion plans as it will help us to put the necessary infrastructure in place.”
The first record of native oysters at Lindisfarne was in 1381. The current commercial venture, using Pacific oysters, was started by Christopher’s father John in 1989.
The new machine washes the shellfish to remove impurities, seaweed and grit. The equipment then sorts the shellfish by size and divides them into weighed bags. Oysters are not sold until they weigh at least 70g and are three to four years old.
The smaller specimens are graded and separated into nylon mesh bags to be returned to their trestle tables on the oyster beds facing Holy Island.
Those big enough for the table go through a 42 hour purification cycle, using water that has been passed through a UV light to zap any bacteria, before setting for fishmongers and restaurants.
London fish and shell fish retailer, restaurateurs and wholesalers, The Wright Brothers, specialise in a sea to plate philosophy.
The company supplies Lindisfarne oysters to both their Borough Market and Soho seafood restaurants and many top London eateries such as Bibendum, J.Sheekeys and Hix.
Their product list currently features Duchy Estate Natives, Wild Colchester Rocks, Brownsea Island Rocks and Jersey Rocks alongside Lindisfarne oysters.
Michael Walder, wholesale development manager of Wright Brothers said:
“Restaurants like to have a circular supply of oysters – they will use oysters from one region for a while, and move onto another in order to offer variety and to maintain quality for their clientele. We look to list oyster suppliers who are consistent with their quality, supply and there also needs to be a story in place about their product and provenance. A combination of these needs to be in place for us to list a product.”
Lindisfarne Oyster employs eight people and Christopher hopes the much faster processing times will lead to more jobs – and help him achieve one of his ambitions.
He said: “I’ve always wanted to export oysters to France – it’s just like coals to Newcastle.
“Now we can process them so much faster, that has become a realistic proposition.”
The business is a member of regional food group, Taste North East, which works to find new markets and opportunities for local food and drink businesses.
Taste North East business development manager, Jane Hogan, said: “Lindisfarne Oysters is a great example of a real niche, local food business which is attracting nationwide attention because of its quality products.
“Now that the Sutherland family have the capability of producing so many more oysters, it really opens up the opportunities available to them.
“We are working to identify new routes to markets with other wholesalers – and we’re confident that French oyster lovers will soon be able to get a taste of Northumberland.”