Nestled under the sparkling waters of Loch Ryan in south west Scotland is one of the rarest and most precious oyster beds in the world – Scotland’s last wild, native oyster fishery. Once widespread around Scotland and much of the UK, the native oyster, Ostrea edulis, was fished to near extinction in previous centuries which makes the native oysters, sustainably harvested from Loch Ryan, particularly sought after.
This weekend Loch Ryan oysters are the focal point of Scotland’s first major oyster festival, taking place just a stone’s throw from the oyster bed itself, and it’s a unique opportunity to try these delicacies in their home town. Native oysters are flatter and rounder than their farmed cousins, and their slow rate of growth can give them an intense and complex flavour.
Oysters from different native oyster beds have different flavour profiles, and Loch Ryan natives are considered to have a firm texture with a plump, almost crisp, bite to them. They are salty and nutty, with a pure flavour of the sea. Oysters have been prized from this bed for millennia, and legend has it that Julius Caesar once wrote that Loch Ryan oysters are the best in the world.
The Loch Ryan oyster bed is a managed wild fishery and the rights to harvest oysters here dates back to 1701, when King William III granted a Royal Charter of the oyster bed to the Wallace family. The family live on the shores of the Loch, and the oyster bed has been in the care of their family ever since.
Visitors to the first Stranraer Oyster Festival taking place form 15th – 17th September will have the opportunity to sample and learn about Loch Ryan oysters direct from the Wallace family and from the team who manage the beds. While oysters are the focus, the festival seeks to celebrate the wider local food and drink heritage of the town of Stranraer, with a strong focus on local seafood.
The festival programme is packed with cookery demonstrations, classes and tasting sessions, including a giant seafood paella which will showcase locally caught shellfish from around south west Scotland to introduce local people and visitors to the diverse seafood of the south west. Oyster boat, The Vital Spark, will even be letting children experience ‘Extreme Pond Dipping’ or Loch Ryan dipping as they bring ashore a dredge from the loch floor for children to sort through oysters, starfish and lots more!
Stranraer Development Trust, who are organising the festival, have also partnered with Seafood Scotland to launch the Scottish Shucking Championships. Set to be hotly contested by some of the best seafood chefs in the country, the winner will go on to represent Scotland at the World Oyster Opening Championship held in Galway later this month.
By putting their local oysters centre stage, the community of Stranraer is shining a spotlight on the rich local larder of their host region. Visitors to the Stranraer Oyster Festival are in for a treat, with a 50-stall strong local produce market including craft gins and ales, smoked salmon, artisan cheese and deliciously sweet treats.
“We wanted to create a festival that would create a late summer tourism highlight to attract visitors to Stranraer. Food tourism is one of the fastest growing tourism sectors in the UK, and Stranraer’s heritage means the town is perfectly placed to capitalise on that growing interest in themed food festivals. By organising a festival that showcases the stunning beauty of Loch Ryan, the unique seafood that resides within the Loch and the warmth of the people of Stranraer we are looking forward to showing off our beautiful town to the world.
“Oysters might be considered a luxury food, but oyster festivals are not elitist. Oyster festivals take the oyster as a focal point and then create a celebration of local food, local culture and the local community around it. That’s what we’ve done with this new festival, and for visitors who don’t want to try a Loch Ryan Oyster, we’ll have plenty of oyster ice creams available for people to indulge in a seaside favourite!”
Throw in the passionate support of oyster fan Hardeep Singh Kohli, live music, performances and fireworks and it looks like Stranraer has come up with a recipe for food tourism success.
With thanks to Andy Smith Photography www.andysmithuk.com