If Oban is the “Seafood Capital of Scotland” (and, undoubtedly, it is), then Judith Vajk at Caledonian Oysters may well be its queen. Known as “the Oyster Lady”, Judith and her husband, Hugo, have been farming oysters for more than 20 years. This month we visit Judith at the farm on the scenic shores of Loch Creran near Benderloch, under the shadow the majestic Mountains of Movern. We’ll learn how oysters are produced, and clear up misconceptions about oysters that make some folks a bit reluctant to try them.
Originally from Perthshire, Judith was a medical secretary when she went to France and met Hugo, who had just started working for an oyster farm in Normandy. Wanting to start their own farm, they moved to tiny Herm Island, part of the Channel Isles. “We lived there for ten years, got married and had two of our children,” shares Judith. “Though there was a primary school on the island, the children had to board on Guernsey for secondary education so we decided to leave the island and move to Scotland. We had several customers here selling part-grown oysters to them, and we knew that it was a good growing area.”
Though oysters are considered a delicacy in places such as France and the United States, the story was a bit different in Scotland when the Vajks began. “I started doing farmers’ markets in 2001 in Perth, Stirling and Glasgow,” Judith says. “I had a difficult time at first persuading people to try an oyster. I was lucky if I sold 50 oysters! Now I normally sell at least 800 - on the half shell to eat there and then, or to take home.”
The reluctance for folks to try oysters (raw or cooked) may stem from misapprehensions about the shellfish. For, as Jonathon Swift said, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” But, as Judith explains, these mistaken beliefs should not discourage the intrepid gourmet.
“Many people are seafood lovers, but have been worried about trying an oyster,” she says. “The theory that they must be swallowed whole has definitely put a lot of people off.”
Another common misconception is that oysters can only be consumed during certain times of the year. But, in Scotland, oysters don’t spawn - the reason that oysters from other parts of the world are not favoured for eating at certain times.
Oysters are an excellent source of zinc, iron, calcium and vitamins, but are very low in calories. And the old axiom that oysters are an aphrodisiac? This may well be true, as researchers found that they are rich in amino acids that trigger increased levels of sex hormones, and the zinc aids in production of testosterone. Can I get another round of oysters, here please!
From their facility, the Vajks farm the variety Crassostrea Gigas, a Pacific species that does not breed naturally in Scottish waters. Caledonian produces about 100 tonnes of oysters per year. They buy starters from hatcheries, mainly from Guernsey and Whitstable - two million seed oysters per year, which measure about five millimetres. The seeds are put into mesh bags and fastened to trestle tables that sit on the seabed near the shore. Accessible at low tide, Hugo and three full-time employees turn the bags on a regular basis. As they grow, they go into bigger bags until, in about three years, they get to size. “Different customers want different sizes,” Judith explains. “Some are a better size for eating raw and some for cooking.”
When they are ready to harvest, the oysters are fed through a sorting machine, which weighs each one three times on a belt before sendingit into sorting chutes, and then they are graded for final sale. The Environmental Protection Agency tests the oysters regularly, and they are graded Class A, which means they are fit for immediate consumption, or Class B, which means they go into a tank of seawater and are exposed to ultraviolet light for 48 hours in a process called depuration. For the consumer, this process means that every oyster is safe to eat, raw or cooked. When they are ready to go, the Vajks distribute the oysters themselves locally, and a company out of Edinburgh distributes further afield.
Ever the outdoors girl, one of Judith’s favourite parts of the job is working outside. “Even when it’s miserable it is great to be outdoors,” she admits. But she also likes getting out and about. “It’s not a very sociable job, so I like doing farmers’ markets. I like persuading people to try oysters. Seeing a person’s face when they have tried one for the first time-and love it- that has to be up there with my favourite things.”
Look for Judith at area farmers’ markets as well as the Festival of the Sea at the Ocean Explorer Centre May 31. “We are having a seafood day with oysters, mussels, crab, seaweed and scallops all being cooked up for people to eat during the day.”
Also look for Caledonian Oysters on the menu of fine area restaurants such as Ee-usk, The Pierhouse and Argyll's only Michelin starred restaurant at the Isle of Eriska Hotel.
And the Oyster Lady’s preferred way to enjoy her bounty? “My favourite way to eat an oyster raw is with a squeeze of lemon and a drop of Tabasco. I also love them grilled with Parmesan and cream - very simply done.”
24 Caledonian oysters
175 ml double cream
25 g freshly grated Parmesan cheese
50 g butter, melted
Freshly ground black pepper
Pre-heat grill on high. Open the oysters and pour off most of the juice, leaving a bit for the salt content (no extra salt required) andset them directly on the grill rack. Spoon 1 ½ teaspoons of cream over each oyster, season with black pepper. Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over and drizzle with melted butter. Grill for about one minute until the cheese is golden. Serve immediately. Bon appetite!