Food is a subjective subject – ask half a dozen locals for their recommendations for somewhere wonderful to eat in Oban and Lorn and you will probably receive six different answers. That demonstrates the strength and breadth of the food and drink offering in the area and with Oban known universally now as the ‘Seafood Capital of Scotland’ it is no surprise to find fresh fish and shellfish on many local menus.
History and Heritage
Oban’s long association with the sea dates back to the late Bronze, early Iron ages. Evidence of cave dwellers (referred to by academics as Obanian Mesolithic man) such as shell middens and worked antler bones (used as tools) have been found all around the coastline – some were even found right in the heart of the town at Oban Distillery! There can be little doubt that these early settlers chose Oban for its abundant seafood and shellfish and that holds true today!
The fishing industry in Oban has declined over the years and the ‘old days’ of ring netters and drifters landing huge catches of herring have long gone. Thankfully, the herring are now back in local waters and visitors to the Sealife Sanctuary at Barcaldine can stand inside their famous (and unique) doughnut shaped aquarium and see how the ‘silver darlings’ shimmer as the shoals swim speedily by.
Fish faming has also gone through troubled times since the first salmon farms appeared in Scotland in the 60s. Environmental practices have improved enormously since those early days and the industry continues to work hard to balance the ever growing demand for Scottish salmon (Scotland’s most valuable food export) with the need to farm in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.
Shellfish farming really took off in Argyll in the early 80s as once again the waters around Oban, especially the numerous sealochs that dot this coastline, proved ideal for growing mussels and oysters. These two species account for the majority of the shellfish produced in Scotland – along with some scallop farming – known in these parts as ‘ranching’. Most of the mussels farmed around Oban are rope grown and the farmers simply provide a perch for the mussel spat to attach to. They then feed and grow naturally and after a couple of years they are big enough to pull up and harvest. The oysters too are not ‘fed’ although they are cultivated. They are grown in special net bags on oyster trestles to keep them clear of starfish and other predators. The trestles appear above the waterline at low tide when the bags are turned to make sure all the oysters grow at an equal rate.
Argyll oysters and mussels are considered among the best in Scotland and for far too long they were not appreciated by the local population. Of course, this has all changed and the days have thankfully now passed when a Scot would only eat a mussel if he was on holiday in Spain tucking into Paella! The irony is that the mussels in this iconic Spanish dish were probably imported from his homeland! Continental Europe still takes a huge amount of our shellfish, but the local chefs now make sure they get their share first.
We may be a ‘little bay’ (the name Oban derives from the Gaelic translation) but we certainly have a big presence in this industry. Next time you are sitting on the sea wall or in Oban’s new pedestrian seating area on Stafford Street say a silent prayer in thanks to Neptune’s Bounty of the Sea – without it we would not be the town we are!