Postcode Pioneers: Richard Haward’s Oysters, Essex

In Postcode Pioneers, we celebrate independent shop owners from across the world as they share their neighbourhood haunts. This week, we venture to the hidden beaches and marshlands of Mersea Island, Essex, to meet the eighth-generation farmer behind Richard Haward’s Oysters.

Some families hold year-long grudges over the final state of the Monopoly board at Christmas; others run businesses that last more than eight generations. Cultivating oysters from the marshlands around the River Blackwater in Mersea Island, Richard Haward's Oysters has been hand-harvesting some of the UK's finest shellfish since 1732.

Tom Haward runs the waterfront location, scouring the beds at low tide to pick which oysters are ready. He walks the same marshlands that his great, great, great, great, great grandfather did in the 1700s, largely following the same techniques and methods that have been passed through the generations.

Richard Haward's Oysters offers home-delivery services everywhere from Derbyshire to Dubai, but we like them best shucked at its Stoney Street store in Borough Market, where you can pick between fat rock oysters, native varieties or cherrystone clams. Our order? Native oysters with a dash of lemon chased with a pint of Mersea Island stout.

Taking time out from the creeks, Tom shares how to enjoy our oysters at home, the best places for a fisherman's breakfast and the chocolate-box villages to visit in Essex.

Family values: top tips for shucking your own and the success to running a family business for over 300 years

Where are you from and how has that shaped your business?

I'm from Mersea Island, a beautifully marshy part of the world. I'm adopted; when my identical twin and I were a few months old we were fostered in south Essex and social services phoned my now parents, asking if they would be interested in adopting Anglo-Indian twins.

Mum and dad had already adopted a boy (Bram, who skippers our dredging boat) and a girl (Caroline, who runs our family restaurant). In 1981, adopting mixed race children into a white family was quite a big deal so we were the talk of the town when we arrived on Mersea.

Being adopted and shown unconditional love has shaped my life, and the business is no different - it's cultivated around love and care for the oysters we produce and the people we employ and serve. Businesses don't need to be a faceless, ruthless entity. For generations we, as a family, have employed and helped countless people in the local community.

Tell us more about the cultivation process and harvesting processes.

Growing a wild oyster is essentially about giving nature the chance to do what it does best. The creeks around Mersea Island have acres of marshland rich in the phytoplankton on which oysters thrive - it's what makes the flavours complex and punchy. Our role as cultivators is to move oysters from the deeper waters to our beds surrounded by marshland - as the tide ebbs and flows the molluscs filter the nutrient-rich water.

When the oysters are at the size we need, we harvest them by hand-picking or, when it's high tide, dredging. My brother skippers our dredging boat, which drags a chain-link net along the beds, scooping up oysters. Any oysters that are too small or not good quality are put back.

When the tide is low, my staff and I hand-pick oysters from the beds. Methods have barely changed in eight generations; I walk across the same mud my fifth great-grandfather did in the 1700s.

You've been in business for nearly 300 years. What's your secret to success?

Luck. Our industry is tough. In the 300 years, oyster disease has wiped out stocks, we've experienced extreme weather, economic recessions and the Covid pandemic. Somehow we still manage to keep going.

Being honest with yourself about your weaknesses as a leader and business is key. If you understand them, you can find a way to correct them. I ask my staff for their opinions; they often have an understanding I am blind to. It takes care, patience and attentiveness to grow an oyster, and I believe that also applies to building a successful business.

Describe the vibe of Mersea Island.

Peaceful, relaxed and friendly. I walk our Cockapoo, Hendricks, along the waterfront every morning and, along with saying hello and chatting to lots of people along the way, it's a really cleansing, mentally enriching environment.

Talk us through your morning routine.

My routine depends upon the tide. On the early mornings when the tides are ebbing low, I take Hendricks on the boat and go oyster picking for a couple of hours before coming ashore, having a coffee and then seeing what orders we need to pack. If the tides aren't right for picking, I meet my staff at 8am and chat about our plans for the day ahead.

Where should we go in Mersea for breakfast?

The Blackwater Pearl on Coast Road. It's at the heart of the working waterfront so you can enjoy a good selection of breakfast items while sitting near an oysterman or fisherman.

What about somewhere for dinner with friends?

The Coast Inn has made huge efforts to refurbish its building and create a tasteful place to dine in. It serves a nice selection of local fish and the views over the creeks are sublime.

What about a date?

I may be biased but The Company Shed is perfect for a date. My mum opened the restaurant in the early 80s and, since then, it has garnered a cult following. It serves rustic, simply done seafood in a vibrant, fun atmosphere which puts you at ease. If you want to make your date feel comfortable, it's ideal.

Any other independents in the neighbourhood that you love to buy from?

I love Cowabunga Pizza. Owners Tom Long and Tom Bell are such genuine, lovely guys and my fiancée, Gemma, and I try to support them as much as possible as it's a pretty young business trying to succeed in a tricky time. Its quality is outstanding.

Any secret spots only locals know about?

Not sure I want to share them! There's a little beach by the local sailing club near The Company Shed. Gemma and I spend quite a lot of time there, having a drink, enjoying the view of the creek and the stunning sunsets, while Hendricks swims or chases birds.

How about elsewhere in Essex, any other places we should visit?

Wivenhoe is a beautiful village. The quayside has some nice pubs and there are pretty views of the River Colne. Time slows there; you can feel your blood pressure drop.

Let's talk about your stall in Borough Market. How long have you been there?

We started trading Borough Market in 2002, initially selling oysters from a shucking table under a brolly on a Friday and Saturday. I used to run the stall on my own or with dad's help. Now we have a retail unit on Stoney Street, we need six members of staff on a regular Saturday to keep up with the demand - we can sell up to 4,000 oysters. We are now open six days a week and sell Mersea beers and a selection of wines to enjoy with our oysters.

It's a wonderful atmosphere at Borough and we're very proud we can be there selling to such a diverse number of people. It's a fascinating contrast to life on Mersea too; the hustle and bustle of London and shucking thousands of oysters, compared to hand-picking those oysters with only a few birds as company in the island's quiet creeks.

Share some of the other independents market stalls that you love there…

Turnips fruit and vegetable stand is fantastic. I love its range of mushrooms and the unusual produce you won't find in a supermarket. Shellseekers has a fantastic range of seafood and its cooked scallops are sublime. It even sells oysters, but I won't shout about that part! I always visit Ginger Pig - a superb, quality butcher.

How should we enjoy our oysters at home?

I'm not a puritan when it comes to oysters; people should feel free to enjoy them in different ways. If you like your oysters raw, a squeeze of lemon and some cracked black pepper is perfect. The acid from the lemon draws out the punchy flavours. If you want a bit of zing, a splash of shallot vinaigrette balances nicely with the saltiness.

My favourite way to eat them, when cooked, is to crumble over a bit of stilton and grill until the cheese has melted. You would assume the Stilton would be overpowering, but it isn't because our oysters have a depth of flavour which holds up against the cheese.

Top tips for shucking our own oysters…

Take your time. Shucking is more about technique than strength. A good shucking knife, a tea towel and a stable surface will mean there's a lot less chance of sustaining an injury.

Different countries have different views on the "best" way to shuck an oyster. We traditionally open oysters from the hinge (blasphemy to the Irish and French) as that is the strongest part of the oyster and therefore there is less chance of the shell breaking.

Finally, what should we buy from Richard Haward's Oysters?

Everything! This year has been very tough for our business but our oysters have thrived and I'm proud of the quality of the product growing on our beds. To get the best reflection of how good our oysters are this year, I recommend our medium rock oysters.

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