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River Deben oysters and mussels on the menu

PUBLISHED: 12:52 18 January 2018 | UPDATED: 12:52 18 January 2018

Harry Simper, on board Silver Harvest, pulls in herring

Harry Simper, on board Silver Harvest, pulls in herring

Archant

Supplying our local pub and restaurant tables with freshly caught fish and shellfish, including Deben mussels and oysters.

Farming family branches out into fishing and shellfish cultivation.
The Silver Harvest their main fishing boat, skipper Harry SimperFarming family branches out into fishing and shellfish cultivation. The Silver Harvest their main fishing boat, skipper Harry Simper

There has probably been shellfish gathered and eaten from our East Anglian rivers since the time of the Romans.

And the North Sea has provided a rich harvest of sea fish from its inshore fleets for hundreds of years.

I remember having Southwold sprats for breakfast when visiting relatives in the town as a schoolboy...

I am pretty sure my first experiences of Moules Mariniere and Frites though was on holiday in France, where it is fast cafe food.

The Simpers of Ramsholt boats at Aldeburgh beachThe Simpers of Ramsholt boats at Aldeburgh beach

But the mussels I have had here more recently have probably been from Scotland.

Until now.

In recent years production of local shellfish has been limited.

In a small way the local shellfish trade is on the way back.

Kippers, in the oven, from locally caught herring at Simpers of RamsholtKippers, in the oven, from locally caught herring at Simpers of Ramsholt

At Ramsholt, by the River Deben, I met up with Jonathan Simper, and we went down to The Rocks, to see the mussel beds exposed at low tide.

Close to here, in the 18th Century, there was a big oyster business at Shottisham Creek too, he said.

The family farming business, Simpers of Ramsholt, is based at Lodge Farm on the north side of the river.

It has always been mixed farming here, now they cultivate the river too - for oysters and mussels.

from Simpers of Ramsholt; washed and ready for customersfrom Simpers of Ramsholt; washed and ready for customers

In earlier times many rivers had beds of oysters and mussels. There are hints in local place names, like the Butt and Oyster pub at Pin Mill on the Orwell, and the Oyster Inn, Butley.

Opinion is divided as to whether The Ostrich at Wherstead (now branded Oyster Reach), was named from the local oyster beds on the Orwell.

There certainly are mussels in the River Orwell.

Even in the wet dock area you can often see broken mussel shells where gulls have broken them open to get to the meat inside.

Harry Simper, skipper of the Silver Harvest, brings in the catchHarry Simper, skipper of the Silver Harvest, brings in the catch

Now there are commercial stocks of mussels, and oysters, on the River Deben.

Three generations of the family, are involved in developing the new venture.

Like the sea fish caught by the two Simpers-owned boats from Aldeburgh beach, you can often find them on the menu at local pubs and restaurants.

The boats Silver Harvest and Our Boys catch fish, in season, off the coast from Orfordness and Sizewell to Felixstowe and Clacton.

Simpers of Ramsholt: skate wings ready for the customerSimpers of Ramsholt: skate wings ready for the customer

Skipper is 22-year-old Harry Simper.

His grandfather, Robert Simper. just turned 80, still helps out with the business when required.

He can trace the family’s farming roots back to 18th Century. “We have always been farmers.

“We have been here since in 1940,” he said, “We used to have a dairy herd. We are farming the river now. You have to change with the times. It was really tough but something we had to do.”

Simpers of Ramsholt; mussel beds at low tideSimpers of Ramsholt; mussel beds at low tide

Robert’s wife, Pearl said, “It was a sad day when the cows went.”

They grow asparagus, in season, but the fish trade is all year round - weather permitting.

“Oysters have always been here,” he said, “The Romans had a villa here at Ramsholt. They would probably haven eaten them.”

The Simpers inspired the launch of The Shuck Festival, to celebrate local shellfish, in Woodbridge six years ago.

Jonathan Simper with River Deben musselsJonathan Simper with River Deben mussels

On the muddy banks of the Deben, Jonathan Simper took me to the mussel beds. He explained:“The mussels live in mud. They filter the mud and get the nutrients out of it.”

There are Rock (or Pacific), oysters too; some wild, some introduced as tiny spats to the beds.

The cleanliness of the River Deben is a big plus. The river water changes with the rise and fall of the tide too.

“It is one of the cleanest, least polluted rivers in East Anglia,” he said.

Simpers of Ramsholt: Alistair Shaw with their oak-smoked kippersSimpers of Ramsholt: Alistair Shaw with their oak-smoked kippers

“We have made a big deal about out of them being the Deben Oysters.”

The collected shellfish are taken back to the farm, where former cowsheds have been converted into clean fish and shellfish preparation rooms.

In one room enormous tanks are filled with water and the mussels and oysters are purified, in separate tanks, for 42 hours.

And UV light is used to destroy any bacteria.

“They are sent out to the pubs and restaurants in the morning and are on the plate the same day,” he said.

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