Celebrating the taste of Suffolk shellfish

Simpers of Suffolk

Simpers of Suffolk - Credit: Archant

Thoughts of mussels invariably conjure up holiday-soaked memories of alfresco dining on the Continent, where huge bowls of moules frites and moules marinieres take over the table. But one local family is hoping that mussels will soon become synonymous with Suffolk dining too. Claire Holmes heads to Ramsholt to find out more

Bumping along a small dirt track in Ramsholt on my way to meet the team behind Simpers of Suffolk, I’m more than a little distracted by the scenery around me.

Acres and acres of fields, coupled with brief glimpses of the glistening River Deben, provide a wonderful reminder of the beauty of our county and how lucky we are to live here.

These views are something that Jonathan and Clare Simper and the rest of their family get to enjoy on a daily basis.

The couple, who own a 300-acre farm in the area and are the largest producers of asparagus in the county, are passionate about offering local and sustainable food and are proud to be part of the farming community working in the region.

“It’s an amazing location,” Clare enthused. “We both feel very lucky to work here and we want to use the land to the best of what it can be.”

And, now – thanks to a recent expansion into the shellfish market - they’re also enjoying working in the local waterways too.

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Using the tidal, nutrient-rich waters of the River Deben, the Simper family have been growing, harvesting and selling oysters and mussels for the past two and a half years – and it’s going better than they ever imagined.

“We’re now selling a tonne a week and we are putting a lot more in the river so that we can increase this even more,” Jonathan said, adding that they hope to double their sales this year.

The couple were inspired to launch the venture after their son (and passionate sailor) Harry showed particular interest in following a career on the river.

Wanting to help him fulfil his dreams, and encouraged by the growing movement towards locally produced food, Jonathan and Clare felt that the expansion could be a successful way to diversify their offerings.

With the help and advice of Jonathan’s father, Robert (who had a go at growing and harvesting shellfish on the Deben in the 1980s himself), the couple set about getting all the necessary permissions needed to start their own fishery.

This included renting a creek from the Crown Commissioners and a period of testing the water, which revealed the river to be among the cleanest in the country.

By 2011, the family had received all the health and hygiene certificates needed to operate their purpose-built purification plant in Ramsholt and that August, the first sales were made.

The process involved in growing and harvesting mussels and oysters is fairly straightforward, although skill on the river is essential.

Mussel seed and seed oysters are bought from local fishermen and placed carefully in the river. The oysters and mussels are monitored throughout the year and regular hygiene testing and water sampling is also undertaken.

Once the shellfish are large enough to sell (which takes about 18 months for mussels and two to three years for oysters), they are hand picked and transferred to the building in Ramsholt.

Once here, the oysters and mussels are cleaned, graded and placed in a purification tank for 42 hours.

The mussels produced in this way are gloriously fresh, plump and juicy – and just the thing to eat with a tasty sauce and hunk of crusty bread.

And it seems chefs across the county agree, as the family’s shellfish can now be found on restaurant menus across the county in places such as the Westleton Crown, the White Lion in Aldeburgh and the Crown at Woodbridge. Their mussels and oysters have even been sold in The Dorchester in London and eaten on cruise liners in the Caribbean too.

“I think in this day and age people do like to buy sustainable, fresh food and I think we’re lucky in Suffolk that this is a food county and people are naturally interested in food,” Clare explained, adding: “I think what we’d like to do is become like Peasenhall ham – everyone knows it and it’s synonymous with good ham. That’s what we’d like to become with mussels.”

While they say a lot of their success is down to the fact people in the area want to play their part in lowering food miles, Clare adds that shellfish has also grown in popularity in the last 10 years or so.

“It’s the health benefits,” she said. “People are really worried about their health and are looking for ways to improve their diet. Fish and shellfish are very good for you.

“Mussels are very high in zinc, so they are good for your immune system, and they’re also full of omega 3.”

Keen cooks can have great fun using this ingredient in the kitchen too.

“There are so many lovely dishes you can do with mussels,” Clare said.

“A quick and easy meal is just with cider and cream. It’s a great dish and it’s easy and cheap too.

“One of our favourite meals at the moment is the mussel gazy pie which Stephen David from The Crown at Woodbridge made for last year’s Shuck festival,” she added.

Down on the section of beach that the Simpers own, watching workers collect the mussels from the shore line, it’s easy to see the appeal of eating products which have come straight from our very own waters.

Supporting and recognising the quality of our waterways and their produce is something the Simpers are very passionate about and they are proud of their relationship with the River Deben.

“The thing about a shellfish is because they are filter feeders they are filtering in to them the essence of the river they are in,” Jonathan said. “So in a very real way our mussels are a product of their environment.”

For more information visit www.debenshellfish.co.uk.