They are generally considered to be somewhat of an extravagant source of nourishment, beneficially rich in nutrients and vitamins such as zinc, B-12 and protein and most of all they are the ultimate feast at the table of love making. There is a hard exterior to these plump, salty, slippery delights; but expertly cracked, tapped and shucked the right way you will find their glistening insides to be a treat; or maybe not. Love them or hate them, oysters are a delicacy the world over and aren't foreign to the waters of the British Isles, including the shores of Ireland. In particular the 128km stretch of coastline on Achill Island and its shores that throw up fresh fishy delights. Oysters have been a plentiful source of sustenance for the inhabitants of Ireland for centuries and have naturally grown as early as prehistoric times. Today cultivated on farms there is a popular industry of aquaculture expanding, serving up tasty morsels of juicy goodness to be served any which you like though traditionally in Ireland with a good porter and soda bread.
Since last summer Bonnie Gull has developed a special relationship with Irish oyster farmer Hugh O'Malley, an intriguing character who has battled long and hard to accomplish his dreams and open a small oyster farm on Achill Island in County Mayo. Fishing runs in the family for Hugh; five generations to be exact; so at the crux of his business is keeping that sense of family alive. As a toddler he remembers learning Morse code with his Dad as he was going for his skippers ticket. He includes his young family; wife and two daughters in everything to keep the tradition alive. Bonnie Gull is one of the very few suppliers in England that receives dispatches from the Irish Shores. From shore to door by special delivery we unpack our arrival of Achill oysters and keep them refrigerated at controlled temperatures and chilled on ice in our oyster display case during service. If you come along any lunchtime or dinner they are likely to be on offer, displayed and ready to be shucked for you by one of our expert front of house team. Here we prefer to serve our oysters fresh with lemon and mignonette or just with a light tempura batter and aioli, however you can also pair your oysters the Irish way with one of our carefully selected porters; a perfect and beloved accompaniment.
Hugh has been to our restaurant on a few occasions to sit down and try some his oysters with us himself, with a couple of glasses of wine. It’s always great to welcome our suppliers in so they can see to what means their produce is being used and received.
Working for many years in high tech firms Hugh had always been ambitious about learning about aquaculture and how it is the step forward in place of wild harvesting; especially on Achill Island. From a seed planted in a radio interview with Jeremy Paxman in 1996 Hugh became interested in the idea of replacing wild salmon fishing with farmed cod. A means to sustain the local economy without depleting the fish population. With time and life getting in the way he finally managed to enroll himself on a aquaculture course; this time seeing the benefits of bringing oysters into the equation. His business was a long time in the making and it opened its doors in 2014; 18 years after the first seed of thought was planted. Hugh O'Malley himself says that 'Adversity is the mother of all invention”, and that is certainly quite a thing to say after almost two decades of perseverance to accomplish your dreams. His small farm has a goal to deliver oysters of quality and sustainability. Hugh only uses the more expensive and time consuming practice of using trestles and bags; as opposed to the controversial method of dredging to cultivate his oysters and gives no food or additives to the animals that will compromise the wellbeing of the bay.
The business has been doing well since its creation in 2014 and in November 2015 they opened the Ennis Dispatch Centre in County Clare with an eye to maintain safe and controlled distribution and storage but also to expand fish exports in Western Ireland. Recently Hugh O'Malley visited us at Bonnie Gull and met with our Head Chef Christian Edwardson to speak about the progress he has made. In the future we hope to work with him when Crayfish and Lobster come into season; all to be made possible by the the new dispatch centre. The prospects are exciting and it is rewarding to work side by side with a growing company that has the same view for the future of sustainability as we do.
This summer we will be looking forward to continuing stocking Achill oysters and perhaps some other exciting finds from the shores of Achill Island. Keeping the best of the British Isles alive is in the spirit and there is plenty to be found here over at Bonnie Gull.
We recently took the decision to close our Exmouth Market restaurant, Bonnie Gull Seafood Bar and have sold the lease to a Mexican concept that will open there early next year. We’ve loved being part of the scene on Exmouth Market with its great buzz, fantastic neighbours and lovely customers. Ultimately, however, we felt it wasn’t the best place for our offering and have sold the lease so that we can focus on growing our Seafood Shack concept that is trading so well on Foley St.
So seafood lovers don't despair! We have another restaurant in the works and expect to open our second Bonnie Gull Seafood Shack in the West End in spring 2016. Between now and then come and visit us at Foley St, sign up to our newsletter and check our social media for info about street food events, pop ups and more detail on the next restaurant as it unfolds.
As a proud semi-Scot I’m always happy to have an excuse to visit the homeland (before I have to use my passport to get there!). Although London is very much my home now, the call of the North is never too far from my thoughts, especially when London’s grind appears to be getting one up on me. At Bonnie Gull our produce comes in daily from all around the British Isles, and whilst Devon and Cornwall enjoy the bulk of our spend, we use a handful of key suppliers in Scotland that send us incredible home-caught produce. As some of these companies have been supplying us throughout our 3 year existence I thought it was high time I paid them a visit to understand where it all comes from and maybe flush out some of that London grind while I was there.
After a night with friends near Glasgow we set off North up the Western side of Loch Lomond. My girlfriend, Lottie, patiently endured repeated renditions of Runrig’s tune by the same name and I’m sure was thankful when we broke away from the Loch at Tarbet and the singing petered off. We drove up through Argyll Forrest Park, past the aptly named “Rest and Be Thankful” viewpoint and on to the top end of Loch Fyne. It was too early in the day for lunch but it is never too early for oysters, so we pulled up at the original Loch Fyne Oyster Bar (a far cry from the sullen chain we know in the South) to enjoy a fine selection of Arisaig, Lismore and Creran rocks. If only Scotland’s new drink driving laws hadn’t prevented me washing them down with a cool glass of Chardonnay. Lottie, unbound by the burden of the wheel, indulged herself with a midday tipple to rub it in.
Moving on we swung round the North of the Loch and turned off at Inveraray. We drove up past Loch Awe to the headquarters of Inverawe Smokehouse– exclusive suppliers of all our smoked salmon, trout and mackerel. It was a busy day at the smokehouse with some filming going on as well as a group of French retirees who had come over for fishing lessons. Still the staff found time to welcome us and we were given an exclusive tour of the facilities by Tony who oversees the smoking process. Prior to working at Inverawe, Tony had worked at a local sausage factory. If he was half as passionate about sausages as he was about smoked fish they would probably have been the best sausages in the world. Big Tony was the kind of character you want to bottle and sell in Tesco – a big, thick accented West Coaster, full of genuine warmth and incredible pride in his job. “Do you believe in ghosts?” he asked as we passed the farmhouse beside the smokers, “Well see that there? 110% haunted!” He proceeded to recant his rather unremarkable evidence for the haunting of the house, a story he had no doubt told a hundred times to groups of American tourists but he told it to us as if it was the first time – long dramatic pauses and eyes full of wonder at the words coming out of his own mouth.
The smoking process was a fascinating one and our tour involved an incredible amount of hand-washing and donning of various overalls and hairnets. Health and safety is taken seriously here and all signs are written in English and Polish for the benefit of the workforce. Seeing the fish at various stages and understanding Inverawe’s passion for quality and consistency was reassuring to see why we pay a premium for their produce and why we use them exclusively in our restaurants. Lean pink trout, sustainably-bred in local farms showed incredible colouring and a smell that had me in pieces. Clearly seeing the hunger in my eyes Tony led us to the on-site café to treat us to a bowl of homemade chowder with their own smoked haddock and salmon. After lunch he insisted on driving us over to the side of Loch Etive to show off the vista. People in this part of the world don’t take their surroundings for granted. “God’s country” muttered Tony as we looked out over the water.
We moved on to Oban and after a boozy night with friends in a back and beyond ‘pub with cabins’ (that happened to serve delicious local langoustines), we set off on the ferry for Mull. It seemed our visit had coincided with the island’s annual Rugby 7’s tournament so our crossing was a rowdy affair – ACDC pumping from a ghetto blaster on the top deck whilst big lads with cut-off sleeves prepared for their game by necking tins of Tennent’s.
We drove up the island to the main town of Tobermory – famous to us Scots as home of the kids TV show ‘Balamory’’. A post-card picturesque town centred around a group of coloured houses on the harbour. By now the rain had kicked in so it was a bit gloomier than the postcards made out but perhaps a truer reflection of its normal state. After some exemplary haddock and chips in a local caf we meandered up the single track road towards our digs at Glengorm Castle, stopping off at the famous Isle of Mull Cheese farmhouse for a bit of sampling on the way.
Glengorm is a striking, secluded castle set amongst its own estate where they produce fantastic beef, lamb and venison. The back of the castle falls away with rolling hills down to the beautiful coastline where birds of prey, including golden eagles are often spotted. The castle is part guesthouse, part family home and has an incredibly welcoming feel to it with no locks on the bedroom doors and a library with a ‘help yourself’ whisky bar.
After sampling a few choice local malts we took a ‘taxi’ (rickety old minibus) back to Tobermory through the driving rain to a seafood restaurant simply named Café Fish. It had been recommended by a former employee of ours who went to work there after leaving London but as we quickly found out from talking to other people on the island, this was a bit of a hot spot and a restaurant the whole island was proud of. We were welcomed to the tiny first floor room by Ryan, the 22 year-old manager who had been well prepped for our arrival. Their 30 covers were all full when we arrived and we were told that they would do four to five full sittings that evening. After being given a menu, we were talked through a blackboard of no less than 15 daily specials – all local seafood with simple garnishes – some big hitters such as local lobster (interestingly no cheaper than in London) but also lesser-known gems like velvet crabs. We feasted on scallops, langoustines and turbot and left in our minibus with big fat smiles on our faces. A simple and well-executed meal delivered with genuine local warmth. Proper Bonnie Gull type stuff!
The following morning we drove down to Salen Pier to check out a well-known local scallop supplier called the Ethical Shellfish Company. The company is run by local hero Guy Grieve (best known for his book Call of the Wild which he wrote after spending a year alone in the Alaskan wilderness). Guy was unfortunately over on the mainland at the Mhor Festival, run by one of my favourite retreats, Monachyle Mhor. However we had spoken on the phone in advance and he had left his shed open for us to go and poke around and see his natural (and as the name suggests) ethical method of hand-dived scallop supplying. Caught from their small boat Helanda and done so with no damage to the seabed.
Later that afternoon we dropped in at the Tobermory distillery; running since 1798 it is one of Scotland’s oldest and produces two quite different but equally enjoyable whiskies in Ledaig and Tobermory. Having been teased with a tasting, I was keen to dive into the whisky library back at Glengorm. Of the 15 on offer there were seven that were new to me, so I made it my mission to have one of each. As we sat in the library sipping whisky and looking out to sea, we were joined by a fantastically named sixty-something Californian couple – ‘Boyd and Bobby-Lee’. Boyd was “coming home” to discover his Scottish roots, although with his perma-tan, long white hair and bangles I wasn’t sure how he would be received in the local island pubs when he described himself as a Scotsman! After he had tried all of the 15 whiskies at least once, Boyd entertained us with the tale of his romance with Bobby-Lee. She was a semi-famous actress and model in Hollywood a lifetime ago and married to an Olympic swimmer. They had had a short affair 20 years ago and then by chance met again in a New York elevator six weeks prior to their trip. They immediately fell back in love and decided to elope to Scotland for a few weeks of soul searching. They never mentioned whether they were still married to other people but this was a Hollywood tale so such trivia wasn’t going to ruin a good story.
The next morning we packed up and started on our journey back to Glasgow. We opted for a longer scenic route by taking the ferry to Lochaline followed by another from Corran to Inchtree. From there we started an incredible drive through Glencoe – one of Scotland’s most breathtaking mountain ranges. With sun warming golden mountainsides still topped with snow, I insisted on stopping at every viewpoint to soak it in. Alas my camerawork didn’t do it justice so I’ve poached one from a professional. From there we managed to take another detour to re-visit Loch Fyne where this time were we able to enjoy a full lunch. Star of the show were big juicy langoustines pulled from the water right in front of the restaurant and a fitting last meal in this seafood-rich corner of the West Coast.
A couple of hours later, sitting on a plane bound for Heathrow, I was hit with a real sense of sorrow to be leaving this incredible little pocket of land and sea so well stocked with culture, scenery and fine natural resources. In the haze of the big city it's easy to forget the stunning coastlines and natural produce that surround us. A world away in just an hour's flight and a cultural feast to any Londoner who has forgotten what lies beyond its boundary.