Scotland's Larder: Judith Vajk from Caledonian Oysters Co

We chat to Judith Vajk from Caledonian Oysters Co near Oban about moving from Perthshire to Paris and finding treasure under the sea.

Published 28th Jul 2021
Updated 8 th Aug 2023

Judith Vajk is originally from Blairgowrie, and never imagined that she would end up running an oyster farm near Oban.

These bivalve molluscs have taken her on quite a life journey, she said, "I wouldn't have even thought of it as a job."

After school she was going to study nursing but the course began the following year, instead she headed to France on an adventure, she said "I thought I'd just do something, and I worked for a year as an au pair, in Paris."

It was there she met and fell in love with Hugo, the love of her life who later became her husband.

French adventure

Going from Perthshire to Paris was quite an experience, she said, "I loved going to the galleries, the nightlife and sitting outside in the coffee shops. I still love Paris."

She landed on her feet with her employers, as she explained, "they were so nice to be with, I just had a lovely time."

The family had a holiday house in St Vaast near Cherbourg, Normandy and one weekend they introduced her to a mutual friend.

The Caledonian Oyster Company
The Caledonian Oyster Company Picture: The Wee Hotel Company/The Pierhouse Hotel & Seafood Restaurant, Port Appin, Argyll.

He was from Brittany had studied physics at St Andrews, and loved Scotland, she fell for him instantly, describing him as being "tall, blonde and handsome, and absolutely obsessed by oysters."

Their first date was visiting an oyster farm, but it took a few dates for her to pluck up enough courage to eat one, she said, "I didn't really think much of it, I didn't think it was disgusting and once I had a few I thought, this is good."

Her favourite way to eat them is with diced shallots with red wine vinegar, she added "always give it a couple of chews, just to release the flavours. They have an amazing pure taste of the sea."

After falling in love with Hugo she decided that studying wasn't for her.

She explained, "Hugo loved growing things and loved oysters so he thought 'maybe I could farm them'. Sometimes you just fall into a career."

The world is your oyster?

The couple then started their own oyster farming business on Herm, in The Channel islands which is only 2.183 km long and just 873 metres wide.

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They lived there for ten years, married and started their family.

Their children had an idyllic childhood in " a beautiful climate, running barefoot and in shorts from March until October," Judith said.

Shell beach, Herm. Picture: Michael Runkel/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

In 1995 they decided to moved to Scotland, "it just seemed the right thing to do," she said

The couple had considered emigrating to Australia, she said, "at the end of the day we thought it is too blooming hot for us."

Judith was pleased to return and be closer to her family, she explains, "We knew the west coast quite well, we had sold part grown oysters to other farmers so we knew this particular site was coming up for sale."

Sea Harvest

Oysters are grown on trestle tables, made out of metal reinforcing rods in plastic mesh bags which are attached by hooks and elastic, as they grow they are moved into a larger mesh bags and the density is reduced.

Pacific oysters grow quicker than native oyster and are, "just a hardier species all together," she said.

Judith explained, "they need warmer temperatures to spawn, which avoids us releasing an invasive species into the marine environment but the cold doesn't stop them growing, they grow happily here."

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This year she bought, a quarter of a million babies oysters from a hatchery, she said, "we get them in for the big tides in April and then sometimes more in autumn."

They are spawned in lab conditions and the offspring are collected, the little oysters travel North dry, she said, "they are quite robust wee things, it is incredible how they can survive."

Loch Creran, Barcaldine. Picture: Philip Silverman/Shutterstock

Loch Creran

They arrive pinkie nail sized and around a thousand are placed in a bag and are grown for three years to 60 grams before being harvested, they can take seven years to reach 200 grams, she farms around 30 hectacres on the shores of Loch Creran, a sea loch about 10 kilometres long.

Judith explained, "it is quite sheltered, and the cold, clear, clean water and the large volume of water exchange here makes it ideal for growing oysters."

Initially the couple sold part grown oysters to other farmers, while selling full grown oysters to Scandinavia and England but gradually over the years they gained customers in Scotland, she said, "now I don't sell anywhere but Scotland."

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Judith Vajk of Tha Caledonian Oysters Co
Grading the oysters. Picture: The Wee Hotel Company/The Pierhouse Hotel & Seafood Restaurant, Port Appin, Argyll.

Over time people's tastes have changed and she said, "in the beginning I couldn't sell even two dozen but gradually, by getting people to try them and showing them how to open them, we sell lots.

"A lot of people like seafood but are a bit cautious with an oyster."

Market values

Judith sells oysters at Perth Farmers market on the first Saturday of every month, she said, "I enjoy getting out and chatting to my lovely customers and the other traders."

Her father helps out, she said, "he is good at shucking and persuading oyster virgins to eat their first one."

How to best shuck an oyster?

Judith has this advice: Always use an oyster knife, with a v shaped rigid blade, you put the point of the knife in at the narrow end at the hinge between the two shells and with a bit of effort twist the knife until it pops the hinge and you can then sweep the knife along to cut the muscle on either side.

Over the years she said, "I've shucked a lot that is for sure, it didn't just happen naturally I've had a lot of practice"

You have to look after oysters carefully keeping similar sizes together and reduce the density as they grow and over the years Judith has found about ten pearls.

She said, "it is an unusual thing to find, they are normally not very big, the size of a seed head or grain of cous cous. I have got one that is the size of a pea. I keep waiting for another one so I can make a pair of earrings."

Last year, due to covid business was a lot quieter, but this year things are looking more optimistic.

Judith Vajk with Michael Leathley, Head Chef at The Pierhouse, Picture: The Wee Hotel Company/The Pierhouse Hotel & Seafood Restaurant,.

The Pierhouse Hotel

The Caledonian Oyster Co has a long-standing relationship with The Pierhouse Hotel in Port Appin, just 10 miles away.

For 20 years they have been supplying them with oysters, and The Pierhouse was included in the Michelin Guide for UK and Ireland for the first time this year.

The Pierhouse’s Head Chef is Michael Leathley and Judith said, "he is a great chef, I've been there a few times and they do really fantastic food."

Some of Michael Leathley, Head Chef at The Pierhouse, oyster dish Picture: The Wee Hotel Company/The Pierhouse Hotel & Seafood Restaurant, Port Appin, Argyll.

"They are big on provenance and are passionate about cooking with amazing local produce.

"They care about their supply chain and they only use suppliers they know are trustworthy and reliable."

You can also sample Judith's oysters at Ee-Usk in Oban, and in Edinburgh at White Horse Oyster & Seafood Bar and at Dean Banks at the Pompadour.

She is extremely proud that top chefs use her products, she said, "it is lovely, when they are really happy with them, there is nothing like it."

Michael Leathley, Head Chef at The Pierhouse, Picture: The Wee Hotel Company/The Pierhouse Hotel &; Seafood Restaurant, Port Appin, Argyll.

Local heroes

It has not all been plain sailing for her as her beloved Hugo died in a work related accident in 2018.

She explained, "the farm has helped me work through things, so much of him is here. It has kept me so busy, he is certainly missed for sure.

"But the oysters still need to be looked after, and working outside is a bonus even when it is miserable, it is still beautiful."

Initially she had considered moving back to Perthshire, "but Argyll is stunning and the people of Oban have been so kind."

Oban, Scotland. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

The community have really rallied round to support her family.

She said, "Hugo was respected as being a hard working farmer, he was clever and had a sense of humour. He didn't worry about what anybody thought of him, he was quite unique."

When things on the farm are going wrong she said, "I look up to the sky and say, Hugo can you do something about this, so I swear at him a lot."

The kids are alright

Her children have all returned, both, Angus and Marie-Eloise, work alongside their mother, which Judith said "was never in either of their plans, but I'm so glad they came back to help."

Angus was studying for a Phd in Plant science in Berkeley in California, while Marie-Eloise had moved to Canada and Shona was working in Guernsey.

Being surrounded by young ones is refreshing Judith said, "One of Angus's ideas was to have a cool box at the end of the road with an honesty box.

"I didn't think that would work but it has proved to be very popular. You have got to listen to the young ones sometimes.

"they seem to be picking it all up very well."

The best office

The life of an oyster farmer seems idyllic, with an abundance of nature on the doorstep; otters, herons, curlews canadian geese.

One drawback, is having a sore back with all the bending and heavy lifting but that doesn't matter "when seals visit, and you can watch otters sitting on our rafts eating their catch."

Judith said, "I never thought I would still be doing it but I can't imagine doing anything else now. I have a lovely office, and great people working with me."

Judith Vajk of Tha Caledonian Oysters Co
Judith Vajk of Tha Caledonian Oysters Co. Picture : The Wee Hotel Company/The Pierhouse Hotel & Seafood Restaurant, Port Appin, Argyll.

Caledonian Oysters Co

Shores of Loch Creran
Rubha Garbh

01631 570222

Catriona is a freelance writer based in the Scottish Borders, and a nominee for Food and Drink writer at this year's Scottish Press Awards.
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