Every day, regardless of wind and weather conditions, oysters with the ritzy name ‘Sylter Royal’ are harvested on Sylt, at the northern tip of Germany. It is one of the northernmost oyster farms in Europe and the only one in Germany. That is what makes it so special. But not only that. ‘The water quality up here, that's what makes the oyster so unique’, explains Bine Pöhner, managing director of the oyster company Dittmeyer’s Austern-Compagnie in List on Sylt. ‘We have the best European water standard here. Comparable with drinking water quality. Apart from the salt content’, she says with a smirk. ‘Only three regions in Europe are rated category A: a tip of Scotland, parts of the Irish Sea and us’, she proclaims and proudly adds: ‘An oyster is only as good as the water in which it grows. We are even allowed to sell the oysters directly from the sea’. People say it tastes slightly nutty with a pleasant hint of the sea.
The Hamburg native has been working on Sylt for 14 years, which she now calls her second home. She describes herself as a ‘Jill of all trades’, who keeps an eye on the balance sheet, looks after purchasing and sales as well as public relations, and sometimes steps into the mud flats to harvest oysters. ‘Basically a mixed bag’, she says.
Her workplace is located in the North Frisian National Park. This is home to the office, which accommodates 5 employees, and the oyster farm. Today, it would be difficult or even impossible to authorise a business there. ‘The location here is linked to many permits. It would be a terrifying administrative task for any company to tackle the practical work of one day’, she proclaims from personal experience. She still has to renegotiate the lease and the contracts at regular intervals.
Tides Determine the Work Rhythm
But even if the official administration tasks are sorted out, there are still some hurdles to overcome before oysters land on the plate and in the stomach of a connoisseur. The animals grow in the Wadden Sea for three years, are shaken and rattled daily and cleaned of algae - all with the most meticulous manual precision and care. For two years the oysters are carefully nurtured until they are harvested at a weight of 70-90 grams. ‘That’s when they have the right mouthfeel’, Bine Pöhner says assuredly, which, as far as her own oyster taste is concerned, is rather puristic. Traditional without anything. Even without the popular splash of lemon juice. Oyster picking is definitely not a traditional nine-to-five job. ‘We are dependent on the rise and fall of sea levels, also called tides or low tide and high tide. We can only harvest during low tide when the water recedes’, she explains, adding, ‘tides also don’t last the same amount of time every day. Sometimes you have two to three hours for the harvest, and then a window of only 30 minutes may open’. So oyster pickers have to go out in the evening or at night if there is a particularly long low tide. But they are rewarded with the beautiful evening sun or the special atmosphere at night. It certainly never gets boring.
To beat the tides and the weather, the oyster pickers usually harvest a two-week supply. ‘That allows us to remain a bit weather independent. After all, the farming business is dependent on sales’, explains Pöhner, ‘no storm or bad weather can muddy the waters for us’.
A Winter Quarter Deluxe
For oysters, however, cold winters and ice floes are the greatest hazard. They lie on steel tables packed in coarsely meshed nets. Strapped down. So that flow patterns, storms, or ebb and flow cannot carry them away. ‘Although our tables are located in a sheltered bay, it is still the open North Sea. Ice floes come along from time to time in the winter’, says Bine Pöhner, recalling a harsh winter eight years ago. Therefore, the Sylter Royal oysters are moved to winter quarters each winter. The sea banks are cleared and the oysters are shipped to sea basins - not far from their summer home.
The winter quarters are unique, not just for the only oyster farming in Germany. 16 holding basins are supplied with a more than 100 m long water pipe that pumps fresh seawater. It's a rather elaborate pumping system, not quite like the ones used in goldfish ponds, the oyster expert explains, because it has to be transport quite a bit more volume in and out. Oysters are filter animals. They absorb the water through gills and filter it for nutrients. They convert the substances they like into vitamins and minerals. The remaining substances are expelled. Therefore, the water must be changed frequently and the pools must be ventilated. An elaborate habitat for the oysters, which is second to none. It does not exist anywhere else in the world.