Many Dubliners know marine biologist Stephen Kavanagh through the oyster stall he runs at the Temple Bar Food Market. He tells us how his journey as an artisan producer evolved to include the production of health extracts and the benefits to everyone from supporting local artisans and markets.
What first inspired your interest in all things marine?
I’ve always loved the sea. My father was a master mariner so growing up in Arklow we knew lots of fishermen and sailors. We loved rock pooling and my older brothers were real beach bums so you could say we had salt water in our blood from an early age. I was always fascinated by the work of Jacques Cousteau, and I once tried unsuccessfully to get a job with him on the Calypso. Instead I spent a few weeks on the Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) research vessel on the Irish Sea and then studied for a year at NUI Galway. After finishing my degree at the School of Ocean Sciences in North Wales I worked in London, then later in the oyster business on the West Coast.
I also spent time studying the salmon populations in Alaska and the Pacific North West in the US and when I came back home I started my own company processing oysters. I always tell people my business is really about four or five businesses as I started as an artisan producer processing oysters and then we evolved into extracts and other activities.
How did you first get involved with the Temple Bar Food Market?
John McInerney, one of the Market’s founding fathers was retiring and he decided that an artisan producer who was also processing oysters was a perfect fit to take over the oyster bar he was running there. He really wanted me to bring it on and tell people why they should be eating more oysters. Now we’re constantly educating our customers and the tourists who come through with Fab Food Trails about the health benefits of oysters. Because they absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make their shells, oysters mitigate climate change and so have the potential as a food source to change our impact on the planet in a positive way.
Oysters are sessile and both wild and cultivated varieties feed naturally from the water column and no antibiotics or artificial feeds are used. It’s not like taking a salmon or pig and putting it in a cage for their entire life and they frequently get to spawn before they’re eaten, so as food production from animals goes you can’t really be more humane. They also take 2-3 years to get to market size so they are real Slow Food and highly sustainable.
You mentioned the health benefits of oysters there. What are they?
Oysters have been hailed as an aphrodisiac for centuries. The ancients ate food for medicinal reasons and we now know that in addition to certain libido enhancing amino acids, oysters also have ten times more zinc than the next richest source, which is red meat. Zinc is very important for regulating enzymatic and hormonal processes in the body. It is vital for prostate health and testosterone and sperm production, so they do promote good sexual health in men and women.
They are also high in omega 3s so they’re very good for neurological health, heart health and also good for your skin, hair and nails. They are what’s called a nutrient-dense super food.
How do you recommend serving oysters?
I really like oysters raw with just a little bit of lemon juice. In the market, we serve them with a red wine vinegar and shallot mignonette that’s really nice when the oysters are getting a little bit fat and plump. If you can get your hands on big oysters and grill them with Parmesan and a little bit of cream and black pepper they’re absolutely to die for.
I like to accompany them with the driest white wine I can find, usually a Muscadet or something like that, the drier the better personally. Guinness is quite nice with oysters too; I have that occasionally.
Tell us more about the range of products you have developed.
When it comes to health the best way to eat oysters is fresh, but not everybody can get fresh oysters, so for anyone worried about nutritional deficiency, oyster extract capsules are a good way to go. While we still supply restaurants and delis with smoked oysters we’re also supplying integrative doctors in France and the US with products which they use in their work. We do an oyster extract that we sell globally, wild salmon oil, soya extracts, some cardiovascular products and a fish liver extract that’s used in cancer therapy in France and the US.
It’s a very diverse business and it’s brought me into contact with some very interesting people in the nutritional world. We’re doing our own research now also, so we’re very much on the cutting edge of nutritional science.
How challenging have the last few years been for artisan producers?
Being a small-scale artisan producer is challenging to say the least. The tragedy of the recession for artisan production is that people started shopping for ‘perceived’ cheap food. How much is your health worth? Hippocrates said, ‘let food be thy medicine’, but you need to be prepared to make the effort to find good food. People need to support their local farmer’s markets and they need to tell the people who manage and work in the markets what they want to see.
Most capital cities in the world have permanent week long covered markets and it’s regrettable Dublin doesn’t have one as we could do so much more from a base like that. DCC are talking about such a market in Smithfield.
The connection between your health and what and how much you eat is phenomenal. I’d encourage everyone to get interested in fresh organic food and to spend an hour or two on a Saturday morning at the local markets getting proper food for the week. Most artisan producers are well up on the health benefits of their food, so appreciate that the provenance is there and go and talk to them!
Words: Martina Murray
Images: Aoife Herrity