How Patrice became hooked on our oysters - My feature in the News Letter on Patrice Bonnargent of Strangford Oysters

Patrice Bonnargent came to Northern Ireland from France to play rugby and ended up making his home in the tiny village of Clough in Co. Down. He had been playing rugby for Orleans, a French second tier club close to his home in Tours in the picturesque Loire Valley, renowned as the ‘Garden of France’, when he decided to join a club here. “Those where in the days before rugby in France became professional. Orleans was twinned with the club in Portadown, and I wanted to see what the game was like in Northern Ireland. I played hooker for the Co. Armagh club for six years and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I have a lot of good friends from those days,” he remembers.

He met Joy, his future wife, married and decided to set up home here. That was in 1991. He’s since become one of the stalwarts of the local seafood industry. It’s a business he developed almost by accident. “A good friend in Portadown approached me for advice about selling oysters and shellfish to France. I had a number of contacts and worked with him to develop a small export business. We’d buy shellfish from local suppliers in Kilkeel and export everything to customers that I’d lined up in France,” he says.

 

The next stage in the affable Frenchman’s business journey was to start growing his own oysters and mussels close to the sleepy coastal village at Killough, a location he’d chosen because of its pristine waters. He took over an offshore farm, a four-hectare area that’s overlooked by Kilclief Castle. It now features 12,000 mesh bags on trestles used to grow the oysters from tiny seeds he brings in from suppliers in his homeland. Initially run on a community basis, Patrice now owns the business and has grown sales four-fold. Last year he produced more 40 tonnes of oysters.

He’s been growing the Pacific variety of oysters and harvesting mussels for two decades. While he now sells oysters to a number of local restaurants such as the acclaimed Mourne Seafood Bars in Belfast and Dundrum and some seafood distributors here, the vast majority of his output goes directly to France, where the oysters are prepared for many of the nation’s top restaurants. Order oysters in a snazzy restaurant along the famed Champs-Elysées and the chances are they will have been raised over three years in the clean waters off Killough village! They are prized by diners because of their intense flavour. But don’t expect the restaurant owner or chef to admit they are sourced from here!

“The waters around Killough are ideal for oysters,” he continues. “They have a great tidal range, getting flushed out every six hours. This means the nutrition really comes into the oysters,” he explains. It’s also unique in that fresh water from the River Quoile merges there with the salt water and give Killough oysters a unique taste. The minerals make a difference. "The mixing of fresh and sea water produce a slight nut-like taste which is not too salty," he adds. “The water temperature is cold and invigorating, making the oyster meat plumper and tastier.” Patrice, who now runs the small enterprise, known appropriately as Strangford Harvest, with 23-year-old son Luc, from a shed at the bottom of a cliff overlooking the bay, has seen a growing demand for oysters and mussels here and in France. “A number of local restaurants are now focusing on developing dishes with both,” he says.

“Much of the demand in Northern Ireland is being driven by the growth in tourists especially from Asia.” Further evidence of this comes from top chef Andy Rea, owner of Mourne Seafood Bar with his friend Bob McCoubrey, once an oyster farmer at Dundrum Bay. Upwards of 60 per cent of oysters enjoyed there are consumed by diners from Asian nations such as China, Japan and Korea including many from the local Chinese section of the local community. “There certainly seems to be a growing appetite for local seafood and a growing recognition of its premium quality and outstanding taste. Year of Food and Drink is helping, and I am delighted that the theme for July will be produce from our Seas, Rivers and Loughs. Northern Ireland shellfish and seafood are exceptional. It’s easy to see why they are so sought after by enthusiasts from other parts of Europe. French oyster businesses have also bought farms in Ireland,” he says. “Our oysters are a natural product, grown in the water, nothing else is done with them. They are a healthy food that’s low in fat. They contain essential amino acids and are a good source of copper, iron and zinc, all of which boost the immune system,” he adds.