Poverty and Oysters at Loch Fyne Oyster Bar

Once the foodstuff of only the desperately poor, oysters formed the basis of what is now the Loch Fyne Restaurant chain. It was founded by a Scottish laird and bought by Greene King in 2007 for a cool £68 million. Not much evidence of poverty there. Stuart Barker visited the Elton outlet to discover how Johnny Noble turned a road-side oyster shack into a multi-million pound business in under 20 years.

‘Poverty and oysters seem to go together’ Sam Weller noted in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. It may have been true in 1837, when the wealthy wouldn’t dream of eating slimy shellfish from the polluted waters of industrialised Victorian England. But Weller’s observation has now come full circle, with trendy and exclusive oyster bars having become entirely in vogue with the bright, and rich, young things, over the past couple of decades.

So much so that one man determined to reverse the trend and make oysters as cheap and plentiful as they were in Dickens’ time. That man was the late Johnny Noble. As the Laird of Ardkinglas, with extensive lands and a majestic baronial family estate on the shores of Loch Fyne in Argyll, Noble wasn’t exactly poor, but he was a true humanitarian and a larger than life character who could be hilariously self-deprecating as his obituary in The Times in 2002 proved.

‘He had a gentle manner but a loud whisper, which got him into difficulty. Once, in his (own) restaurant, a woman luncher overheard him discussing another, obnoxious luncher with a member of his staff, and asked that he be removed. Noble left obediently with the words “fair enough.”’

The tale proves just how little affectation there was to Noble. He was entirely within his rights to throw the customer out of his own restaurant (and one can’t help but imagine how mortified the offended lady would have been had she known she was demanding a Scottish laird be removed from his own property) but instead, admitting that he had been in the wrong, he opted to escort himself off his own premises.

Johnny Noble had a passion for oysters and, in particular, the first class oysters which grew in his beloved Loch Fyne. A tidal body of water on the Western coast of Scotland, Loch Fyne is 60 miles long, 400 feet deep, and has a temperature fluctuation of just seven degrees all year round. Salinity is very low at just 28 parts per thousand, and the waters of the loch have a Grade A classification. Highland streams bring down nutrients into the loch which helps to ‘sweeten’ the water, and all these factors combine to make Loch Fyne ideally suited to producing some of the finest seafood in the world.

Johnny Noble knew it, and wanted to share his knowledge with the rest of the world. So in 1988 he set up a little road-side shack on the banks of the loch and began introducing tourists, locals, and passers-by alike to the delights of the waters they were driving around.

Loch Fyne Restaurants now have 42 outlets across the country, from Edinburgh to Porstmouth, but the first to open after the original at Cairndow, on the shores of the loch itself, was at Elton, exactly 21 years ago. ‘I think Johnny picked this area because his mother lived in Oundle’ says Claire Chiverton, general manager of Loch Fyne Elton, which is based in an old dairy. ‘We tend to choose old buildings and re-use them’ she says of the unorthodox choice of building. ‘The Leeds restaurant is in an old post office, York is an old hardware shop, the Edinburgh outlet is an old fishmonger’s on the harbour; it’s all part of the company’s policy to be as environmentally responsible as we can and using old, existing buildings is part of that. Also they tend to have more character than new buildings so you get that instant character thrown in.’

After leaving university, Chiverton spent ten years working for Marriot Hotels before travelling for nine months and thinking carefully about what she wanted to do next. ‘I was very picky about choosing who I worked for when I came back from travelling’ she says, ‘and was careful to choose a company with a great background and a great ethos. I worked as assistant general manager at the Leeds Loch Fyne restaurant and became general manager at Elton in February this year.’

Chiverton freely admits that Loch Fyne menus are a bit more pricey than their competitors but is just as quick to point out that there’s a very good reason for that. ‘Our menus may be quite highly priced but we’re looking after the oceans more than many of our competitors and a lot of people appreciate that now and I think that’s what’s helped us grow.’

Sustainability and responsible fishing have been core values of the Loch Fyne chain from the very beginning. The fact that Noble’s business partner, Andy Lane, was a marine biologist meant their venture was on a sure ecological footing from the outset and that remains a high priority today. For example, Loch Fyne removed swordfish and skate from its menus way back in 2001 because they were considered to be endangered species. It took the supermarkets another six years to catch on to that one and, in fact, some still sell the fish. The company also works closely with the Marine Conservation Society and has recently been awarded four blue fish from the fish2fork website which reviews restaurants according to the sustainability of the seafood they offer. No-one has scored higher.

Balancing the undeniably higher costs of sustainability with competitively-priced menus is the biggest challenge the Loch Fyne chain faces, but it seems to have found a comfortable compromise. Yes, there are £55 lobster and crab platters available should you wish to push the boat out (pun intended), but there are much cheaper dishes available too. Johnny Noble firmly believed that everyone should be able to enjoy good food at a reasonable price, and that philosophy still drives the company today. ‘We want to be competitive’ Chiverton insists. ‘I mean, we are higher-priced than some companies but we have to be for the sake of sustainability. But it doesn’t have to be super expensive. For example, we have an £11.50 lunch menu that’s served every day until 5pm, and our main courses start at around £9. Some of those go up to £19 but there are cheaper ones. And the portions are a really good size; you don’t need to get side orders, they’re all on the plate already so that’s your full meal.’

Fresh produce is obviously paramount in the seafood business which is why the Elton restaurant takes deliveries from Loch Fyne three or four times a week. ‘Everything comes from either Loch Fyne itself or Loch Duart and we always use smaller fishing boats, we don’t use trawlers, it’s always from smaller, family run-type boats. We employ a lot of people around Loch Fyne so it creates lots of jobs too. Things like mussels, oysters, langoustines and scallops come from the loch, and our salmon and herring are all cured there, but we also source a lot of fish from Devon and Cornwall, again using smaller fishing boats.’

An added bonus of this regular supply of fresh fish is that the Elton restaurant will also act as your local fishmonger. ‘You can buy every kind of fish and seafood that’s on our menu’ Chiverton says, ‘but we try to do it more by pre-order now because it saves on waste. We found that some weeks we were selling lots and other weeks not so much, so a lot was being thrown away. We will make up mixed seafood platters for you or dressed salmon, things like that, and we work on two-day notice, so you can order your fish on a Monday and have it on Tuesday, straight from Loch Fyne.’

Chiverton says its the low salinity of the loch that makes its produce so special. And its oysters – the humble little molluscs that kick-started the whole business venture – are amongst the best in the world. ‘They taste great because Loch Fyne is a tidal loch so the oysters don’t taste too salty. The salinity is very low. French oysters, by contrast, tend to be very salty, but Loch Fyne is a perfect environment for oysters to grow in.’

Sadly, Johnny Noble passed away in 2002 at the age of 66, meaning he never got to see the extent his business would grow to (though even at that time it was estimated he was selling over one million oysters a year). The company he founded was bought by Greene King in 2007 for £68 million and continues to grow, although that growth has been somewhat arrested these last three years due to the economic downturn. There is however, talk of further expansion in 2012 or 2013.

Noble has left a fine legacy in his wake, and one that continues to provide much-needed jobs in the remote Highlands of Scotland. He has made the name of his beloved Loch Fyne synonymous with top quality seafood and helped change the ethos of an industry that was in danger of fishing itself out of existence. But has he managed to make oysters as cheap and plentiful as they were in Dickens’ time? The Loch Fyne Restaurant at Elton certainly has a plentiful supply and you can enjoy six of them on a bed of ice, served with shallot vinegar, chilli coriander dressing and Tabasco sauce for £9.95.

Seafood Selection


Prawns – king, 1 king prawn
Lemons, 30 g
Spinach – baby, 50 g
King scallop meat, 60 g
Cooking wine – white, 25 ml
Butter – unsalted, 25 g
Herbs – flat parsley, 1 g
Salmon – fillets fresh, 120 g
Sea Bass Fillets 80g, 80g fillet
Potatoes – mid, 100 g


1. Score the seabass fillet.
. Slice cooked new potatoes.
. Lightly oil & season salmon, king prawn & seabass fillet & cook skin side down on the flat side of the char grill until golden brown.
. Finish salmon & seabass under the grill, sear the scallops in a pan, de-glaze with white wine, lemon juice & finish with butter & chopped parsley.
. Heat a pan with a knob of butter & a tea spoonful of water & wilt the spinach, season before serving, heat new potatoes through microwave with a knob of butter.
. Place spinach down with new potatoes next to spinach.
. Arrange fish around the spinach & new potatoes, finish with king prawn in the middle.
. Finish with the sauce from the scallops.

Samples from the Menu


Loch Fyne Kinglas fillet of smoked salmon sashimi style, served with wasabi and soy sauce: £6.95

Deep-fried salt and pepper Scottish squid with chilli and lime served with wasabi mayonnaise: £6.25

The Fisherman’s Plate: a sharing starter featuring Loch Fyne smoked salmon, Kinglas fillet and Bradan Rost (kiln-roasted salmon fillet), peppered mackerel pâté, rollmop and sherry herrings, smoked prawns and mayonnaise, served with bread: £14.25

Main Courses

Grilled mackerel fillets with a warm rocket, new potato and cherry tomato salad and a caper and mustard dressing: £9.95

Dressed Cromer crab with new potatoes and green beans: £13.85

Whole grilled lemon sole with caper and herb butter served with new potatoes and green beans: £16.95

Loch Fyne moules marinières with white wine, cream, shallots and herbs served with crusty bread: £11.45

Special offers

Kids eat free at weekends. £11.50 dine with wine lunch menu

* Booking is advisable, especially on Friday nights and on Saturdays and Sundays, days and nights.

Loch Fyne, Elton
The Old Dairy, Elton, Cambs, PE8 6SH
Tel: 01832-280298
Email: (link via website)

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