“Great Seafood & Good Times”
“Secret and self-contained and solitary as an oyster” - Dickens.
Charles Dickens knew what he was talking about when he described this mythical mollusc steeped in legend, which can divide opinion and is perfectly partnered with Champagne or a pint of Guinness. As part of our Friends and Festivities series, we visited the wonderful Wright Brothers in Borough Market, where we met up with friend of the brand Robin Hancock, co-founder of the seafood empire that is Wright Brothers to unpack some of the oyster myths and celebrate the wonderful 21 year journey he and his brother-in-law Ben Wright have been on. Let the festivities begin!
Robin Hancock and Ben Wright started Wright Brothers seafood in 2002. Like their namesake, (the Wright Brothers who made and flew the first powered airplane in 1902) these brothers are pioneers, but of the oyster. Experts in every stage from farming and buying the best seafood to preparing it and shipping it to our tables they know every inch of this process because they have experienced it all. When we arrived it wasn’t long before Robin was behind the bar shucking oysters, offering us drinks, introducing us to his favourite oyster accoutrement, a “Black Velvet” (look it up, it’s delicious, popular in Ireland and has something to do with Queen Victoria in mourning) and generally making us feel thoroughly welcome!
It’s been quite the trip since Ben went to France to see his friend Jerome at his oyster farm. Ben was a corporate lawyer at the time and he translated for Jerome as he negotiated a new farm site off the coast of Jersey. Ben was blown away with the whole oyster farming thing; he got straight on the phone to his brother-in-law Robin and said “you’ve got to come and see this”- and the rest, as they say, is history. So, they became oyster merchants and Wright Brothers was created, importing and selling Jerome’s beautiful French oysters. After the first few years, when they worked out of their front rooms with only their home fridges to store seafood, in 2005 they acquired their wholesale depot in Borough Market. Robin has many enthralling stories from around this time of him and Ben driving around London’s top restaurants in their van, trying to sell their oysters to city’s celebrated chefs. Robin told us; “We would phone up on a Monday and ask restaurants what they’d like for a Thursday, which is not the way that restaurants worked at the time. We met this lovely Irish guy called David who turned out to be Terence Conran’s partner at Le Pont de la Tour, and went on to open The Wolseley with Chris Galvin”. Soon the Caprice Holdings, Gordon Ramsays and Chiltern Firehouse’s of this world were putting Wright Brothers oysters on the menu.
In the same year as setting up the wholesale business at Borough Market Ben and Robin went into business as restauranteurs. Their site at 11 Stoney Street, right opposite the main entrance to London’s famous food market seemed to cry out for what was to become the iconic Wright Brothers Oyster and Porter House it is today.
“We landed our first restaurant here at Borough Market, the most incredible place to open your first restaurant, full of foodies, local businesses, tourists, it just grew into this most incredible place.”
Meanwhile, after seeing some success in their wholesale business in 2005 Robin and Ben acquired the Duchy of Cornwall Oyster farm on the Helford River estuary. The farm was dilapidated when they took it over, but historically had been one of the great oyster growing environments in the United Kingdom. While Robin headed up the wholesale business from Borough Market, Ben moved to Cornwall to work on re-establishing and regenerating the farm. With their newly acquired French oyster boat he prepared the riverbed, dredging it of the silt and mud which had been suffocating it, to make it into a healthy environment for growing oysters. In doing so they created an incredible eco-environment. As oysters grow, they filter and clean the water so their little farm restored the marine environment and saw the return of wildlife to the area. At its peek Ben and Robin grew around 14 million oysters a year at the Duchy of Cornwall farm, so quite a big deal! And as if life wasn’t busy enough, they took on the locals favourite Ferry Boat Inn overlooking the estuary they farmed, taking their oysters and other local seafood straight from the sea to their kitchens.
“So we found ourselves as oyster farmers, restaurateurs and wholesalers quite quickly, which was a very exciting experience but not without its challenges”.
The wholesale business continued to grow at a rapid rate, so they packed up shop in Helford and moved Ben back to join forces with Robin in London. They moved the wholesale site to Billingsgate Fish Market in 2015 and acquired a depot in Brixham – one of England’s most prolific fish markets. So, they now had access to amazing coastal seafood, extending their business to supply not just oysters but other incredible shellfish and seafood. They were, and still are, the only UK oyster wholesaler to sell up to fifteen different types of oyster, and they sell quite a lot of them! They now source their oysters from around the UK and Ireland, France and Canada working with the experts to buy the best. They opened a second restaurant in Soho and then others in Spitalfields Market, South Kensington and then more recently in another iconic location, Battersea Power Station. The Wright Brothers family has grown from the 2 brothers to a 250 strong team, a supportive family culture drives them all to stick around and never want to leave.
The Covid years hit their industry particularly hard and forced them to look for a new angle to keep their fisherman working and oysters growing. They created Wright Brothers at Home, extending their Brixham base to include a prepping and packing service taking the fish straight “from the shore to the door”. Their fantastic home-delivery service offers next day delivery of beautiful fresh seafood across the UK. Which brings us back to Christmas, their online ‘Christmas Foodhall’ is packed with delicious and indulgent ideas for the festive season. To complement this experience, they started producing their Essentiel by Wright Brothers Champagne and Wright Brother Half Shell Gin. They worked with London’s Portobello Rd based master distillers The Ginstitute to infuse their oyster gin with the natural minerals and oceanic freshness from the discarded oyster shells. Their Champagne again is made in collaboration with the experts, world renowned Piper-Heidsieck. They have created an exceptional Extra Brut carefully curated together at their chateaux.
They are proud to support the British Fishing Industry, sourcing straight from the boats around our shores through their team of experienced buyers at Brixham Market. Buying in this hands-on way using their experienced coastal team means that they can tell you exactly which boat has landed your fish. They source sustainably by working with smaller boats that use the most sustainable catch methods.
Wright Brothers have recently set up their Sea Change Foundation supporting a number of oceanic charities. One is the Blue Marine Foundation supporting their project to restore the native oyster beds to our shores. Wright Brothers are in the process of collecting all the discarded oyster shells from the restaurants that they supply in London for “cultch” which is used to create the perfect environment on the seabed for the oyster larvae to settle.
There are of course dreams for the future, to make seafood great again. Opening more restaurants is at the top of the list and we can see why, for Robin and Ben gain so much simple pleasure in seeing people enjoy their produce. After only a short while and one delicious lunch spent with Robin it’s so clear that this is a passion, a hobby that’s taken off and run away with them. The passionate team, the restaurants, the happy customers; they all reflect their love for what they do. And you can take it from us, the food they serve does too, it’s simple, delicious and a celebration of our coastline. Like Aubin, Wright Brothers is a celebration of the best of British; as another icon once nearly wrote - If music be the seafood of life, play on!
For some insanely good seafood this Christmas and the perfect not so obvious gifting ideas, order Fruits de Mer straight to the door, head to their website- www.wrightbrothers.co.uk