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There was a certain magic about Hugo and a great deal of natural charm. Our annual supply meetings, which I always looked forward to, would follow a predictable pattern. Hugo would propose prices and a schedule for deliveries; we would then counter with a cheaper offer and a tighter schedule. There would then be a long pause with Hugo looking by turns indignant, exasperated and not a little hurt, all this being signalled by subtle changes of expression and the occasional Gallic shrug. Without barely saying a word he could convey the clear impression that you were definitely unreasonable, possibly stupid and almost certainly mad. It was the usual stand-off and it always ended with the same result. We would accept his terms and agree on the first delivery date - although this itself was never entirely definitive “Well, I’ll try.....” In other words there were greater elements at play than LFO Ltd, these being the weather and the tides and we’d best not forget it.
I don’t think I’ve met anyone who looked more at home both in and on the sea and he had a lot of wisdom on the subject. Just as a good hill farmer knows his stock, where the best forage is at different seasons and the best shelter, so it seemed that Hugo could read a shoreline and understand its vagaries. The various degrees of exposure, the most favoured stretches with greater vitality of water and life; it sounds obvious but not everyone has this gift. Some of us have persisted with stubbornly unproductive sites in a manner that was the marine equivalent of sheep farming on Rockall. Hugo was not one of these.
I first encountered Judith and Hugo on Herm when they were contemplating a move to Argyll. Would we be interested in a consistent supply of good half-ware? Would we?! It was one of our biggest problems, erratic and uncertain supplies, sizes and quality making for spasmodic production and dodgy cash flow. The thought of this spirited and energetic couple moving to Scotland was an exciting one. It was clear that they knew what they were doing and they had the quietly determined air of a couple who, once committed, would stay committed. The still fledgling Scottish oyster community very much needed people from beyond our borders with a depth of knowledge and a wider experience than most of us, who were self-taught and still stuck in a very extended learning curve. Hugo’s formative years in Britanny, his time with Satmar and his transatlantic heritage gave him a degree of experience and breadth of vision that would become a welcome antidote to our more parochial preoccupations on the West coast.
With their cheerful dedication things went well for the Vajk family in Argyll; their third child, Shona was born and over the years Hugo and Judith built a sound and thriving family business. I suppose Caledonian Oysters might be called a ‘brand’ but that term so often stands for synthetic values and glib marketing the absolute antithesis of what they both have created. It is beyond dispute that shellfish growing is no fast track to riches. It is a way of life and a fine and honourable one at that but it requires great application, stoicism, resilience and above all a sense of humour. Hugo had all of these qualities and he was a family man, well liked and widely admired.
John Holmyard’s remembrance is typical of many; “Hugo’s dedication to his profession did not make him one dimensional and evenings spent at Hugo and Judith’s with good wine, shellfish and music will be fondly remembered as times of humour when we could put the world to rights. His dry wit could dissect much of life’s nonsense and his Gallic disposition could shrug it off. He was wonderful company, a great friend and I will miss him very much.”
And he was much liked and respected at Loch Fyne. He was loved for his banter, for his eccentric love of idiosyncratic machinery, for his friendly competitive spirit whether going for the ASSG’s Best Oyster contest or his latter role as crew in local sailing competitions.
Hugo’s was a good life very well lived but it was by unhappy fate just far, far too short.
Andy Lane was one of the first oyster farmers in Scotland setting up Loch Fyne Oysters with Johnny Noble in 1977. He retired from oyster farming in 2006 and now rears Dexter cattle on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall.
Judith has kindly provided some of the earlier history here. “Where to start? Hugo was born in Toronto to an American mum and a Slovenian dad and they moved back and forth across the Atlantic a couple of times before properly settling in Britanny. Hugo attended St. Andrews University to study physics and it was this connection that introduced us through a blind date in Normandy.
Hugo had just started work with Satmar and the date involved a visit to the oyster farm – I think to test my bag-turning skills! I must have passed the test because we went on to set up Herm Island Oysters in 1985. We lived there for 10 years, got married and had Angus and Mairi.”