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Food

The world’s your oyster

Peter Holthusen discovers that at £2 a swallow there’s an increasing demand for the one-time labourer’s lunch


"The oyster should be served in its half-shell, surrounded by crushed ice and some fresh parsley. It should be given a squeeze of lemon (which makes it wrinkle), a dash of sea salt and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper"

Oysters, like champagne and caviar, are today the epitome of extravagant living. It was, however, not always thus. Until the middle of the last century, these curious molluscs were the staple diet of the labouring classes.

In 1710, a dozen oysters at a Billingsgate market stall in London would cost you, were you lowly enough to go there, as little as one penny. Even in 1840, a dozen could be bought for under 2p (they have always been sold by the dozen or half-dozen).

Charles Dickens, in ‘The Pickwick Papers’, describes Sam Weller commenting to the eponymous hero Mr. Pickwick as they drive on a coach through London’s unsavoury Whitechapel, “It’s a remarkable circumstance, Sir, that poverty and oysters always seem to go together.” Indeed, the oyster could have certainly done little harm to the poor, since it is one of the richest sources of protein (but not, alas, despite popular legend, an aphrodisiac).


 

The native oyster was one of Britain’s earliest exports – the Roman’s didn’t consider a feast a feast without oysters in a place of honour on their menu. It is said that Julius Caesar himself was so passionate about oysters that he invaded Britain to secure her famous oyster beds

Archaeological records of old middens, or shell heaps in the Ashmolean Museum testify to the prehistoric importance of oysters as food. The town of Whitstable on the north coast of Kent is noted for oyster farming from beds on the Kentish Flats that have been used since Roman times, and the town’s links with the oyster industry are celebrated each year at the annual Whitstable Oyster Festival.

There is evidence, however, that the celebration of the fish and oyster industry in the town goes back much further than the mid-19th century. Apart from the Roman’s love of the native, Whitstable was a well-established fishing port in Norman times, and it was customary to hold some sort of festival of thanksgiving.

Logically, this would be held when business was slack, in the summer. Coupled to that is the fact that the ‘Feast Day’ for St. James of Compostela (the Patron Saint of fishermen and oystermen) falls on 25th July, so it is not surprising the United Kingdom hosts several other annual oyster festivals, for example the celebrated Colchester Oyster Fayre, held in the Essex town since the 14th century, and the Woburn Oyster Festival held in Woburn, Bedfordshire, while Ireland plays host to the world-famous Clarenbridge and Galway Oyster Festivals that take place each September.

Many British breweries produce Oyster Stout, a beer intended to be drunk with oysters that sometimes includes the mollusc in the brewing process. Oysters have had a very long association with stout. When stouts were emerging in the 18th century, oysters were a commonplace food often served in public houses and taverns. By the turn of the 20th century, oyster beds were in decline, and stout had given way to pale ale. The first known brewery to use oysters as part of the brewing process of stout was in 1938 by the old Hammerton Brewery in London, which ceased to trade in the late 1950s and was later demolished.

However, in 2014 a member of the Hammerton family decided to resurrect the brewery and their celebrated Oyster Stout has been given a new lease of life, using fresh Maldon oysters as part of the brewing process.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, Whitstable shipped up to 80 million oysters a year to Billingsgate market, on board ‘market-hoys’, feeding the same passion for the Whitstable native – the Ostrea edulis – that the Roman’s displayed near enough 2,000 years before.

The popularity of oysters as the staple diet of the labouring classes all changed in the 1850s, with many of the ancient oyster beds being infected by various diseases which reduced harvests and severely depleted local populations. The so-called ‘Dermo’ fungus was thought to be the main culprit, which is caused by a protozoan parasite. It is a prevalent pathogen, causes massive mortality, and poses a significant economic threat to the oyster industry. The disease is not a direct threat to humans consuming infected oysters, but over the years the oyster became scarce and expensive, and that is how it has stayed. Today, a dozen oysters will set you back around £15-20.

As with many scarce desirables, a tremendous ballyhoo has come to surround the oyster. If cod were as rare as caviar and caviar as common as cod, no doubt we would splash vinegar on our caviar and demand freshly-sliced lemons for our teaspoonful of cod.

The very opening, or ‘shucking’ of an oyster is an elaborate ceremony of almost forgotten rituals. For this task there is a special stubby broad-bladed knife with a point and a fat wooden handle that fits snugly into the palm of the hand.

The oyster is held in one hand, surrounded by a kitchen cloth for safety, and the knife is gently entered into the hinge at the base of the shell. With a bit of a push and a pull, the knife is levered between the valves (preferably to the left) and twisted. It is then slipped across to the far side, with the blade kept close to the upper shell, and scraped back, cutting the centre muscle on the way. The flatter upper shell is then discarded, leaving the lower shell and its mouth-watering contents for consumption. If it all sounds complicated, that is because it is. One wonders how the labouring denizens of Whitechapel coped.

 

There are many recipes for oysters but the paragon of Victorian cookery, Mrs Beeton, felt that the best way to serve an oyster was “au naturel” and most shellfish enthusiasts would still agree with her

 

That means the oyster should be served in its half-shell, surrounded by crushed ice and some fresh parsley. It should be given a squeeze of lemon (which makes it wrinkle), a dash of sea salt and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper. The eater should then raise the shell to the lips and – not to put too fine a point on it – suck the oyster into the mouth and swallow immediately. The oyster should then be washed down with champagne, a good white wine (preferably Chablis) or Guinness, taken with a thin slice of buttered brown or soda bread.

Hardly something one can sit and savour. Yet the sharp sensation of the oyster can be felt at the back of the throat.

Ernest Hemingway tells in ‘Moveable Feast’ how his hero ate an oyster and tasted “that strong taste of the sea and the faint metallic taste that white wine quickly washes away, leaving only the sea and that succulent texture.”

Professionals will tell you there is no way to tell a ‘good oyster’ except by tasting it (which may seem a little drastic if it is bad, since you must swallow the mollusc all or nothing) and by knowing its origin. As a wine buff will tell you by taste which side of the hill the grapes grew, so an oyster gourmet will tell you the farm his oyster came from.

Some oysters grow wild, but the great majority are cultivated and very carefully farmed before being transferred to specially prepared beds at a river mouth, where the harmonious blend of fresh and salt water is vital to their well-being. It takes three to five years for an oyster to become ready for harvesting.

As with a good malt whisky, it’s the water that gives the thing its flavour. A grown oyster takes in and expels up to four gallons an hour. The very high quality over many generations of the Royal Whitstable oyster, which has a wonderfully unique earthy taste, is largely due to the fresh water streams between Whitstable and Faversham.

Tasting saltier and more sea-like, the world famous Colchester Pyefleet is still reared on the mud flats of Pyefleet Creek and the Colne Estuary in Essex according to principles laid down by Richard I almost 800 years ago, while the much larger imported Portuguese variety is bred and fattened on the River Alde, passing by Snape and Aldeburgh in Suffolk.

The oyster is generally in season in the months that have an ‘R’ in their names. For those eight months, enthusiasts would often drop in three or four times a week for a dozen at one or another of the oyster bars in which London once abounded. But as the price has risen, the bars have dwindled.

Those that remain, like Sweeting’s in Queen Victoria Street, Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill near Shaftesbury Avenue, the Bibendum Oyster Bar in Chelsea, Wilton’s of St. James’s and the now legendary J. Sheekey Oyster Bar in the heart of Covent Garden, still serve them for the most part as Mrs Beeton prescribed. But some have speciality recipes.

In the centre of Oxford, the Loch Fyne Seafood Bar & Grill in Jericho serve a mouth-watering platter of hot oysters, cooked in a tempura batter, with chilli jam and lime, while Fishers Restaurant located in St Clements, just a few minutes’ walk from Magdalen Bridge, offer an exciting array of seasonal oysters. Wheelers Oyster Bar in Whitstable make oyster sausages. English’s of Brighton serve them on crushed ice, with red wine and shallot vinegar, or gently grilled Oysters Rockefeller, which consists of oysters in their half-shell that have been topped with parsley, green herbs or seaweed, and a rich butter sauce and bread crumbs

 

Gow’s long established seafood restaurant in London’s Old Broad Street offer delicious Oyster Brochettes (the recipe starts: Take 36 oysters and 10 slices of bacon … ) and an 8oz steak stuffed with oysters. The famous Butley Orford Oysterage in Suffolk serve a hearty Oyster Soup, while Green’s of Whitby in North Yorkshire are renowned for their Oysters Kilpatrick, a classic English recipe involving plump oysters, cheese, Worcestershire sauce and bacon lardons.

On the rugged west coast of Ireland, a visit to Moran’s Oyster Cottage on The Weir in Co. Galway is always an experience to behold. Willie Moran believes passionately in one thing – oysters. Not just any oysters, but the succulent native Clarenbridge oysters from the creek at Kilcolgan which runs into Galway Bay. Celebrity customers at this waterside pub include Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Pierce Brosnan, Kate Winslet, Colin Farrell, Julia Roberts and Naomi Campbell.

Oysters have been the speciality of the house since Daniel Moran, who arrived in the area in the 1760s, obtained a liquor licence and founded the business. Willie, who is the sixth generation of the Moran family held the International and World Titles in the Oyster Opening competitions for two successive years – his best time being 1 minute 31 seconds for thirty oysters.

None, thank heaven, emulate the USA, where oysters are more common and therefore cheaper and quite often spiced up with sauces similar to those they squirt onto their hamburgers. Throughout the 19th century, the oyster beds in New York harbour became the largest source of oysters worldwide. On any given day in the late 19th century, 6 million oysters could be found on barges tied up alongside the city’s bustling waterfront. They were naturally quite popular in New York City, and helped initiate the city’s restaurant trade, of which The Grand Central Oyster Bar on East 42nd Street is perhaps the most famous and noted for serving the largest selection of oysters in the world.

And none supply a classic Victorian recipe for “grand occasions” which begins: Take 2 dozen oysters, add ¾ pint of double cream, ¾ pint of béchamel sauce, and 1 glass of white wine … Grand indeed!

Oysters, however, are the victims of more gratuitous ‘cheffiness’ than any other food. These little bivalves have suffered the indignities of poaching, grilling, frying, even stuffing, when all they really want – to paraphrase Greta Garbo – is to be left alone. Rock oysters can take a squeeze of lemon and perhaps a drop of tabasco, and native oysters need only a chilly glass of Chablis to be at their briny best.

In their breeding beds at the bottom of the sea, the oyster’s shell remains open except when there’s trouble about. The frankly unimposing exterior conceals a creature of almost microchip complexity. It has two hearts, changes sex once a year, grows a propeller, has its own radar system and can produce a valuable jewel

Most pearl-producing oysters are inedible, however, and very unlikely to find their way to your dining table – although a waiter at Scott’s in Mount Street, London, once found 40 pearls in one shell. It is said he never recovered from the shock.

A pearl is actually created by accident. A foreign body gets into the oyster. He (or she, depending on the year) relieves the discomfort by building a protective layer around it. In three years, the layer becomes a pearl.

The largest known natural pearl in the world, The Pearl of Lao Tzu (previously referred to as The Pearl of Allah), in part because of its distinct resemblance to the turbaned head of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, was found in the Palawan Sea in the Phillipines in 1934, and was discovered by a Filipino diver. It is not considered to be a gemstone pearl, but a “clam”or “Tridacna pearl” from a giant clam. It measures 24 centimeters in diameter (9.45 inches) and weighs a staggering 6.4 kilograms (14.1 lb), and is valued at around £28 million. The giant clam yielded its pearl only after slaying the native diver trapped when its jaws snapped shut.

At £2 a swallow, oysters have become the preserve of the rich and famous. The Duke of Windsor was reputed to have ordered 200 to be sent round to Buckingham Palace from Wilton’s of St. James’s every time he visited London to see his mother, Queen Mary.

What Victorian labourer, sinking a dozen oysters for a cheap lunch at a market stall in Billingsgate 140 years ago, could have envisaged that today kings, princes and celebrities would be shelling out for them more money than he could possibly hope to earn in four months.

In 1859, Charles Dickens wrote an article in his weekly literary journal, entitled ‘The Happy Fishing Ground’, and said of Whitstable and its intrepid oystermen: “Its one idea is oysters … its best thoughts are devoted to oysters.” Little has changed even now.

 

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