A Brief History Of… Oysters
Illustration by Mr Paul Hempstead
The biography of the slurpy British bivalve.
“An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life,” begins Consider The Oyster, Ms MFK Fisher’s ode to her favourite mollusc. “Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim.” As Ms Fisher goes on to explain, if an oyster survives its early days of roaming as a young spat, drawn far and wide by ocean currents, it will attach itself to the first clean, hard object it bumps into. And then, if it isn’t eaten by a bird or a starfish or some other creature from the deep, it will undoubtedly be eaten by man.
We have been eating oysters since the beginning of our existence, and so their history is as rich and diverse as our own. With the start of British native season upon us, let us sift through the centuries for a pearl or two…
Oysters were essential to early man as a source of food, and the shells might have been the first knives and spoons. There is even evidence to suggest that Neolithic chefs cooked oysters and spiced their food. Mineral fragments found in ancient cooking pots conjure images of a bubbling broth of oysters and fresh cod seasoned with a little garlic-mustard seed.
To the Romans, the native British oyster was a fabled delicacy, fished from areas such as Whitstable Bay and the Fal River Estuary in Cornwall. Similar to today, oysters were served on the shell with a dressing of pepper, lovage, egg yolk, vinegar, garum, olive oil and wine. They were also prescribed for a number of ailments, including indigestion, ulcers and anaemia.
When the Romans withdrew and the Saxons invaded, so a rich culinary culture disappeared. Oyster farms were abandoned, and oysters disappeared from British recipes. It would take centuries for the oyster to become popular again.
The oyster was revived and eaten by rich and poor alike, often cooked in its own juices with a little ale and pepper. They were crucial to the exploration of the world, providing sailors with essential nutrients on long voyages. A dozen oysters can contain as much protein as a 4oz steak and as much calcium as a small glass of milk, as well as a cocktail of vitamins and minerals including vitamin C, B12, iron and zinc.
16th to 17th century
Oysters were eaten informally in taverns or straight from the barrel at street stalls. Small oysters were slurped down raw, while larger ones were cooked in stews, mixed with pork or mutton to make sausages, or stuffed inside fowl and then roasted. Mr Samuel Pepys mentions oysters 68 times in his diary, often eating them for breakfast accompanied by “a great deal of wine”.
Oysters were dredged in huge numbers along the coast by fleets of oyster smacks and the bivalve was eaten in prodigious quantities. By 1851, 500 million oysters, packed in barrels, were going through Billingsgate Market each year, flooding the streets of London, where they were mainly eaten by the working class. Found on almost every street corner, they were the original fast food. As Sam Weller remarks in Mr Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, “poverty and oysters always seem to go together”.
Powerful microscopes revealed the complexity of the oyster’s anatomy and it was used to popularise evolutionary ideas. The Victorian anatomist Mr Thomas Huxley observed, “when the sapid and slippery morsel… glides along the palate, few people imagine that they are swallowing a piece of machinery (and going machinery too) greatly more complicated than a watch”. In fact, an oyster has a three-chambered heart and a pair of kidneys.
By the latter half of the Victorian era, the native oyster beds were exhausted due to pollution and overfishing, and the price of oysters was rising to such an extent that only the prosperous classes could afford to eat them and oysters on the half shell became a status dish.
Oyster beds were largely neglected or abandoned during WWI and WWII, but a few oyster sellers still plied their wares at stalls wheeled on the sands at Blackpool and other seaside towns. Frozen winters in 1929, 1940, 1947 and 1963 wiped out nearly all the native stocks.
Pacific rock oysters were introduced to British waters to replace low stocks of native oysters. Originally from Japan’s Pacific coast, this oyster is available all year round, unlike natives which are best eaten September to April. Most of the oysters we now eat in Britain are rock oysters.
Oyster stocks have gradually increased and with them demand. Festivals celebrating this magnificent mollusc have sprung up around the UK, with Scotland’s first oyster festival taking place last year and the inaugural London Oyster Week this April sparking a frenzy of briny slurps from Bentley’s to Noble Rot. As the indomitable Ms Fisher concludes, the oyster’s “chilly, delicate gray body slips… down a red throat, and it is done. Its life has been thoughtless but no less full of danger, and now that it is over we are perhaps the better for it.”