Say it with oysters

Valentine’s Day is approaching: the biggest occasion of the year for oysters by far. To celebrate, Rachel Walker speaks to Drew Smith, author of Oyster: A Gastronomic History, to learn more about this magnificent mollusc’s remarkable past.

Osias Beert the Elder (c.1580-1624), Dishes with Oysters, Fruit, and Wine, c.1620. © Painting/Alamy

“Did you know that the phrase ‘red light district’ comes from New York oyster bars, which used to put up red balloons to let customers know that  the oysters had arrived?” chuckles Drew Smith, the award-winning writer of Oyster: A Gastronomic History, and much more besides. “It happened in London too: the old Lighthouse Building at King’s Cross used to flash a red beam from its turret.”

It’s one of the many fascinating stories that Drew came across when researching his remarkable oyster history, a 254-page tome that charts the 5 million year story of the mollusc, weaving it into a broad social history, interspersed with 50 recipes from Roman to Native Indian dishes, homestyle cooking to Michelin-starred serves. It makes fascinating reading, particularly in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day: an occasion that highlights how the oyster has, for many, become an annual treat, bought as a one-off, shucked and quickly gulped down.

Billingsgate Market, Thomas Rowlandson, 1808. © Historical Picture Archive/Corbis

But the idea that an oyster is something rare is relatively modern. Smith’s book is a reminder that oysters were, for centuries, an everyday ingredient embedded in Britain’s national cuisine. The recipes demonstrate how readily oysters were incorporated into traditional dishes, often used as a bulking ingredient: calf’s head and oysters (1653); steak, ale and oysters (a classic Victorian pie filling, typically served with carrots and peas); and stuffing for a roast chicken (“it was the fowl, and not the oysters, that was the prized centerpiece of  the dish. The stuffing served purely as a means of  making the meal go further around the table”).

“For centuries, oysters were a dish to feed the poor,” says Drew, explaining that it’s only since the 1900s that oysters have been propelled to luxury status, as stocks have depleted and they have become less and less abundant. In medieval England, heaving oyster beds enjoyed tax loops that guaranteed affordability. On the rare occasions that oysters were thin on the ground, towns would make sure they had enough before any were allowed to be sent to the market. “Oysters were not really seen as a trading commodity,” says Drew. “Herrings were listed as items of trade, but oysters were regarded as essential to the parish and, as such, were set apart.”

A bowler-hatted oyster merchant selling Cleethorpes oysters, Lancashire, c.1900. © Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy

The chapters that chart the oyster’s journey through history from the Middle Ages to the Victorian era make particularly joyous reading. Oysters were celebrated for their medicinal properties and their aphrodisiacal power; they were knocked back by the rich and poor alike; eaten raw and cooked; used as an early fast food to quell a hunger pang; and also to mark a celebration.

Drew’s research sheds light on everyday oyster occasions. There’s the Oyster and Parched Pea Club, which ran in Preston from 1771 to 1841: “a small gathering originally of 12 Tories and the local schoolmaster who met for oysters, port, and peas”. And extracts from Henry Mayhew’s London chronicles, which describe the bucket-loads of free oysters propped on the bars of taverns throughout the capital to encourage drinking: “the shells went under the floorboards as insulation and into the lime for building the city of London”.

Colchester Oyster Feast programme, October 20, 1896 © Amoret Tanner/Alamy

The oyster beds around our coastline were booming. At the turn of the 20th century, global consumption was estimated at 10 billion oysters, and Britain was doing a roaring trade. In 1871, 10 million oysters were gathered from the seafloor of Swansea Bay and the Gower. Meanwhile, in Essex alone, the number of dredged oysters hovered round the 3 million mark in 1895, and in 1901 the Hampshire towns of Emsworth and Warblington employed between 300 and 400 people in the oyster trade – a huge proportion of the 3000-strong population.

But that peak turned out to be the precipice of a decline: a chain of events, described by Drew as “a succession of disasters” sent oysters’ fortunes tumbling. Over the following decades, the pub buckets and street stands disappeared, and the oyster almost completely vanished from the home cooking repertoire. What happened in Emsworth was a classic example, echoed in towns up and down the coast:

“From the earliest times, drains from all the homes around the harbor ran down to the water, and the waste was taken by the ebb tide. Emsworth was one of  the first towns to join its drains together. Untreated sewage was emptied over the oyster beds. Emsworth oysters were then served at two separate banquets on November 10, 1902, at Southampton and at Winchester. Everyone who ate the oysters fell sick and four people at the Winchester ceremony later died. The beds were closed.”

Oystermen and oyster smacks from Brightlingsea, Essex, 1928. Image courtesy of William Francis on behalf of Mersea Island Museum, Essex

The Faversham oyster beds were killed by the runoff from a paper mill. Larvae and reefs in the Thames were stunted by tributyltin, used to paint the underside of ships, as well as a succession of harsh winters (1929, 1940, 1947) that froze the river and killed millions of  oysters. In the 1980s a new disease, Bonamia ostreae, decimated remaining stocks and as recently as the 1990s there were whispers that oysters might even become extinct. Drew quotes RR Neild’s 1995 book, The English, the French and the Oyster, which begins with an obituary: “Oysters are such a rarity in England today that they can scarcely be found outside a few bars in London.”

In the 20 years between the publication of that book and Drew’s historythere has been a heartening change of fortune that allows Oyster: A Gastronomic History to end on an optimistic note. Drew references surviving beds that have opened their own restaurants: Butley Orford Oysterage, Whitstable Oyster Company, Wright Brothers, Duchy of Cornwall and Loch Fyne.

Fresh oysters on a market stall, Deauville, Normandy. © Brian Harris/Alamy

Better yet, Drew looks across the Atlantic, to successful initiatives that have replenished stocks on a grand scale, such as the Billion Oyster Project, which, as its name suggests, aims to restore a billion live oysters to New York Harbor, or the Brevard Oyster Restoration: a 156-mile-long project spanning five Florida counties that aims to create 68 new oyster reefs by laying 42,000 special mats.

The successes of these schemes are being replicated in Britain. As a result of an ongoing clean-up scheme in Porlock Bay, oysters  were seen there last year for the first time in 120 years, and only last week the project secured a £75,000 grant to further the shellfish farming project. Such regeneration could put oysters back on the menu. Restaurants like the Richmond, which opened last year, replicate Mayhew’s Victorian pub scenes with £1 oyster happy hours, and this year Morrisons is selling oysters for just 25p in the lead up to Valentine’s Day.

“Oyster stocks work very differently to fish stocks,” says Drew. “With fish, it’s a case of ‘I might or I might not catch a turbot today’, but with oysters, you either have five million or you have none.” Having come so close to none over the last few decades, here’s hoping that stocks one day return to the 19th-century glory years: so abundant that, one day, I might find them an acceptable ingredient for chicken stuffing too.

Trade card for J Ludington & Co’s Baltimore Oysters, featuring an imaginary shoreline scene, c.1880. The rowers’ boat and hats are all made of oyster shells. © Getty Images: Transcendental Graphics

Oyster: A Gastronomic History (with Recipes), by Drew Smith, Abrams, £18.99. Drew Smith is former editor of The Good Food Guide. He has been a restaurant writer for the Guardian and has won the Glenfiddich award, which recognises outstanding food and drink writing, three times. He has written extensively on food and cooking including his much-acclaimed series of books on supermarket foods, Good Food and on restaurant cooking, Modern Cooking. He lives in London.

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