By Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
They are extreme eating, ancient and seductive. But beware, the mollusc bites back.
Use your bare hands. Raise the half-shell to your mouth, throw back your head and scrape the creature from its lair with your teeth. Taste its briny juice and squelch it slightly against the palate before swallowing it alive. Now that the seas are cold again and the oysters are at their best, it is the only way to eat them: raw, naked and alive.
You see fussy people fiddling with them in restaurants, coating them with lemon juice strained through muslin napkins, or dousing them with bizarrely flavoured vinegars, or sprinkling them with sauce. This is deliberate provocation, designed to refresh the oyster before it dies in the diner’s mouth: a little mild torture under which you sometimes think you can see the victims wriggle. The diner then manipulates spoon and fork, prising and sliding the oyster out of its bed on to a curl of cold silver. The sheen of the creature clashes with the shine of the cutlery. The eater raises the slick, slippery mollusc to his lips.
People who eat them that way forfeit the full, true oyster moment. For most of history oyster eaters enjoyed the slightly foetid, tangy smell of the inside of the shell, undoused by disguising dressings, untainted with acid or onion, unstained by Tabasco or tomato purée. This was how the Roman gourmet Ausonius liked them “in their sweet juice”, mingled with the unique reward of the oyster eater: an otherwise unattainable sensation of the sea.
Oysters are extreme eating: food so natural that it is savage, so ancient that it is pre-civilised. Until the 20th century, you could plot progress, in most expert opinions, according to the amount of time food spent on the stove. Then the process went into reverse and the status of a diner became measurable in the depth of blood drawn from his steak. Now the rawness revolution is upon us. Raw is ritzy. Sushi is on the street. Sashimi enthusiasts happily run the risk of botulism.
So why not go one step further and eat your creature alive? It can hardly affect the morality of the meal but it increases the zest. Aborigines crunch witchetty grubs, plump with half-digested eucalyptus pulp in their guts. In the Sudan, Nuer lovers pop their live body lice into each other’s mouths like sweetmeats. The Masai herdsman draws fresh blood from the beast on the hoof. Buryats of the Asiatic steppeland hack fat from the tail of a living sheep. Ethiopians like honeycombs with the young larvae still alive in the chambers.
In our culture, oysters are as close as most of us can get to experiences such as these. They arrive in unopened shells, full of the seawater that sustains them. You can see that the oyster is alive when you eat it: prod it with a pin and it retracts. Squeeze it with lemon and it winces. The eater is the hunter. This makes oyster eating historic, romantic and horrific. Therefore, it is a rare, desired and expensive experience.
Oysters appeal, above all, because eating them is an antidote to civilisation — a “back to nature” experiment, reconnecting with primitivism. Civilisation satiates. Elaborate recipes sicken modern eaters. Restaurants simplify. Supermarkets affect eco-awareness and sell nature in packets. Ingredients struggle free of sauces. Raw is more, mess is less. Raw-food faddists engage in adventure — like a TV survival island reality show, but without the discomfort.
As well as raw and live, the oyster is attractive because it is dangerous. Oysters accumulate poison. In summer, inside the algae that nourish them, dinoflagellates multiply — literally, “terrible scourges” that make shellfish potentially deadly. This is food that fights back. Eaters dice with death or diarrhoea.
The commonest sources of discomfort are bacteria, especially Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which loves warm sea water. Eat infected oysters and the symptoms will set in gradually: retching and runs, fever and stomach pains. Ingest, however, an oyster carrying Vibrio vulnificus bacteria, and septicaemia may follow. A couple of summer oysters infected with saxitoxin can kill you.
Nowadays, you can get oysters, even in summer, which are bred and treated to reduce the risk. I find this unnatural as well as unnerving. Summer oysters never taste right, because the spawning season changes the texture and flavour recedes. As the oysters brace to breed — which they do when the water turns warm — the valves gape open and swell; the molluscs soften. Some people think you need smoke, fire or acid to winnow the bacteria down to below danger levels, but the best precaution is to stick to oysters in season: cold waters are hostile to the deadly micro-organisms.
Oyster-magic is savage, but in civilisation oysters have also acquired the mystique of myth. They are little gems, secreted in crusty caskets: this alone makes them alluring. They reproduce without sex but inspire eroticism. Every oyster is an hermaphrodite, extruding millions of minuscule offspring — almost all of which are doomed to die. Starfish hug them to death. The American oyster-drill pierces them. Crabs crack them open between their claws. Even in modern aquaculture labs, most oyster “spat” — as the young are called — perish within weeks, whereas oysters worth eating take three years to grow.
Antiquity allied them to luxury. Christianity made them respectable — even ascetic. Sexless reproduction (“dewy pregnancy”, as Classical physiology put it) made oysters seem fit food for chaste vocations. These saintly shellfish became fertile, according to Albertus Magnus, the 13th-century philosopher and theologian, by “absorbing the dew that descends from the heavens”. The analogy was obvious: this was parthenogenesis by divine intervention — the same means by which the Virgin Mary got pregnant. And, like the oyster, she bred a pearl beyond price.
This elaborate thinking collapsed in a more secular age. In Dutch 17th-century paintings oysters evoke the very opposite of virginity: brothel fare, accompaniments to seduction — not because they affect the metabolism when you eat them but because they affect the senses when you see them. They are unmistakably suggestive of female sex organs, with their squelchy textures, viscous ooze and aphrodisiac sheen. The last uncomplicatedly erotic oyster painting was Matisse’s Still Life with Oysters in 1940: the phallic knife lies inert, having prized open the slippery morsels. The next year, Picasso painted his reply: Still Life with Sausage, in which the knife is an alien threat, waiting to sever the bulging forcemeat.
In the past 200 years oysters’ social profile has undergone profound transformations. Industrialisation cheapened them. Early in the second half of the 19th century, 80 million oysters a year reached London from the Whitstable fishery alone — as we learn from an enchanting new illustrated history of the Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company. They became a working-class staple with “an oyster stall to every half-dozen houses”. Tiny Tim swallowed them by the dozen “with pepper and vinegar too”.
The abundance was partly the result of natural, little-understood fluctuations in the oyster population, but human intervention helped.
Victor Coste, Napoleon III’s aquaculture expert, toured the Mediterranean, studying local methods of encouraging oysters to propagate and introduced them systematically to the oyster fisheries of Britanny and Gascony. Breton spat saved the British industry when overfishing and cold winters wiped out the breeding stock.
This sort of phenomenon was repeated all over the world: places where oysters breed became separated — often by hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles — from the feeding basins where they fatten in nutrient-rich estuaries. Chile, which never had oysters before, is now a major supplier. Exhausted oysteries are being restocked with farmed varieties from distant seas. As in Whitstable, so in the world.
Some species are easy to cultivate because they will readily adhere to the stone tiles, bags of bric-a-brac and wooden scaffolds that oyster-farmers shove into the sea to induce the spat to settle. The Whitstable native is one of the angry oysters which resents these attentions: a fussy oyster, that you have to track laboriously to unpredictable natural beds and encourage by shooing away predators. Fastidious eaters prefer fussy oysters: you can recognise the native by the flat, round shell. The more industrialised “Portuguese” rock oyster is deep and oval.
In the era of oyster abundance, the surplus got cooked: working-class mothers shoved them into steak puddings to make up for the deficiency of meat. Chic chefs devised fancy recipes in an attempt to elevate this humble food to elite status: oysters à la Brolatti in wine sauce, oysters florentine in mornay sauce on a bed of spinach, or oysters Rockefeller, spread with creamed spinach and flecks of bacon. I once had an impressive dish in the coffee-room of the Athenaeum: oysters lightly poached in white wine and dabbed with green bechamel. But these dishes are all evasive: the oyster’s essence is raw. Some modern oysters are bred for cooking: these are not fit for eating.
So please do not cook your oysters. Today, the world’s most prolific oyster eatery is New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar. They commonly have 16 varieties on the menu and serve two million oysters a year. More than 1,700,000 of them are served raw, which suggests that nearly 90 per cent of people have the right idea. And, when you eat them, discard the panoply of civilisation. Use your hands.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Food: A History is published by Pan, £7.99. Offer price £6.79, plus 99p p&p (0870-160 8080). The author teaches at Queen Mary, University of London