Drew Smith’s Oyster: A Gastronomic History offers readers a global view of the oyster, tracing its role in cooking, art, literature, and politics from the dawn of time to the present day. Oysters have inspired chefs, painters, and writers alike, have sustained communities financially and ecologically, and have loomed large in legend and history. Using the oyster as the central theme, Smith has organized the book around time periods and geographical locations, looking at the oyster’s influence through colorful anecdotes, eye-opening scientific facts, and a wide array of visuals. The book also includes fifty recipes—traditional country dishes and contemporary examples from some of the best restaurants in the world. Renowned French chef Raymond Blanc calls Oyster “a brilliant crusade for the oyster that shows how food has shaped our history, art, literature, law-making, culture, and of course love-making and cuisine.”
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About the Author
Drew Smith is former editor of The Good Food Guide, which was a number-one bestseller for 10 years. He has been a restaurant writer for the Guardian newspaper and has won the Glenfiddich award, which recognizes outstanding food and drink writing, three times.
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IN THE BEGINNING
The oyster is older than us. Older than grass. It was here at the start of civilization, at the start of the world.
Oysters are found in the late Paleozoic era. To put numbers on that, the Paleozoic era was 542 to 251 million years ago — that is four billion years after the origins of the earth, and 3.3 billion years after the origins of life. By any criteria, the oyster is an extraordinary survivor.
Oyster fossils are evident in Portland stone in Dorset, England, which was formed in the Jurassic period. In Peru, giant oyster shells dating back 200 million years have been found 2 miles (1.6 km) above sea level in the Andes. Whatever the precise numbers of locations, oysters have been around for a very, very long time.
Prehistoric kitchen middens (ancient sites of buried domestic refuse) have been uncovered around the world. On a shore of the Kattegat in Denmark the shell mounds included mainly oysters, cockles, mussels, and periwinkles. Similar finds have been made along the west coast of Ireland, while in Brittany, at St.-Michel-en-l'Herm, the shell banks were 700 yards (640 m) long, 300 yards (275 m) wide and stood 15 feet (4.5 m) above the marsh. Archaeologists have found other huge caches at Mycenae in southern Greece and in Japan and Australia. Much of what we know about early Native Americans derives from the study of the early oyster shell middens they left behind along the coast all the way from Mississippi to Maine, and others such as those near the Damariscotta River.
THE FIRST KNIVES, FORKS, VOTES, AND BOATS
Oysters were essential to early humans. In the Neolithic period, the oyster was more than a source of food. The shells might have been the first knives and spoons, even digging implements. The luminescent inner coating of mother-of-pearl was lovingly fashioned into ornaments or adorned the first religious icons; the rest might have been broken down and mixed with sand for cement for building. The oyster was traded for flesh and for shell and — most coveted of all — the pearl.
When explorers arrived in Britain around 4000 BC from Brittany, the population quadrupled in 400 years, which points to the arrival of settling communities and disowns the idea that hunter-gatherers slowly converted new areas. These first Europeans moved by boat, exploring cove to cove, secure in the knowledge that each inlet was a larder. Travelers could secure a safe settlement around an oyster bed and move on. As their boats got bigger they could travel farther, hugging the coast and keeping sight of the rocky edges of land where there was food. Oysters were so abundant that a man just had to drop over the side and prise a bunch of shells from the reef, shuck them open — if he had iron — or throw them in the fire to roast and open easily in the heat.
These first explorers were covemen moving slowly around the coastlines, hugging the shore and settling for short times in the most fertile estuaries. These first civilizations, or perhaps more appropriately cultures, moved by sea, not by land, and were anything but unsophisticated.
Oysters point to another crucial discovery for early man — salt. The shallow bays and inlets where the oyster flourished were necessarily tidal. The oyster's sensitivity to the level of salt was a clear clue that here was man's first preservation material for his own salvation.
The oyster even infuses the very language we use. The Greek word ostrea means "to leave out." In Greek elections, voters etched their mark on the mother-of-pearl shell, from which act of choosing one faction over the other derives the word ostracism. Wherever you go in history, wherever there are oysters, there are the guts and bones of human history. The great seafaring nations — Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Japan, and America — have all enjoyed an oyster culture. This is not completely unconnected. Oystermen needed boats, and wherever there have been oysters aplenty, there has quickly built up a trade in shipbuilding around it, often distinct and individual according to the needs of the oystermen, or indeed the needs of the sailors for whom oysters were a necessary accompanying food with which to travel. The ships that were built then needed sails, which created cloth-making industries in the same areas. Essex famously traded with Flanders in the Middle Ages and later the seamstresses of the Chesapeake turned their skilled hands to shirts and suits for Manhattan financiers. Originally oystermen were the navy. In France a sailor's pension from the navy could be an oyster bed.
MIDDENS: FRAGMENTS OF PREHISTORY
There may have been trade in British oysters in Europe before the Greek and Roman eras. If you lay the map of megalithic monuments in Europe down, you will find it overlaps precisely with the locations of the oystercoves of the time. The long barrows and ancient stone tombs are rarely found more than a few miles from the sea and, predictably, near oyster coves. Water was often regarded as sacred. Offerings to gods and goddesses were cast in the currents.
The dramatic burial mound at Newgrange on the river Boyne, Ireland, predates Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, and the building of the ancient Egyptian pyramids. It is thought to date from around 3200 BC as a site of celebration or worship of the winter solstice. The Boyne itself is home to many other Neolithic monuments and was clearly an important location during the period. In Celtic Connections (1996) Simant Bostock says:
All that remained of these people at Newgrange were four huge, shallow stone basins on the floor of the alcoves of the inner chamber; some cremated human remains, nine heads and pins damaged from funeral pyres, stone pendants, seven stone balls, fragments of flint tools, animal bones and shells (the remains of ritual feasts, offerings to the spirits or nourishment for the dead)....
A few miles north of the Boyne is Carlingford, still one of the oyster capitals of Ireland. Bostock continues:
We can speculate that the Celts were the most influential tribes of northern Europe and that their contact with the southern Mediterranean might have been initiated by the seafaring Phoenicians. In neither culture does anything survive of their own histories because the Celts strictly followed an oral tradition of storytelling and opposed the written word; while the Phoenicians wrote on papyrus that did not survive and also as sailors perhaps the water would have destroyed any records.
Historical records may not survive, but oyster shells point to the fact that there were communities active in this period, or at least in the pre-Roman period. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans had much incentive to aggrandize the cultures of the people they were conquering and colonizing. This western alliance was almost certainly deliberately consigned to the very dog ends of history. But there could have been another style of empire, which may have been as important as either the Greeks or the Romans, at least in a practical sense.
The Phoenicians bartered with the westerly fringes of Britain from an indeterminate point in early history. They wanted tin from Cornwall badly enough to set up and mine for it. There are references to an area called the Tin Isles, and some remnants of mining date back to 500BC. There is further evidence of trading with Spain and Portugal as far back as the Bronze Age, c. 2100–1500 BC. Tin was rare in Europe and important. It was needed to make bronze, from which we might speculate that Cornwall, as a prime source of tin on the continent, may well have been important in its own right. The natural harbor at Falmouth, with its estuarine oyster beds nearby, would have been an obvious choice to land.
Ireland, Cornwall, and South Wales are, or were, all rich in oysters, which would have been welcome to the Phoenician seafarers, not just as sustenance but also as another cargo to take back to what is now Lebanon or other ports en route. Any ship captain ploughing the coastal routes north from Africa would have passed oyster reefs along what is now Portugal, Spain, and France, and up the English Channel, and would hardly be likely to pass up such a ready supply of easily gathered nutritious food. With warships sometimes carrying as many as 170 oarsmen, and all needing to be fed, the oyster would have been a welcome and essential resource.
J. A. Buckley's The Cornish Mining Industry (1988) has the tin industry stretching from Dartmoor to Land's End:
Historical references ... show a well-established and fairly sophisticated tin trade between Cornwall and the Mediterranean by the 4th century BC. There is little evidence that the great events of history — such as the invasion by the Romans and their subsequent withdrawal 400 years later — did any more than temporarily disturb that international trade.
Roman writers noted the sophistication of this westerly community. Pytheas of Massalia (Marseille, France) is credited with circumnavigating Britain between 325 and 250 BC and reported on the importance of West Country tin; he said the Cornish were "friendly and civilized," which they had learned from contact with "foreign merchants."
Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian, reported: "The Britons ... live in a very hospitable and polite manner." He described the way in which the tin was mined, was taken to the islands to be fashioned into ingots and then transported to Gaul and overland on horse packs to Marseille in thirty days. This is an interesting account because it disproves the thesis that English oysters got to Rome — which they did in big numbers — by horse. An oyster would not survive that long, so there must have been another route.
The historian Sanford Holst presented a paper to the Annual Conference of the World History Association on June 19, 2004, at Fairfax, Virginia. He argued that much of the confusion over the precise dates of the Phoenicians was down to the fact that their influence came from the sea. They did not, in conventional terms, start to colonize and empire-build in other territories until c. 1100 BC, adding Cádiz, Málaga, and Ibiza, Tangier in Morocco, Carthage (Tunis) in North Africa, plus colonies on Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica.
But archaeological dating has shown that Byblos (the Phoenician city of Gebal) was founded as a small fishing port in 6000 BC and the cedars of Lebanon that grew on the mountainsides provided both wood for shipbuilding and lumber for trade. By 4500 BC there is evidence of hundreds of houses. Archaeological research and contemporary writings also depict the fabled city of Tyre — which at that time was two islands just offshore — as founded c. 2750 BC.
Underestimating the power and influence of a seaborne culture resonates as a constant theme around the world of oyster communities. Their empires were older and all eventually usurped, and their stories rewritten, often falsely, by their ultimate conquerors.
The oyster is a crucial contributor to the purple dyes of the Phoenicians and Romans. The dye is extracted from the crushed shells of one of the oyster's great predators, the sea snail. It was known as imperial, royal, or Tyrian purple and painstakingly extracted from the small creatures to the point that the snails might have been another cottage industry for which the oyster communities would have been a thankful supplier. The dye was so valued in ancient Rome because it required huge numbers of snails — maybe 1,200 to dye a single toga.
Geography links this trade back to the west country of England. Having found tin in Cornwall, the Phoenicians may well have tried to keep the location of the mines secret because they were so valuable. They needed the tin and lead to make the pans that would not discolor their famous dyes. It was said that a Phoenician captain would have scuppered his ship rather than reveal the location of the tin mines to an enemy boat following him on the high seas. Or give up his cargo of dyes, which would fetch considerably more than gold — in some estimates fifteen to twenty times as much.
GREEKS AND ROMANS
As shipbuilders and sailors, the Greeks might have plundered oysters from farther afield. By 400 BC they were laying out twigs and pottery in organized shallow ponds to attract larvae. At the time, Taranto — located in the heel of the "boot" of Italy — was a Greek port and is still today an oyster-growing area.
Pliny records the first Roman attempt at oyster culture around the Bay of Naples, probably around the turn of the first millennium. The first person who formed artificial oyster beds was Sergius Orata, who established them at Baiae. He brought oysters from Brindisium to fatten off, not for "the gratification of gluttony, but of avarice," since he contrived to make a large income by this exercise of his ingenuity.
At a later date, however, it was thought worthwhile to fetch oysters all the way from Brindisium, at the very extremity of Italy; and in order that there might exist no rivalry between the two flavors, a plan has recently been hit upon, of feeding the oysters of Brindisium in Lake Lucrinus, famished as they must naturally be after so long a journey.
Orata's husbandry is still broadly followed today. He cleared the grounds of other marine life, placed seed oysters in their place, and checked them constantly to be sure they had enough room to grow to a good size. He sorted them regularly, rid them of pests that attached to their shells, and kept them clean of silt.
In an even more revolutionary move, Orata arranged stones in a pile under the water and placed the mature oysters on them; he then surrounded them with stakes and bundles of sticks suspended in the waters so as to catch the spawn and encouraged them to attach where he wanted them. The lake at Baiae was also used to farm the admired gilthead bream, which were hand-fed oysters to fatten them up.
The early cultivation around Baiae reinforced the oyster's reputation for licentiousness, for this was a popular, decadent seaside town where rich Romans went to take the waters and misbehave. Baiae is now sunk in the Bay of Naples, but at the time was the most fashionable of resorts and home to the imperial fleet.
He, too, was the first to adjudge the pre-eminence of delicacy of flavor to the oysters of Lake Lucrinus. ... The British shores had not yet sent their supplies, at the time when Orata thus ennobled the Lucrine oysters.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History
There are many references to its debauchery. The socialite Marcus Caelius Rufus in 60 BC was accused of living the life of a harlot in Rome and in the "crowded resort of Baiae," indulging in beach parties and drinking sessions. Seneca the Younger, who died in 65 BC, wrote a moral epistle on "Baiae and Vice," describing the spa town as a "vortex of luxury" and a "harbour of vice." Things had obviously not changed much when Sextus Propertius, who died in 15 BC, described the town as a "den of licentiousness and vice." It was here that Emperor Claudius built a grand villa for his third wife, Messalina, who spent her days and nights reveling and plotting to have her husband replaced by her lover, a thought for which she was eventually beheaded.
Baiae was just the sort of place, you might think, for a respectable oyster to lodge and find a reputation. The town even had its own well-known stew named after it — a casserole of oysters, mussels, jellyfish, pine nuts, rue, celery, pepper, cilantro, cumin, wine, garum, dates, and oil.
Much was made of how many oysters were eaten at Roman banquets. The emperor Aulus Vitellius reportedly ate 1,200 oysters at one go. But there would have been a certain practicality involved here. Even with cellars built underneath Roman villas, each cargo of oysters would need to be eaten while still fresh. The rest would have been sent to the kitchen for cooking or preserving.
Pliny, however, was an enthusiast for the oyster as a cure-all, recommending them poached in wine and honey for stomach ills, roasted in their shells and eaten as a remedy against catarrh, diluted in water against ulcers, and used as a tonic for women's skin. He recommended the ground shells as toothpaste. Many of his ideas were turned into quack medicine through the years.
SUPPER WITH MARTIAL
The Romans liked oysters. They baked a special bread to serve with them — a forerunner of the American oyster crackers and oyster loaves. Dinner was an important occasion to look forward to for the elite, as this invitation from the Roman poet Martial (active AD c. 100) suggests:
You will dine well, Julius Cerialis, at my house. ... The first course will be a lettuce (a useful digestive aid), and tender shoots cut from leek plants, and then a pickled young tuna which is larger than a small lizard fish and will be garnished with eggs and rue leaves. And there will be more eggs, those cooked over a low flame, and cheese from Velabrum Street, and olives which have felt the Picene cold. That's enough for the appetizers. ... You want to know what else we are having? Fish, oysters, sow's udder, stuffed wild fowl and barnyard hens.
Typically, oysters were served on the shell with a dressing, quoted by everyone writing of the time as of pepper, lovage, egg yolk, vinegar, liquamen, olive oil, and wine. The Roman sauce of liquamen, like garum, was made from the fermented insides of (usually) oily fish like mackerel and tuna. This was, like soy sauce in China (though perhaps more akin to Thai fish sauce), common as a seasoning for a poor man's gruel, as a condiment of the richest houses, or watered down as a drink for legionnaires.
The liquamen trade was markedly smelly and undertaken outside of towns. The literature suggests it was originally a poison that evolved into a culinary specialty made in large vats with alternate layers of wild herbs — perm from aniseed, cilantro, fennel, celery, mint, savory, penny royal, lovage, oregano, thyme, purple betony, and poppy; in fact, pretty much anything that could be picked from a Mediterranean hillside — fish, more herbs, and salt.
This quote of gastronomic enthusiasm from Mucianus shows how far the Romans went to get their oysters, as well as how particular a Roman could be about his supper:
The oysters from Cyzicus [on the far side of Greece] are bigger than those from the Lucrine, gentler than those from Brittany, more flavored than those from the Medoc, spicier than those from Ephesus [near Izmir in Turkey], more valuable than those from Illice [in Murcia], drier than those from Coryplas [possibly in Greece or the site of a Greek temple near Rome], tenderer than those from Istria [near Palma] and whiter than those from Circei [near Rome].
To the Romans, the British oyster — especially the Colchester oyster, which was then known as the Rutupian oyster — was a fabled delicacy. Rutupiae was the Roman name for Richborough, the main port from where the ancient track-way known as Watling Street began and from where the boats bound for Rome disembarked. Oysters from around Brittany as well as England found their way to Rome in what appears to be a well-organized trade for which the Romans built ice cellars beneath their villas.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Oyster"
Copyright © 2015 Drew Smith.
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Table of Contents
ANATOMY OF AN OYSTER,
PART I: ANCIENT TIMES,
In the Beginning,
Greeks and Romans,
The Northern Passage,
PART II: THE OLD WORLD,
Holland and the Dutch Masters,
Love and Gastronomy in France,
PART III: THE NEW WORLD,
The First Americans,
Tales of the Chesapeake,
Canada: Land of the Beausoleil and the Malagash,
PART IV: AUSTRALASIA AND ASIA,
Australia and New Zealand,
PART V: ECOLOGY,
How to Open an Oyster,
What to Drink with Oysters,
Calendar of Events,
Index of Searchable Terms,