Is it time to stop eating one of Britain's finest foods?

Tim Cresswell eating an oyster

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With a sea-salty flavour and a succulent texture, British oysters are considered one of the finest foods around.

First embraced by the Victorian poor, they have become synonymous with sex, the high-life and sophisticated, indulgent eating.

But our native oysters are in trouble, decimated by disease, pollution, parasites, overfishing and competition and predation from invasive shellfish.

What's more, a non-native species, the Pacific oyster, is becoming ever more popular.

So is it time to turn our backs on one of Britain's finest home grown foods, and embrace a cheaper, more sustainable alternative?

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The oyster industry has a long history, beginning as early as Roman times, when they were eaten raw - which remains the "traditional" way to devour them today - and considered a luxury.

Native oysters became a favourite with the Victorians in the 19th Century, says John Wright in the River Cottage Edible Seashore handbook.

At the time they were so abundant they were also used to fill meat pies.

A penny could buy three oysters, and 124 million were sold in London every year, according to Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor.

But disease, pollution and parasites, as well as foreign invaders such as the slipper limpet and American oyster drill, have helped deplete stocks over the past 150 years.

Slipper limpets crowd out native oysters, preventing them from settling on rocks, while the American oyster drill does what its name suggests, preys on native oysters by drilling into them.

As a result, native oysters, the species Ostrea edulis, are becoming increasingly rare.

It is now illegal in Scotland to collect native oysters without a permit, and there are populations scattered in the south (The Solent, Thames Estuary are strongholds) and the River Fal in Cornwall, as well as Scotland's west coast and in Northern Ireland.

What's in 100g of raw oysters?

Oyster

Fat

1.3g

Saturated Fat

0.2g

Sugars

1.3g

Protein

10.8g

Calories

65

Vitamin A

75mcg

Vitamin B12

17mcg

Niacin

1.8mg

Zinc

59.2mg

Copper

7.5mg

Iron

5.7mg

Vitamin D

1.0mcg

Sodium

510mg

Potassium

260mg

Calcium

140mg

Source: Seafish report

Fishermen who collect native oysters in such areas "the old-fashioned way" keep them sustainable, says chef Nathan Outlaw in his British Seafood book.

It may seem surprising, but "a lot of people don't know what a native oyster is", says seventh generation oysterman Richard Haward, from West Mersea, Essex.

He fishes in the Thames Estuary, where authorities have just closed native or flat oyster beds, in a desperate attempt to replenish stocks there.

Native oysters are now only a small part of his business: "There are some managed stocks of native oysters on the private fisheries in the Essex area, but native oysters in public fisheries are now protected.

"When I was a lot younger there were a lot more natives oysters around, and most of the trade in West Mersea was native oysters. But the stocks of those have declined a lot so they're now only a small part of what we do here."

The oysters most commonly bought and eaten are actually Pacific oysters, the species Crassostrea gigas, also known as rock oysters.

First introduced into UK waters in 1926, this oyster spawns when water temperatures reach 18C. That means the oyster spat is available all year round and can be farmed in hatcheries.

Native oysters are only available September to April, outside of the spawning season which occurs when waters are warmer.

A report by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says Pacific oysters are cultivated far more than natives, as natives don't grow as fast, don't have a high survival rate and seed can be more expensive.

"Rock oysters are a much more hardy animal… the natives needs a lot of tender, loving care if you like," explains Richard Haward.

"Most restaurants these days only have rock oysters," says Mr Haward.

But he thinks the native, although more expensive, is worth trying to save.

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"Yes it will cost you more money, but it is thought to be better. Some people say it's a got a more delicate taste. It's certainly got a much firmer texture. And it's certainly much more difficult to grow, you get much higher mortality and all that sort of thing, so for all those reasons, it is a more expensive product."

So could the UK's native oyster stocks be revived?

In order to instigate such a revival, demand needs to increase.

But oysters can be an acquired taste that divides opinion.

"If I ask a hundred people do you like oysters, half will say yes and half will say no. But when half of them say no, when you ask the next question, have you ever tried them, half of those haven't even tried them," says Mr Haward.

Experts agree it's a fight to convince many people to eat oysters at all.

Katy Davidson, runs Mangez Moi and considers herself an oyster champion - she organises masterclasses in learning to shuck them, as well as festivals to encourage more people to eat them.

She is currently hosting the Great British Oyster Festival, to try and get people hooked on the shellfish.

Perception of price is the biggest barrier she says, as oysters are often thought of as an expensive luxury food. But you can buy them for as little as 50p each.

People are also reluctant to try the shellfish in different ways. "People believe you have to down it in one - I say 'no, you're missing out,'" she explains. "When you chew, you get a whole set of flavours."

Native oysters from Mersea Island in Essex have been enjoyed since Roman times

And flavours can really vary (see table below) depending on where the oysters come from - as they filter six litres of water a day to feed on the oxygen and nutrients they need to live and grow, they take on the salinity of the water.

They are also "unbelievably nutritious", says Katy Davidson. "They contain magnesium, zinc, copper, and have high levels of dopamine," she says. In addition, one oyster is about 33 calories, and has a high level of Vitamin B12, Vitamin D and Iron.

So if they are so healthy, why are people still put off?

"The texture. They can be soft and slimy. And some people say 'oh it's just the taste of seawater'," says Richard Haward.

"But we do get our converts."

However, converting to oysters is one thing, and feasting on native oysters is another.

If demand for them grows, it may place too much pressure on protected stocks, hampering their recovery.

Having a taste for native oysters, it seems, may not be the indulgence it once was.

Taste the difference

Oysters

The flavour of oysters can be different according to where they come from and the environmental conditions there. When tasting, it is advisable to chew your oyster and aerate it to influence the flavours on your palate.

Location Nose Body Finish Texture

Whitstable (rock or Pacific)

A definite aroma of a sea breeze

Cut grass, hints of walnut shell and driftwood

A crisp metallic smack. Distinct tin with salt

Meaty and chewy

Poole (rock or Pacific)

Light ozone

Complex pecan, avocado and cucumber

Very shot finish of musty pine. No aftertaste

Creamy, soft cheese

West Mersea (rock or Pacific)

A clean faint nose of rockpools

Well-balanced sweet to salt ratio

Long on the palate, earthy potting soil

Silky, delicate, plump

Fal (flat or native)

Very delicate saltwater

A manifest nutty taste

Burst of sweetness that quickly recedes

Plump, meaty and creamy

English Channel (flat or native)

Echoes of seapray

Intricate mix of walnut, driftwood with pear

Medium sweetness with a steel finish

Plump and silky

Caledonian (Loch Creran) (rock or Pacific)

Floral; akin to samphire

Fruity flavours of apple, pears and avocado

Sweet but ends with tangy, pleasant tin

Plump and silky

Milford Haven (flat or native)

Salt and pepper

Subtle walnut shell and wood

A clean copper finish with pleasant sweetness

Firm and plump

Explore the Shellfish Association of Great Britain's complete list.

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