10 pearls of wisdom about the opulent oyster
The oyster – a slimy mollusc that’s been living in our waters for millennia. Once abundant, it hasn’t always been considered a luxury and overeating by the British population led to its near-extinction in our seas. These days stocks are cultivated: ‘On Your Farm’ investigates the world of oyster farming and the complex process involved in getting the produce on to the truck and delivered to the restaurants, fast and still fresh.
What is the history of our relationship with the slippery shellfish? How has it changed over the centuries? And did Henry IV really gobble down 300 oysters in one sitting?
1. Oysters have been around for 180 million years
The famous 18th Century writer Jonathan Swift once wrote: ‘He was a bold man that first ate an oyster’. One thing’s for sure: that man (or woman) was alive an awfully long time ago. Neolithic people – roaming the land 3500 to 3000 BC – consumed vast quantities of shellfish, including oysters. How do we know? From the large piles of discarded shells dating back 5000 years.
2. Oysters were first cultivated by the Romans
The Roman merchant and engineer, Sergius Orata, is famous for his innovative methods for breeding and commercialising oysters. He is the first person known to cultivate the mollusc by building a system that could control water levels.
In England, the town of Whitstable is famous for it’s oyster farming, with beds on the Kentish Flats that have been used since Roman times. The Romans imported oysters from England to Italy by boat – and Roman Emperors reportedly paid for them by their weight in gold!
3. Henry IV famously ate hundreds in one sitting
King Henry IV (who reigned from 1399 to 1413) is said to have tossed back 300 in one sitting – as an appetizer. The native oysters were on the small side, admittedly, but it’s still a little larger than your average starter!
4. Shakespeare scribed the famous expression, ‘the world is my oyster’
It was in his play ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ that the Bard coined the phrase. The pompous Falstaff says to swaggering soldier, Pistol, ‘I will not lend thee a penny’ and Pistol replies, ‘Why then the world's mine oyster, which I with sword will open.’ Pistol is implying that he will use violent means to find his fortune, much like breaking open an oyster to seize its pearl. But the expression’s meaning has evolved over the years and has come to mean simply ‘the world is mine to enjoy.’
5. They used to be as cheap as chips
Up until the early 19th Century, the native oyster was plentiful and affordable and was largely eaten by Britain’s working classes. They were an important food source in coastal communities. In fact, oysters were so widely available that they were used to bulk out steak pies! These days however, due to depleted stocks, it isn’t hard to shell out over £50 on a dozen oysters.
6. We used to eat around 120 million a year
Records indicate that by the 1880s around 120 million oysters were eaten annually throughout Britain, by paupers and aristocrats alike. This soon led to the near-extinction of our native species. When foreign varieties were introduced they brought diseases with them that, along with the pollution of our waters, further decimated our oyster beds. Thankfully, our native oysters are now protected by an Act of Parliament that bans the harvesting of oysters during their spawning season of May to August.
7. Oysters are used to make beer
In Victorian England it wasn’t uncommon for pub-goers to tuck into oysters in between sips of beer. And they soon came to realise that the rich, sweet, malty stouts were a great accompaniment to the briny, creamy oyster. Brewers then worked out that oyster shells naturally clarified a beer, much like isinglass (from the dried swim bladders of fish), and they added crushed shells to their brews. The first known brewery to use oysters as part of the stout brewing process was the Hammerton Brewery in London, in 1938. The oyster stout was born.
8. They are thought to be an age-old aphrodisiac
Do oysters really help to boost a person’s sex drive? They certainly contain an enormous amount of zinc (1500% of the recommended daily dose!) – a mineral that helps the body produce testosterone. Research suggests that zinc also improves sperm count and health, and sexual function in men, as well as helping to regulate oestrogen, progesterone, and testosterone in women. Whether they have desire-inducing properties is yet to be proven but infamous lothario Casanova was certainly convinced. It is said he ate 50 oysters every day for breakfast to up his sexual stamina!
9. They produce pearls
Let’s not forget the more glamorous side of the humble oyster – the pearl. A natural pearl will form in an oyster when a foreign object, like a grain of sand, gets inside the shell. To protect itself, the oyster will coat the unwelcome visitor with layers of nacre (mother-of-pearl) until the gem is formed. Pearl fishing in England dates back to pre-Roman times.
In fact, Julius Caesar's desire to get his hands on our freshwater pearls is thought to have been his motivation behind invading the British Isles.
10. They’re really good for us
We already know they’re packed with zinc, but oysters contain all sorts of vitamins and minerals. They are a great source of Vitamin C, and B-12, they're loaded with selenium and iron, and they’re rich in brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids. On top of that, oysters are low in calories but contain a potent hit of protein!