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Oysters, a culinary jewel
Tristan Rutherford for Camper & Nicholsons
24th April 2020

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Oysters, a culinary jewel

Oysters have a magical maritime history. The humble shellfish remained the preserve of Roman emperors and French kings until population growth in London and New York oversaw the species' decline. Now the bivalve is back in business from Nice to New Orleans, thanks to an innovative import from Japan.

The world’s most popularised cuisine is Italian. It’s no surprise that the nation of good taste pioneered oyster production. When the Romans occupied Britain they cultivated beds of Ostrea edulis - a native oyster that zings with an ozone brine - o Whitstable, a day sail away from London. The Romans eventually tired of Britain. (Historian Tacitus warned his Italian readers of a nation where Caelum crebris imbribus ac nebulis foedum, ‘ the sky is obscured by constant rain and cloud’). When they retreated, their heated villas, outdoor pools and oyster beds crumbled too.

The Romans held onto Gaul for longer. Inventor Caius Sergius Orata pioneered a breeding programme whereby mature oysters were surrounded by sticks. Young oysters (known as 'spats') could attach themselves to a twig then be transplanted elsewhere. The tidal flats of Brittany allowed local Belon oysters to filter 67 tons of heavily iodized seawater per year. The result is a mammoth mollusc that explodes in the mouth with a silken, hazelnut ooze. The combined terroir of minerality, algae and salt content changes an oyster’s taste. Such that the river-fed Gulf of Morbihan produces a fleshy shell sh with real bite, while oysters from Utah Beach in Normandy are sweetly nutty with a saline whipcrack.

When the Romans left France, the affaire gastronomique continued. A marché aux huîtres (oyster market) has served the Breton town of Cancale for the best part of 2,000 years. e Sun King, Louis XVI, demanded only Cancale oysters at the court of Versailles. From a gastronome who could demolish 20 dishes during one dinner - including a whole pheasant, four plates of soup and a side of turtle - that’s high praise. Although he didn’t out-eat his grandfather, Henri IV, who could stomach 300 oysters at a time.

In Britain, bivalves remained the food of the poor. Author Charles Dickens noted that “poverty and the oyster always seem to go together”. As recently as a century ago, East London pubs near Canary Wharf (where wine was imported from Tenerife) and East India Quay (where Indian Pale Ale was exported to Bombay) served a free oyster with every pint.

In the United States the scene was similar. Oysters thrived in the brackish waters around Manhattan. Piles of burnt oyster shells (roasted on res to open the juicy nuggets within) have been carbon dated to 7,000 years ago. By the mid-18th century New York City consumed a million oysters a day. at’s two for each of its 500,000 residents, most of them lowly immigrants in need of cheap protein. Mirroring local tastes, the state of Louisiana gave the world the deep- fried oyster sandwich. It was nicknamed the “po’ boy”, a corruption of “poor boy”.

The largest beds of America’s native Crassostrea virginica - a plump, round, briny oyster with lashings of minerality - were around Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. By the 1880s the estuary allegedly produced half the world’s edible oysters. So valued were the wild bivalves that the ‘Oyster Wars’ broke out between Virginian shermen and New England pirates, who came to ‘rob’ the beds by night. e species still secures reed beds while acting as a nursery for infant fish, making them a vital component of East Coast ecology. The 36m luxury yacht Savannah knows the coastline well. A tray of freshly shucked Virginia oysters, served on her alfresco main deck, is highly recommended.

Scarcity gave the humble oyster luxury allure. From London to New York, coastlines became cities, and growing populations ate through vast bivalve beds. Like once-scorned seafoods lobster (decried as ‘sea insects’ and fed to prisoners in the United States) and caviar (the salty roe spread on bread in Russian taverns to encourage heavy drinking), the oyster slowly became the aperitif of the elite. New recipes updated the oyster for a newly minted class. Oysters Rockefeller are baked with bacon, spinach, butter and breadcrumbs, a taste as ‘rich’ as American oil magnate John D Rockefeller himself. Royalty returned to the dining table. The corpulent King Farouk of Egypt, a monarch partly deposed because of his gluttony, ate 600 oysters a week.

Fortunately, one imported species sustained stocks. The Pacific oyster, or Magallana gigas, was cultured in Japan for centuries, then transplanted to the United States in the 1920s and France in the 1960s as native species dwindled. The Pacific is large, environmentally tolerant and indulges the local terroir to include notes of liquorice, mint or grass. Those from Maldon, where Britain’s nest sea salt is harvested, sing with brine and cucumbers. Those from the Étang de Thau, a salt lagoon in the South of France, are alive with a nutty cucumber tang. Yachts in the vicinity include Unplugged, a 34m sailing yacht with a chef familiar with every seafood market from Sète to St Tropez.

Most oysters served in leading seafood establishments, from the Café de Turin in Nice to Wiltons in London, are again the crinkly, fluted Pacifics. Magallana gigas only take two years to mature to edible; native Ostrea edulis can take four or five.

Wiltons’ head chef Daniel Kent sums up the species’ joint appeal. “Oysters have been farmed around the British coast for quite a while,” says Kent, whose restaurant has been serving shell sh since 1742. “However, native oysters are a more delicate creature so we have to watch how many we sh and serve.” Kent recommends calling in for a tasting masterclass of raw and cooked specials including Oysters Christian Dior, a recipe the French fashion designer relayed to Wiltons’ staff. Fortunately, it’s a dish that a luxury yacht chef will gladly prepare on deck.