Shell Shock

Margaret Visser

  • The English, the French and the Oyster by Robert Neild
    Quiller, 212 pp, £18.50, October 1995, ISBN 1 899163 12 3

In landlocked Zambia, then Northern Rhodesia, where I was brought up, oysters were a piece of arcane folklore, one of those memories, precise but inexplicable, of Britain. Oysters were right up there with the Times having no headlines, just adverts on the front page; with Marmite carefully imported and spread on your bread; with little girls’ dresses bearing a rectangle of smocking on the chest. ‘A noise annoys an oyster,’ we sang, ‘But a noisy noise annoys an oyster more.’ What was that? An old music-hall song? How did it reach Central Africa, and why did it stay? Why do I remember it so vividly now, in Canada, forty years later? The British guarded their wanton peculiarities fiercely. It made them seem powerful, to be able to afford to do so.

As a child I never saw an oyster, let alone ate one. People ate them in Dickens novels. Tenniel drew them, round and trusting and eager, with little stick legs and laced-up shoes, following and then clustering around the Walrus and the Carpenter, who survey them with interest – the Carpenter already with a napkin spread on his lap. The dreadful deed was the more horrible for being neither described nor shown. The first time I ate an oyster was in Normandy. The man I was with showed me that the creature was alive – it shrank at the prodding of his fork. It tasted cold, strange and delicious. The oyster shells were cradled by indentations in a mound of ice decorated with trailing seaweed; the experience was bathed in white and silver, in seaside light. It was an introduction to the mythology of France, of being British and having to learn what the French have to teach.

I did not realise, until I read The English, the French and the Oyster, the extent to which the oyster had been lost to England long before I imbibed the idea of one as part of British myth. Oysters were common in Britain until the mid-19th century. ‘What I mean, sir,’ says Sam in The Pickwick Papers, ‘is, that the poorer the place is, the greater call there seems to be for oysters. Look here, sir; here’s an oyster stall to every half-dozen houses. The street’s lined with ’em. Blessed if I don’t think that ven a man’s wery poor, he rushes out of his lodgings, and eats oysters in reg’lar desperation.’ Drew Smith says in Modern Cookery that oysters, being high in calcium and in vitamins A and D, to some extent fulfilled the role that milk has come to play in the modern diet. But British oyster production fell precipitously between the 1850s and 1880s. The decline since then has never been reversed. This book shows how it happened that oysters were killed off around British coasts but continued to be carefully cultivated along the shores of France.

Oysters seemed to be of minor importance when their depletion because of pollution and over-fishing became obvious in Britain during the 1890s. One reaction was to say that cleaning up the ocean was far too big and unaffordable a project; people should eat something else. Another was that oysters reproduced in millions. The reduction in numbers was probably part of a cycle. The sea was inexhaustible; over-fishing was impossible; there was no cause for alarm. Twenty years ago received wisdom about inexhaustible marine resources was much the same, but we hear less of it now. In Canada, the teeming cod off the coasts of Newfoundland have been almost wiped out since the Fifties – and most precipitously within the past ten years. The destruction of the cod – the most bountiful fish harvest the world has known – is one of the great ecological disasters of this century. It is so horrible that Canadians themselves have scarcely begun to think coherently about what it means.

Robert Neild’s careful but passionate research shows exactly how such things happen, and how they can be prevented. In the case of the oyster, they order this matter better in France. Government involvement in industry and in organising food production, even to the point of overbearing paternalism, is part of the story, unlike in Britain, where, by the middle of the 19th century, laissez-faire dogmatism had come to be coupled with an extension of Darwinian ideas into the field of economics. T.H. Huxley was a member of the Royal Commission that was ordered to look into the reasons for the depletion of oysters in 1863-5. He first argued that oysters were inexhaustible and that leaving things to the mercy of commercial competition would provide a ‘natural check’ to over-fishing. Economic theory dictated that the Government should restrain no one. Later, when it became apparent that competition was not saving oysters, he argued that restraints, while desirable, could not be enforced. As Neild puts it: ‘Previously over-fishing was impossible, now it was possible; previously regulation was unnecessary, now it was impossible.’ Huxley triumphed. The weight of his authority meant the death of the oyster fisheries in Britain.

On the other hand there was Monsieur Coste, sent by the French Government along the coasts of France and Italy in the 1850s to do general research on fish farming. He discovered in Naples an ancient method of farming oysters and recommended stocking them, fattening them, protecting them from pollution, researching their needs further, appointing health inspectors, forbidding over-fishing and ensuring that none be harvested while they were spawning – during the months without R in their names. Louis Napoleon put Coste’s utterly practical recommendations into effect and the French oyster fisheries, despite ecological crises, have flourished ever since.

It is true that the French decided to save and farm their oysters because they loved eating them, whereas oyster-eating was much less important to the British than draining sewage ‘safely’ into the sea, or protecting the freedom of fishing enterprises and the industries that happened to pollute the waters. ‘Not being interested in food’ is a very useful characteristic in empire builders: it means you are prepared to be ascetic in the pure pursuit of power. And of course worrying about ecology – saving some quirky creature, for example, even if a few people eat it – is a massive nuisance for anybody trying to concentrate on profit.

Oysters are an acquired taste; not having them ordinarily available means not learning to like them and not caring whether they are available or not. Since oysters are often eaten raw, they are very likely to pass infections on to their consumers. Neild shows how loath Britain was to pay even one oyster inspector, while the French saw to it that every batch they sold was meticulously checked first. In 1902, at two disastrous mayoral banquets in Southampton and Winchester, many oyster-eating guests got enteric fever and several people died: the British oyster industry has never recovered from this well-publicised event. Oysters became more and more expensive; the depression of the Thirties and then the war meant that oysters, having dwindled into a frivolous titillation for the rich, were little eaten, the taste for them being acquired by fewer and fewer people. In France, where safety precautions were constantly enforced and oyster production has been restored to high levels after every crisis, the taste for oysters has never been lost.

In 1993 the EU adopted standards for oyster farming that are based on the admirably organised French system. But problems loom. ‘Native’ oysters – Ostrea edulis, the European ones, the best ones, the flat round ones depicted in Tenniel’s drawing – have been seriously depleted. Portuguese oysters (Cassostrea angulata), which according to folk history arrived in France when a shipful was wrecked on its way to England in 1868, began to be imported into France and laid down in huge numbers. Their shape made them argot for ‘ears’: ‘avoir les portugaises ensablées’, for example, was to be hard of hearing. But most Portuguese oysters were destroyed in their turn, beginning in the Fifties, by a disease that attacked their gills. Pacific ‘rock’ oysters (Cassostrea gigas), very like the portugaises, were brought in from British Columbia and Japan to take their place; these are the oysters one almost always finds in Europe today.

Nowadays there is a danger in the ease with which oysters can be moved around the world – transferred to less-polluted waters for fattening or flown in as replacements if stocks die. The risk of diseases spreading, of clean stocks being infected by new arrivals, is very great. Many suspect that an unknown new disease might be causing the slow growth and high mortality which are now being observed in oysters from south-western France. Some have even suggested that Pacific oysters might themselves have carried a disease that finished off the portugaises, which are now to be found only in Portuguese waters. Yet again, the triumphs of human control have placed us more than ever in charge and given us more scope to make disastrous mistakes as we search for quick fixes or short-term convenience.

The oyster, as Dumas pointed out in his Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, is a singularly deprived mollusc. It has colourless blood and changes its sex once a year; it has no head, which means no sight, hearing or smell; it has no fins or legs for locomotion, and is able only to open and snap shut its shell. Oyster eggs, having become larvae, attach themselves to rocks, or to whatever ‘culch’ or artificial surface human beings lay down for them – old roof-tiles were used as a traditional oyster-base in Arcachon. Thereafter they must wait for their food, suspended in sea water, to come to them.

The most common modern farming method, introduced in France in 1963, is to breed oysters in a hatchery. Pacific oysters need to breed in warm waters; only hatcheries will do the trick in the North, far away from their natural habitat. The creatures are then enclosed in plastic mesh bags to protect them from predators. These bags, each containing a large number of oysters, are placed on trestle tables standing on the foreshore, where nutritious sea water can wash over them. The oysters are periodically shaken about, inspected and re-bagged, to prevent them from becoming deformed by overcrowding as they grow. The method is unquestionably profitable. Yet the danger of such ruthless rationalism, starting with hatchery breeding, is that the stock will be cut off from nature as the very survival of yet another species is placed at the mercy of human organisation and human immunity from error. And what about the vagaries of human taste? The existence of oysters now largely depends, apparently, on our desire to eat them. Neild very much wants the British to learn to like oysters again. Having tried and gladly accepted most of what the Continent has to offer, from conserved goose to snails, why shouldn’t the British now turn to loving oysters?

The truth is that the creature crosses categorical boundaries that are growing stricter, not easier to ignore: oysters are eaten raw; they are even eaten alive. They have become too expensive to be routinely cooked, as they used to be, in soups, sausages, pies and stuffings. Even angels on horseback, oysters wrapped in bacon, spitted and grilled, have become unusual. The enthronement on seaweed or ice and the solemn living rawness turns oyster-eating into a singular experience. (Neild says that ice makes the oysters too cold, its only merit being to act as a bed to keep the shells steady; he recommends instead plain seaweed, a mound of salt, or buying an oyster plate.)

Chekhov’s story, ‘Oysters’, describes the horror with which a small starving boy eats the oysters he is given by ‘two gentlemen in top hats’. He knows only that they are ‘animals that live in the sea’. ‘I sat at a table and ate something slimy, salt with a flavour of dampness and mouldiness. I ate greedily without chewing, without looking and trying to discover what I was eating. I fancied that if I opened my eyes I should see glittering eyes, claws, and sharp teeth.’ Of course oysters have no eyes, won’t ‘squeak or try to bite your lips’ as the boy imagines in the story. But eating a live oyster has become, nevertheless, an initiation that many modern people feel they need not undergo. Oysters remain outlandishly expensive; in sea-washed New York I recently ordered oysters at the bar of the Union Square Café. They cost me almost two dollars each. American. But I ate my oysters, biting each, as Alan Davidson advises us to do, so as to release the flavour in its liver. I enjoyed them, but closed my eyes as people often do when oysters are an uncommon treat. I did not look into the mirror in front of me. Robert Neild, however, provides a perfect icon of oyster enjoyment on the back leaf of the cover of his book. One hand reaching for his wine-glass, he narrows his eyes at us with the acerbic, inward look of a man who has just swallowed an oyster.