“WHERE THE FLYING FISHES PLAY”

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE - FOOD, DRINK and OTHER MAT­TERS with Pa­trick Skin­ner

Th­ese days the world’s sea foods and fishes travel the globe in frozen or chilled style ev­ery day of the year. It used to be quite rare to fly the stuff about. Yonks ago, 1957 to be ex­act, I worked on a dread­ful Bri­tish film about two young lovers in the cold, cold lob­ster coast of Novia Sco­tia. It was called “High Tide at Noon” and some bright spark con­ceived the idea of hav­ing the world pre­miere at half past ten in the morn­ing at the Odeon Le­ices­ter Square, with a seafood and booze re­cep­tion af­ter­wards, fea­tur­ing, you guessed it, fresh lob­sters flown in from Novia Sco­tia. The team, of which I was a mem­ber, duly ar­ranged this, and one of our num­ber was sent to Heathrow Air­port early in the morn­ing to col­lect large wicker bas­ket containing sea­weed and sev­eral dozen live lob­sters and bring them to the “Hun­garia” restau­rant in Lon­don’s Lower Re­gent Street, which hap­pened to be in a base­ment. He ar­rived on time and con­fi­dently took his first step down the stairs. He tripped and bowled down 30 more, legs, arms, lob­sters and sea­weed akimbo, ar­riv­ing rather mess­ily at the bot­tom. Lob­sters started crawl­ing across his per­son.

The chef took one look at the col­lected crus­taceans and pro­nounced them “too small” for grilling. “Soup!”, he said, “I will use my own for your party”. He did, and it was a suc­cess, which is more than I can say for the film.

Sev­eral days a week, “food freighter” air­craft land at Lar­naca. They come from Nor­way, Scot­land, France, Rus­sia, Italy and other coun­tries. Their cargo is chilled or frozen. Fresh and smoked salmon, oys­ters, stur­geon (and its eggs = caviar), Bar­bary duck, geese, par­tridge, pheas­ant, prime beef, young lamb…. Oh, and lots, lots more. Be­cause here in Cyprus you can have any­thing you want to eat or drink. All you need to live as high off the hog as any­where else in the world is money. And so, this lit­tle is­land is not much dif­fer­ent from Coasts and Costas the world over. But thank heav­ens there are still places around the coast, in the hills and wood­lands where you can find a quiet spot, take a pic­nic and a book and en­joy a quiet hour or two.

This brief re­flec­tion is a piece in a train of thought that started with, would you be­lieve, the phrase “Con­sider the Oys­ter” , the ti­tle of this book by one of my favourite writ­ers who con­sid­ers food among other as­pects of life and love. In this quite mod­est tome, M.F.K. tells of oys­ters found in stews, in soups, roasted, baked, fried, pre­pared a la Rock­e­feller or au na­turel - and of the pearls some­times found therein. Her own ini­ti­a­tion into the “strange cold suc­cu­lence” of raw oys­ters as a young wo­man took place in Mar­seille and Di­jon, and goes on to dis­cuss the mol­lusc’s well pub­li­cised aphro­disiac prop­er­ties and its equally no­to­ri­ous pow­ers of stom­ach up­set. As one review of the books says: “Plumb­ing the ‘dread­ful but ex­cit­ing’ life of the oys­ter, Fisher in­vites read­ers to share in the com­forts and de­lights that this del­i­cate edi­ble evokes, and en­chants us along the way with her char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally wise and witty prose.”

My own ex­pe­ri­ence of oys­ters is more lim­ited. As a young film pub­li­cist who had some­thing to do with ad­ver­tis­ing bud­gets, I and a col­league were once taken to lunch by two for­mi­da­ble mid­dle-aged mag­a­zine ed­i­tors who wanted some film ad­ver­tise­ments in their pa­pers. The venue was the sadly now-gone “Au Jardin des Gourmets” in Lon­don’s Soho. Our hosts or­dered a dozen oys­ters, whilst we took paté, or some-such. One of the rather up­mar­ket ladies then tried to per­suade us to sam­ple an oys­ter. My (se­nior) col­league

a made such a fuss at be­ing al­most force-fed with one, that a sim­i­lar at­tempt upon me was aban­doned.

Some years later I lunched with an Amer­i­can friend at the fa­mous “Craw­daddy” seafood restau­rant on Grand Cen­tral sta­tion, New York, and felt obliged to eat some oys­ters – see­ing sev­eral items in­volv­ing cooked oys­ters, I opted for soup which was delicious. (See “Foot­note”) On amother oc­ca­sion, I en­joyed fried oys­ters, but I have never been able to ap­proach one in its raw state.

Mankind goes back quite a way with oys­ters. Mid­dens (heaps of waste mat­ter) tes­tify to the pre­his­toric im­por­tance of oys­ters as food, with some old heaps in New South Wales, Aus­tralia dated at ten thou­sand years. They have been cul­ti­vated in Ja­pan for at least 4,000 years. The English sea­side is noted for oys­ter farm­ing from beds on the Ken­tish Flats that have been used since Ro­man times. The bor­ough of Colch­ester holds an an­nual Oys­ter Feast each Oc­to­ber, at which “Colch­ester Na­tives” (the na­tive oys­ter, Ostrea edulis) are con­sumed.

The French sea­side re­sort of Can­cale in Brit­tany is noted for its oys­ters, whose beds also date from Ro­man times. Sergius Orata of the Ro­man Repub­lic is con­sid­ered the first ma­jor mer­chant and cul­ti­va­tor of oys­ters. Us­ing his con­sid­er­able knowl­edge of hy­draulics, he built a so­phis­ti­cated cul­ti­va­tion sys­tem, in­clud­ing chan­nels and locks, to con­trol the tides. He was so fa­mous for this, the Ro­mans used to say he could breed oys­ters on the roof of his house.

In the early 19th cen­tury, oys­ters were cheap and mainly eaten by the work­ing class. Through­out the 19th cen­tury, oys­ter beds in New York Har­bour be­came the largest source of oys­ters world­wide. On any day in the late 19th cen­tury, six mil­lion oys­ters could be found on barges tied up along the city’s wa­ter­front. They were nat­u­rally quite pop­u­lar in New York City, and helped ini­ti­ate the city’s restau­rant trade. New York’s oys­ter­men be­came skilled cul­ti­va­tors of their beds, which pro­vided em­ploy­ment for hun­dreds of work­ers and nu­tri­tious food for thou­sands. Even­tu­ally, ris­ing de­mand ex­hausted many of the beds. To in­crease pro­duc­tion, they in­tro­duced for­eign species, which brought dis­ease; ef­flu­ent and in­creas­ing sed­i­men­ta­tion from ero­sion de­stroyed most of the beds by the early 20th cen­tury. Oys­ters’ pop­u­lar­ity has put ever-in­creas­ing de­mands on wild oys­ter stocks. This scarcity in­creased prices, con­vert­ing them from their orig­i­nal role as pop­u­lar food to their cur­rent po­si­tion as a costly item.

The Bri­tish na­tive va­ri­ety (Ostrea edulis) re­quires five years to ma­ture and is pro­tected by an Act of Par­lia­ment dur­ing the May to Au­gust spawn­ing sea­son. The cur­rent mar­ket is dom­i­nated by the larger Pa­cific oys­ter and rock oys­ter va­ri­eties which are farmed year round.

If you boast that “The world’s my oys­ter” nowa­days, you’re claim­ing that the world’s riches are yours to leisurely pluck from the shell. In Wil­liam Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Wind­sor”, writ­ten in 1602, the brag­gart en­sign Pis­tol, how­ever, ut­ters the phrase as a sort of threat — of the ag­gres­sively bom­bas­tic kind he’s known for. Sir John Fal­staff, him­self a brag­gart al­most the equal of Pis­tol, re­fuses to lend him a penny; Pis­tol prom­ises to use his sword, if not on Fal­staff, then on other help­less vic­tims, to pry open their purses. Pis­tol’s thievish in­ten­tions have largely been for­got­ten, and “”The world’s my oys­ter” has be­come merely a con­ceited procla­ma­tion of op­por­tu­nity.

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