“WHERE THE FLYING FISHES PLAY”
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.