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In the 16th book of Homer’s Iliad, one can read how that hot-tempered and dare-devil warrior, Patroclus, Achilles’ comrade-in-arms, mocks Cebriones, Hector’s charioteer, when he falls stone-dead to the ground, having had his forehead crushed by a jagged rock that Patroclus had so skilfully hurled at him, as his chariot charged towards him.  “Ha! Quite an acrobat, I see, judging by that graceful dive! The man who takes so neat a header from a chariot on land could dive for oysters from a ship at sea in any weather and fetch up plenty for a feast. I did not know that the Trojans had such divers.”¹

These sarcastic words are among his last, as shortly afterwards he himself is killed by a frenzied Hector.  Even in the heat of the battle, Homer allows his hero to paint an enticing and almost idyllic picture of a man who gladly jumps into the depths of a rough sea to fetch an armful of oysters for his shipmates to enjoy. In this context, Homer chooses the more archaic form τήθεα (téthea), instead of the more common ὄστρεα/ostrea (or ὄστρεια/ostreia). But more on this etymology will be written later.

This seems to be the earliest mention of oysters in Greek literature. However, regarding their culinary attributes, there are a few passages in later literature, which provide certain insights into their appreciation. For instance, oysters appear in fragments of extracts of a Greek poet, Matron (Μάτρων), often known by his latinised form as Matro, who originated from a coastal town in Asia Minor or Western Turkey, Pitane, about 80 kilometres north of the now modern city of Izmir, and lived in Athens towards the end of the 4th century BCE. He won himself a reputation for his parodies of dinner parties or banquets, one of which is now known as the Attic Dinner-Party (τὸ Ἀττικὸν Δεῖπνον [To Attikon Deipnon]), that were common among the rich and famous during this period in Athens. A couple of longer fragments was saved for posterity by a later poet, Athenaios of Naukratis (a Greek colony in the Nile delta of Egypt), who lived roughly five centuries later, and who compiled a large collection of texts about food, cookery and banquets, later known under the title of Deipnosophistai.

This genre of gastronomical poetry, a form of parody, came into fashion during the 5th century BCE in Athens as a means of entertaining a mass audience, in which the satirical use of epic poetry, especially the pretentious phrasing and epithets of Homeric epics, helped to conjure up laughter and derision about the burlesque character of these feasts. The parodies would have probably been performed at public gatherings, rather like the stand-up comedians of today, though the poetry recited was rigorously, if not scornfully, delivered in the Homeric hexameter form. The poems portrayed the gluttony and bizarre tastes that the few could afford, whilst at the same time giving the hoi polloi a chance to voice their jealousy and envy of the privileged and political classes.

According to Matron, one of the very first dishes served at these feasts featured oysters, obviously regarded even then as appetisers. Matron described how the cooks began by loading up the tables with vegetables and shellfish, picking out particularly asparagus and oysters which he called  ‘marrowy’ (ὄστρεα μυελóεντα/ ostrea myeloenta), in the sense of bone marrow, rather than the vegetable marrow, thus emphasising their loose softness, although bone marrow was itself considered a specialty. However, another interpretion offered is that this was a pun on the marrowy bones (όστéα μυελóενταostea myeloenta) so lovingly cherished by the Cyclop monsters, mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey. In their commentary on the text, Olson and Sens² mention (p.87) that this adjective is a Homeric hapax legomenon, signifying that its occurrence was quite unique and highly specific. Apparently, besides its cameo appearance in this culinary context, the adjective μυέλινος (myelinos) has also been used to convey the softness of a young man’s buttocks! Possibly another delicacy for the Greeks but hardly something to dwell on, next time we dig into a platter of oysters!


Fig 1. Dark truffle (tuber cibarium)

In another of Matron’s fragments, a single one-liner hexameter, a cook ‘also brought oysters, truffles of the Nereid Thetis’ (ὄστρεά τ’ἤνεικεν, Θέτιδος Νηρηίδος ὕδνα/ ostrea t’eneiken, Thetidos Nereidos hydna). In their commentary to Matron’s fragments, Olson and Sens suggest (p.144-145) that the implication here is that truffles (tuber cibarium) are hidden like oysters, from immediate view: truffles are concealed in the ground whilst oysters are buried on the sea bed, although it must also be admitted that given the fact that these dark-coloured truffles understandably were a very rare delicacy, their association with oysters may reveal something of the culinary status of oysters as well. In fact, the authors do refer to another Greek source where truffles were compared to delicacies of the sea. But they also mention the possibility of a play on words in which case the word may also infer the sense of  ‘being raised in the sea’. However, the mention of the ancient deities of Nereus and especially Thetis, who was one of the many daughters of the old sea god Nereus, one of the so-called Nereids, and whose home was the Aegean Sea, seems to convey a primeval sense or quality belonging to oysters. This can be further inferred by the more than etymological link between Thetis and the more archaic sea deity Tethys (Τηθύς), daughter of the primoridal sky-god, Ouranos, and earth-goddess, Gaia, and from which stems an even older word in Greek for oyster (τῆθος/ tethos). On the other hand, another possible interpretation is that Matron was only making use of the device of hyperbole for purely poetic effect or even as some parodic innuendo that his listeners would have understood far better than we can today.

Even if it is somewhat difficult to gauge just how much oysters were liked, excavations from many famous sites like Mycene, Troy and others around the Mediterannean have uncovered large mounds of discarded oyster-shells, inferring that they were consumed on a pretty much regular basis. No written source exists to prove this, but there are isolated mentions of the enjoyment of oysters.

From among those fragments that are known to us, it is possible to glean information about the way oysters, for example, were prepared, how they tasted and which ones were particularly appreciated. They were known for be hard to open and it seems that they were often boiled or baked on a wood fire, if not consumed raw. Also there are occasional indications that there existed a level of aquaculture beyond the simple subsistence farming or fishing, often by diving with baskets, which in turn initiated a certain commercial trade around the Mediterranean Sea.

Again Athenaios: in his work, he quotes a physician from Sifneos, Diphilos, who lived during the early 3rd century BCE. He describes how oysters live in rivers, lagoons and the sea, of which it is the latter that have the best taste, especially if there is a lagoon or river nearby, because oysters seem to grow more in brackish water. They are then bigger, more juicy and sweeter. At the beginning of summer they are at their best, because they are plump and their saltiness is tinged with a certain sweetness. His conclusion is that oysters are wholesome (εὐστόμαχα/evstomacha) and easily digestible or secreted (εὐέκκριτα/evekkrita). These observations have even today a contemporary and familiar ring about them as many an expert would agree with him. Not only was he pointing out which and why certain oysters tasted better but also the healthy benefits of eating them so that it seems more than likely that Greeks in this time were only too aware of the various tastes and effects of oysters.

But oysters are generated in rivers, and in lakes, and in the sea. But the best are those which belong to the sea, when there is a lake or a river close at hand: for they are full of pleasant juice, and are larger and sweeter than others: but those which are near the shore, or near rocks, without any mixture of mud or water, are small, harsh, and of pungent taste. But the oysters which are taken in the spring, and those which are taken about the beginning of the summer, are better, and full, and have a sort of sea taste, not unmixed with sweetness, and are good for the stomach and easily secreted; and when boiled up with mallow (malva silvestris) , or sorrel (monk’s rhubarb/rumex patientia), or with fish, or by themselves, they are nutritious, and good for the bowels.” (Ath 3.42)

Athenaios also mentions another physician, Mnesitheos, who seemed to have lived in Athens in the 4th century BCE, and had certain ideas about the harmful side-effects of the saltiness of the juice of the oyster on the bowels. He recommended roasting oysters instead to get rid of their moisture which he thought had such a strong effect on relaxing the bowels, i.e. causing diarrhoea. Again the health aspects of consuming oysters are more accentuated, whilst the various ways of preparing oysters mentioned still manage to impart culinary insights as to their enjoyment.

Another source that Athenaios cites is Archestratos, a poet from Gela in Sicily, whom he calls the “Daedalus of tasty dishes”, He wrote a humorous book sometime around 330BCE about the pleasures of eating and living called Hedypatheia (Life of Luxury), and where to find the best food. The best oysters were strangely to be found far away in Abydos and Chalkedon, both on the northern shores of Asia Minor (Turkey). Obviously, it is difficult to find out if this was an actual or generally accepted fact or popular lore, an ironic remark, a point of snobbery, some marketing ploy or something else, but at least, there seems to have been opinions and ideas held about what taste and health benefits oysters could provide, besides them being more than mere fodder.

A later source who lived in the 1st century and wrote in Greek, another physician from Aphrodisias, again in Asia Minor (Turkey) was Xenocrates. Fragments of his work were preserved by a later Roman doctor, Oribasius, and there he mentioned that oysters from the high seas were not only rare but also useless due to the lack of sun that could penetrate the depths. They were too bitter, inedible and caused stomach upsets. The oyster itself preferred areas where the sea was mixed woth fresh water which helped its flesh grow and which gave it a sweeter flavour. The best ones were found in the Nile delta. In Ephesus, in the mouth of the river Cayster, oysters are put into ponds (καταβόλους/katabolous) as seed where they increase in size. During the spring they become fuller, being fattened with a whitish, milk-warm fluid. Then he mentions a few other places along the Mediterranean coast where this practice seems to take place. However, this is not clear from the context.

For further information, beyond the realm of the kitchen and dining room, we need to turn to another more recognisable witness, and who else than Aristotle, the zoologist, who having been thwarted in his attempt to succeed Plato as head of his Academy in Athens travelled back to the land of his orphaned adolescence, Mysia, now part of modern-day Turkey, where he met up with his younger colleague Theophrastus and stayed on the island of Lesvos studying all manner of animals, insects and marine life. His terminology has caused a few headaches for translators, leading to some confusions, so that, for instance, the word ὄστρεα (ostrea), meaning oysters, can in certain contexts be read as the more generic shellfish.

It is quite clear from his writings that he spent some time together with local fishermen along the island’s Kalloni bay, some of whom obviously told him of their observations of oysters. He heard how fishermen from the neighbouring island of Chios would move oysters from Pyrrha, a settlement on the eastern shore of the bay, to a narrow strait where several currents met, possibly between the island and the mainland. The oysters grew much faster and to a greater size but did not breed (GA, III, 763b). This would seem to suggest that an early form of aquaculture existed even in this time, as it is now an accepted fact that juvenile oysters enjoy an environment with strong currents which stimulate their growth.

In most contexst, Aristotle uses the phrase, “the so-called lagoon oysters” (λιμνόστρεα/limnostrea), which could be found just there in the shallow waters and marshland of the Kalloni bay, a term that would have been favoured by the fishermen of the area. He also adds that oysters fastened themselves onto ceramic objects, something that had been observed by seamen off the coast of Rhodes further south. However, he writes that oysters generally stick on different surfaces, thereby becoming completely immobile. They also acquired solid shells with thick edges (HA, IV, 528a). Aristotle thought oysters, like all shellfish, proved the theory of spontaneous generation, as he could see no mating and was convinced they were generated out of mud, even though they could also be seen to grow in shallow water, on sand and even on rocks (HA, V, 547B).

As was mentioned earlier, there has been a discussion about the meaning of certain Greek words used for shellfish and it is quite feasible that there was no strict adherence to a common usage, for obvious reasons. For example, the plural noun used by Homer, τήθεα/téthea, could be derived from the word τηθυον/téthyon, meaning “ascidia” or “sea-squirt” rather than τῆθος/têthos which is the older form for “oyster”. Again if we are to believe Athenaios, the two words for “oyster” – τῆθος and ὄστρεον do have identical meaning and he refers to a line in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, from which he deduces “ἐπεὶ τήθεα τὰ ὄστρεα” (“then oysters are oysters”), adding a comment that there may have been a play on words, since the word for grandmother is τήθη/téthe, implying that grandmothers were oysters to heighten the comic effect (DS, III,90b).

But it precisely this underlying affinity between oysters and the archaic which is fascinating. Not only have we seen how oysters were called the truffles of Thetis, one of the sea nymphs, but also the archaic word τῆθος/têthos conjures up images of the primeval sea-goddess Tethys. One can almost sense that these words projected an awareness of how oysters were regarded – as a primordial but venerable animal, even mysterious or magical maybe, far removed from Plato’s dismissive remark about those who have led a totally dissolute life end up as an oyster or another shellfish in the afterlife.

As regards cultivation of oysters, it seems clear that the oysters’ behaviour was observed and correctly described but whether any formal practice of cultivation was implemented is difficult to discern in these writings. The ponds of Ephesus are mentioned in the Greek texts of Xenocrates, but this evidence is anyway from the era of the Roman empire, so they have been a “Roman” innovation.

And finally, in the hidden treasures of the Louvre there is a frail and almost illegible papyrus on which is preserved a fragment of a six-line poem in the form of a riddle, dated to the latter part of the 3rd century BCE, although the riddle itself could be much older. It asks which animal has its home near a famous landmark, fattens in the waxing moonlight, is a feast needing no spark of fire and is opened with a hide-piercing weapon. The answer is provided by its title, an oyster (ὄστρειον/ostreion)³. Perhaps the oyster was indeed somewhat of an enigma.


¹ Homer: The Iliad. Translation by E.V. Rieu. London, Penguin (1950).

² S. Douglas Olson and Alexander Sens: Matro of Pitane and the Tradition of Epic Poetry in the Fourth Century BCE. American Classical Studies, no 44. Atlanta, Scholars Press/American Pholological Association (1999).

³ P. J. Parsons: «The Oyster». Zeitschrift fürPapyrologie und Epigraphik, 1977, 24, 1-12.


Ostras de Cambados – oysters from Cambados, a small fishing port, near Pontevedra, north of Vigo, in the Galician corner of Spain are a well-known delicacy that has its aficionados all over the Iberian peninsula. According to some statistics about 95% of flat oysters consumed in Spain originate from the estuaries and bays around the village. However, these ones are the European flats, the Ostrea edulis, and indigenous species of the area, of which some have managed to survive the pests and diseases visited on its French counterparts, like the parasites of Marteilia refrigens and Bonamia ostreae, which have been hitting stocks since the 1970’s. Spain has been by far the biggest producer of flat oysters in Europe for the last decades, producing well over half of global yield and at the beginning of this century production in Galicia was just over 4500 metric tons, which had fallen to about 900 tonnes in 20121. But in comparison to other marine cultured species, the commercial yield of oysters has been microscopic. In the last forty years the number of enterprises working with oysters has decreased by more than 90% from around 900 to less than 80 farms. Most cultivation depends on wild seed populations but oyster spat, and small juvenile 12-18 months old oysters, are also being imported from other European countries, although apparently there are one or two hatcheries now trying to provide an alternative source of oyster spat for the farmers to grow. Rearing methods seem to be using either floating-raft culture or the more traditional rope suspension, although dredging wild brood-stock is also practised.


Besides, the region is also famous for its delicious Albariño wine and Cambados is also regarded as its capital or sanctuary even, where on the first Sunday of August every year the Albariño wine festival is held. It makes, of course, for a wonderful, fresh and natural combination with seafood and in particular with the native oysters, especially when well-chilled, on account of its crisp, acidic and aromatic taste. The air on these coastal slopes of the inlets (rías) is always moist and windy.

The shells are not large nor particularly heavy, suggesting a fairly rapid growth in the inlets fed by the strong Atlantic tides and currents as well as the freshwater streams running down from the hills around. Their bills are generally soft and flaky. Despite the shallowness of their shells these oysters pack a punch, not only in the sense of a compact, plump and fleshy content but also in the power and variety of their flavours.


They were all completely so different and individual, yet all meaty with a good chew! The colour of the meat was generally a darkish beige with a delicate, thin black rim of the mantle and the juice was clear and sea-fresh. One was so full of the salt of the sea as if plucked moments before from the water. Another left an almost mango sweet-sour aftertaste, whilst one offered an immediate overload of metallic stringency that almost eroded the surface of the tongue. Yet another had the taste of strong and dark greens like spinach or asparagus after the initial blast of salt.

So being so close to Santiago de Compostela, the area richly deserves an oyster pilgrimage some day!

1  Robert, R. et al: A glimpse on the mollusc industry in Europe. Aquaculture Europe, 2013, 38, 5-1.

An estimate based on recent FAO figures would now put annual production of the flat oysters in Spanish waters at about 1200-1500 tonnes.



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London is home to a wonderful selection of old and new oyster bars, many of which are often steeped in tradition and a kind of veiled history that lends the oysters on offer an even greater import and iconic quality. Here I decided to try three places I haven’t visited before, as my favourite oyster bars have previously been limited to such classics as Bentley’s, Bibendum and Wright Brothers in Borough Market. Now I ventured forth into new territory starting off in Covent Garden, not far from the location of the Whistling Oyster mentioned in an earlier blog, at J Sheekey (28-35 St. Martin’s Court, London WC2N 4AL), with its famed horseshoe oyster bar and walls of lacquered wood panels, decorated with signed photos of famous guests. jsheekey1

Its oysters were Jersey and Carlingford Lough rocks (C gigas) and West Mersea natives (O edulis). They were served with wholemeal bread and some wafer thin cracker but unfortunately the rock oysters were mixed on the platter. I sensed something was wrong as I thought what I presumed were the Irish oysters tasted so differently and similar to the Jersey rocks so that when I pointed this out, the mistake (which I think is quite astonishing for such an establishment) was discovered. So how did they rate? Now we come to the very heart of a thorny subject…some oyster aficionados love to tell the world that such and such oysters taste like this or that whilst also subscribing to the very well-known fact that oysters always take on the taste of their environment (the so-called terroir or meroir factor). Well, of course, oysters from the same place can and do taste quite different from each other sometimes, and change from season to season, year to year, so all we can say is that these particular oysters to me tasted like this. Thus we could say that taste is on the tongue of the slurper! Tasting oysters finally proves that metaphysical realism is dead! So now to the oysters: the Irish Carlingford rock oysters from the border with Northern Ireland had nicely fluted shells, well-filled with juice and a plump, firm, pale meat content, which provided a good crunchy chew. Tones of veggie greens could be discerned but what surprised me most was the sudden rush of sweetness in the finish, probably a sign of the oyster’s capacity to build up glycogen reserves.


Next on the list were the Jersey rocks, from the largest oyster growing area in Britain, which is located on the eastern side of the island in the Royal Bay of Grouville. Started from seed from a hatchery on the neighbouring island of Guernsey, they offered a more delicate and softer meat as well as a refreshing, crispy sea-salt taste with definite briny and algal tones. The last oyster served was from West Mersea off the Essex coast, just south from Colchester, a welcoming no 2. Most likely dredged from the nearby Blackwater river, these were jam-packed with umami, a nuttiness and mineral flavours, a sharper taste altogether compared with the rocks. The chew was again crunchy, long and ended on an almost mushroomy note. The mineral water I had ordered came in handy at this point!

Then off I headed westwards into the afternoon sun across Leicester Square and into Soho and Brewer Street, home to some excellent seafood restaurants. One of them used to be an old butcher’s shop and has managed to retain the original tiles, marble tops and wrought iron ornamentation. Stepping inside the place, now called Randall and Aubin (16 Brewer Street, London W1F 0SG), one is met by the seducing odours of deep-fried lobster and a bustling, yet homely charm. Here on offer were Welsh cupped oysters from the Menai Straits, Cumbrian rocks from Morecambe Bay and one of my real favourites, Loch Ryan natives from the west coast of Scotland. I managed to persuade myself to order a glass of Albariño to accompany these enticing molluscs on their journey down. Its crispy flavour of mineral had an undertone of honey melon which paired well with the rocks but maybe the Picpoul or the Chablis would have been a better bet overall. Ever since reading about the first attempts to start a hatchery in the Welsh Conwy estuary in the 1930’s and having fond memories of family holidays as a child in that area, I have felt very curious about the oysters there. These Menai   raaubin1

rocks  were tremendous! Such deep long shells brimming with a firm, rich crunchy meat that oozed a sea-salty tang, brine and crispiness! A real delight indeed! Farmed in the straits on the island of Anglesey, opposite the historic Welsh town of Caernarfon, with its imposing castle and the mountain range of Snowdonia in the background, these oysters come from the same hatchery, located in the old gravel pits on Walney Island, as the other rocks on the menu, the Cumbrian rocks, which are born and bred on Morecambe Bay below the hills of the Lake District, and no doubt a triploid strain. The latter had an altogether thinner shell, more irregular in shape, with a looser and softer meat, almost translucent, which melted in the mouth. They were creamy but with a spicy, peppery kick in the after-taste which was a pleasant surprise. Next up were the Loch Ryan natives with their heavy, thick, dark shells but everyone so different. Their meat, nestling neatly almost like ears of oysters provided a shock in a way, as the beige flesh was so compact, chewy and crunchy and oozed all sorts of rich flavours: first there was an oily burst, followed by a creamier taste, then overridden by umami or briny sensations but with edges of definite nutty and veggie tones, like spinach and mushrooms, and lastly a sudden tang of sweet peppers. These complex oysters are dredged and carefully selected by hand, their cultivation being a showcase for sustainable fishing. raaubinlochr After such a feast, the wandering whiffs from the kitchen became too much and I could not resist the temptation of taking a lobster po’ boy which also was woofed down without too much of an effort.

I had thought of stopping there since it was difficult to think of having any better oysters than these but the luring ambiance of Bentley’s, just round the corner from Piccadilly, hovered around in my mind. Suddenly, I was walking past Hix Soho (66-70 Brewer Street, London W1F 9UP), and I peered at their menu, and discovered their offerings of Lindisfarne rocks and Duchy of Cornwall natives, which seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Hix have a deserved reputation for good, traceable food, demanding healthy practices in all of its suppliers. I talked to the barman about the contradiction of serving triploids from Lindisfarne and the natives from the Duchy of Cornwall which also are wild and dredged, but by sailing boats in the lovely Fal estuary. The oysters were served with their top shells in place, strangely enough, which lifted off smoothly enough. That meant the ritual of eating assumed another form that felt in the first instance a bit awkward. Eating oysters always implies a certain ritual so there is little scope for sudden variations or new innovations and the presentation of oyster flesh on the half shell always seems a pleasing sight. Another oddity was the white, spongy, bread roll served with the oysters. First the Lindisfarne rocks had thin beige shells, which I always regard as a sign of accelerated growth. The meat was plump, soft but quite chewy with round flavours of the sea and a slight algal taste. Secondly, the small natives, no 3s, were a pungent lot on the nose, and I had to refuse two of them, whilst a third gave me certain reservations, but I decided to slurp it anyway, without any later dire consequences, I might add! This is a problem sometimes with smaller native oysters, as often there is very little juice in them because of their flat shape, and the flesh is much harder and chewy. The dark brown meat, thinner and tougher, had a real blast of a metallic, brassy flavour but could also have a creamy, soft texture when umami tones dominated. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between the intense metallic aroma of a native and one that is over the hill and may have lost its juice. But if in doubt, always ask for another! hixs

I felt that these natives from the Duchy were inferior to the rich, complex flavours of the Loch Ryan flats, but comparing oysters is sometimes like comparing apples with cherries. However, I was thrown off from my attempts to focus on their flavours by the two natives that I had to send back, but we always need to be on our guard against oysters that have had to endure an arduous journey on their way to our plate and palate! By the time the last of the 36 oysters had been polished off, I felt well and truly satisfied with having tasted eight distinctive British oysters all in one day. My visit to Bentley’s had to be abandoned until another time. The wait will be worth it!


It is quite hard to imagine how a son of freed, black slaves could start up and manage a flourishing oyster business almost 200 years ago during the polarising antebellum period, the age of slavery and violent oppression of blacks, and be so mourned as a highly respected member of the community that the New York Chamber of Commerce closed for his funeral in 1866.

Thomas Downing, born in 1791, was the son of black slaves, who had been owned by a land-owning family, whose head in the middle of the 18th century was a Captain John Downing, a Methodist, who was persuaded to manumit his slaves as it was deemed contrary to his Christian beliefs. Thomas Downing’s parents, who assumed their former owner’s rather famous name, had been appointed caretakers of the church’s meeting-house, established by the Downing family in 1783, in Accomack county, Virginia, on the eastern side of the Chesapeake bay. The church is still standing in Oak Hall, although it was rebuilt after the original structure burnt down in 1854. They also managed to acquire land, near the inlets around Chincoteague island, land probably allocated to them by their previous owner. The young Thomas, born free in a state that condoned slavery, had playmates that were white children of the local well-to-do, one of whom was to become the governor of Virginia, Henry Wise. Even as a youngster, he learnt how to rake and harvest oysters, dig for clams and generally work on the land, which bordered the Atlantic coast. His parents’ home was depicted later as “humble and unpretending, but bore the impress of industry, taste and happiness”. Family members “were famed for their strength, agility and general aptness, and enjoyed the reputation of being ready and able to defend their rights” (Washington, 1910).

He left his home, “not being satisfied”, according to the same account, to serve with the young United States troops against the British in the War of 1812, like many other blacks, travelling north, and afterwards settled for a time in Philadelphia where he met his future wife, Rebecca West, before deciding to go to New York, in 1819. One of the reasons for him coming to New York may have been his interest and expertise in handling oysters, for on arrival in New York he soon registered as an oysterman, which at the time was an occupation often held by freed blacks, most of whom had settled on Staten Island, an area that provided a free haven for black families. Indeed, racial discrimination seemed generally slacker on the waterways, as was evidential in the Chesapeake Bay as well (Keiner, 2010), where many in the oyster business were black Americans. In 1810, of the 27 oystermen listed in the New York City directory, at least 16 were free black Americans. And it seems that it was mainly blacks who were running the oyster bars in the city, as well as many of the dance halls and saloons. And as Charles Dickens was later to remark in his American Notes, New York was full of oyster cellars, marked by their distinctive sign of a red, glowing globe: “signs which are so plentiful, in shape like river buoys, or small balloons, hoisted by cords to poles, and dangling there, announce, as you may see by looking, ‘Oysters in every Style’” (Dickens, 1842, Ch 6).

Another reason may have been the existence of quite an independent community of blacks, mostly free slaves, who were later granted the right to vote in 1821 although slavery was not abolished until 1827. The first school for blacks in North America had been established in the city at the end of the 18th century, but slavery was important for the economy of the city as a trading post between Europe and the South. So it may have felt more of a safe haven than anywhere else at that time. Dickens also commented on the interracial culture of New York’s nightlife in the same book. Blacks had also begun to organise themselves into civic organisations, churches and some tried to involve themselves in politics. It would seem from this description that New York offered a vibrant and possibly welcoming environment for a young and obviously ambitious man with a surname that rang many of the right bells in the city.

He bought himself a boat and started in the oyster business, which would make a lot of sense, given his previous experience back in Virginia. He was said to have loved his oysters as well and after a few years decided to set up a shop where he could sell the oysters he harvested. He was known even to go out on the prowl in the dead of night to negotiate with local oystermen on their way into harbour and buy the best on offer before they were auctioned off or stole off in a skiff to tong his own from the flats of the New Jersey side of the Hudson River which were loaded with “superior oysters”. His son characterised him as being an “extremely active” man “who knew not tire” (Washington, 1910).


This establishment, that could only serve white clients in those segregated times, soon became renowned for its plush decorations so much so that it became an institution, strategically located on the corner of Broad and Wall Street, close to the important centres of commerce, the banks, the Customs House, the Merchants’ Exchange and departmental stores. It was known as Downing’s Oyster House, opened in 1825, initially as an “oyster refectory”. Despite its obligatory red lamp hanging outside, its interiors were lush and ornamental with soft carpets, damask curtains, gold-leaf carvings, chandeliers and mirrored hallways. His was the only oyster-house that attracted the aristocracy, the elite of white society – politicians, rich businessmen, intellectuals, professionals and foreign dignitaries as well as ladies in the company of their husbands or chaperons and the most respected families of the city came to “enjoy a repast which would cause their sons and daughters to long for frequent repetitions”, as his son would later recall. “Ladies and gentlemen with towels in hand, and an English oyster knife made for the purpose, would open their own oysters, drop into the burning hot concaved shell a lump of sweet butter and other seasonings, and partake of a treat. Yes, there was a taste imparted by the saline and lime substances in which the juice of the oyster reached boiling heat that made it a delicate morsel. Truly, one worthy to be borne to the lips that sipped from the shell the nectareous mite” (Hewitt, 1993). How these words convey the exuberance and reverence held for these savoury molluscs!

Thomas Downing was proud that he could offer his guests the finest and freshest oysters that were available and was known to treat the captains of the local oyster vessels in a generous manner, which brought oysters from various points along the eastern seaboard. All imaginary oyster dishes were served, not only fried, stewed, roasted, steamed, scalloped, in pies but also with other fish and fowl.

He marketed his own pickled oysters in stone jars or crocks, which were stamped in dark blue lettering with his own name and address, nowadays a rare collectors’ item.


However, as his business grew, and he extended his premises to neighbouring buildings on both sides, he was not merely satisfied with providing oysters in various shapes and forms, but he built up a catering enterprise as well, to which early 19th century events managers turned to provide the food whenever a new steam-boat was to be launched, or any big company opened up its doors or some socialite decided to throw a party or for special governmental occasions. “The great man of oysters” was asked to provide the refreshments for the ‘Boz’ Ball that was arranged to welcome Charles Dickens in 1842 to the city, when over 3000 New Yorkers turned up in his honour. It was a massive event, impressing the British writer who was treated like a modern-day pop star: included in the sumptuous feast were 50,000 oysters, 10,000 sandwiches, 40 hams, 76 tongues, 50 rounds of beef, 50 jellied turkeys, 50 pairs of chicken, 25 of duck and 2,000 mutton chops – before the deserts were brought out! He was paid $2,200 for his efforts, a princely sum in those days.

Talented, runaway black slaves were among the first Afro-American entertainers in colonial and antebellum America, and it was often in oyster houses and saloons that such entertainment was provided. One famous black dancer was known as Master Juba, who toured Europe, attracting full houses of admirers. And it was in New York that the first free black community founded its own theatre group in 1821, the African Grove Theater.

Brooklyn could claim its own Thomas Downing in the shape of a freed slave from Martinique called Johnny Joseph, popularly known as Johnny Jo. He too opened an oyster parlour on Prospect Street, which became a local landmark, attracting various professional groups who used it as a social club for their members. Seen from our perspective today, it would be easy to view these clubs as setting a standard and precedent for what later became the city’s dynamic jazz clubs of the early 20th century.

As Kurlansky remarked (2006, 230), Downing’s had become a New York trademark, exporting his oysters even to Paris and London. Queen Victoria showed him her gratitude by sending him a gold chronometer watch in appreciation for the oysters he had shipped over to her. He even managed to save the New York Herald newspaper from going bankrupt by advancing its founder, Gordon Bennett, a loan of $10.000. And that all this took place just a few years after the abolishment of slavery in New York in 1827 is even all the more surprising!

Unbeknown to many of his clients, he and his family had joined the so-called Underground Railway, founded 1830, a network of secret routes and safe houses, that helped black slaves escape either down to Florida, then a Spanish colony or to British North America (Canada) during the first half of the 19th century. It seemed as though his premises were used as one of the stations to hide fleeing slaves en route north. His cellars were used for this purpose and his son was later to recall how they harboured many a runaway slave.

He helped found an all-black United Anti-Slavery Society of the City of New York in 1836. He had got himself involved in improving the quality of education for black children in the African Free Schools. Although freed blacks had been granted the vote in 1821, there were severe restrictions attached, mainly regarding residence and property qualifications that few blacks were able to meet. In his fight against such discrimination, Downing championed the cause of equal voting rights for every citizen, irrespective of colour and participated in a black organisation petitioning the State legislature in Albany from the end of the 1830’s onwards, though he did not live long enough to see it achieved in 1870. His religious beliefs were strong, and he soon joined the only black congregation in New York, the St. Philips Episcopal Church on Mulberry Street, initially called the Free African Church of St Philips. As a man known for his generosity, he supported not only the church, but also donated money to those in need and joined various benevolent organisations like the Prince Hall Freemasonry, the Odd Fellows and other charities so that one New York newspaper referred to him as “one of the most respectable and aged colored men in this city. His private character is without reproach….” and praised him for his humility and modesty and for “the magnitude of his donations for the relief of his oppressed race” (Hewitt, 2000). Other contemporary mentions of him seem to concur on this very point, that his magnanimity was accompanied by a certain reserve, strict integrity and strongly held principles and all this may be detected in the only portrait of him that has survived. One such account described him as “the former venerable Ethiop”.


This image of a prominent leader of his community, and of someone who held firm views on the injustices of the day is replicated in the words of his eldest son George, who himself followed in his father’s footsteps, taking over the oyster business, and then became a very successful restaurateur in his own right, with good connections with the white, political establishment of Rhode Island, Boston and Washington. He was said to have inherited his father’s “commanding figure and kingly bearing, his aggressive temperament and manly character…he was reared under Christian influences and taught to stand up for his rights, as well as of the weaker ones, and repel invasion, by force if necessary” (Washington, 1910).

Thomas Downing managed to survive the violent race riots during the four-year bloody Civil War (1861-1865), when blacks were randomly lynched and murdered on the streets of the city, having been blamed for the slaughter and suffering inflicted on the Unionist troops. So after a successful life in the oyster business, having been a tireless advocate of black rights, the abolitionist movement, equal suffrage and accessibility of high-school education for black children, as well as a generous donor to African-American charitable causes, he died a wealthy man in 1866, and as a mark of respect the New York City Chamber of Commerce closed for the day of his funeral.


Dickens, C. (1842): American Notes for General Circulation. London: Chapman & Hall.

Hewitt, J. H. (1993): Mr Downing and his Oyster House. New York History, 74, (3) 229-52.

Hewitt, J.H. (2000): Progress and Protest: New York’s first black Episcopal church fights racism. New York: Garland.

Keiner, C. (2010): The Oyster Question. Athens: The University of Georgia Press.

Kurlansky, M. (2006): The Big Oyster. New York: Ballantine Books.

Washington, S.A.M. (1910): George Thomas Downing; sketch of his life and times. Newport: Milne Printery.




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As a psychologist, I can think of no better point of departure than that of the Lacanian use of ‘territorialisation’, a term which describes how the infant starts to differentiate and organise its chaotic body, its organs and orifices, exuding the inner flow of corporeal liquids, into a libidinal structure of erogenous zones and part-objects on the dry-land of its skin to underscore terrestrial man’s relation to the sea. The infant’s primal struggle from its watery cavern at birth onwards to escape its feeling of drowning or choking in its own fluids mirrors the epic struggle of the first creatures to reach the shorelines of the coast. I would suggest that the parallel is no coincidence, although historically, territorialisation in its more traditional sense is closer to the phenomenon of colonialisation and designates a will to conquer and control what can seen as a threat, unknowable, perhaps even coveted, using the battery of techniques and methods man has employed on terra firma, ever since the dawn of domestication. Indeed, the two concepts of territorialisation and domestication seem to have much in common. One anodyne definition of the latter has been any form of human husbandry of other animals, mainly mammals, although the concept refers nowadays often to the artificial selection, manipulation and breeding of organisms to bring about targeted, desirable changes in their genomic structure, Even though environmental adaption has also led to morphological and even genetic alterations (and this is one palpable reasons for the problems we have in taxonomic classifications) the greatest single factor has been human intervention and in this sense the most heuristic definition of domestication is ”that condition wherein the breeding, care and feeding of animals are, to some degree, subject to continuous control by man” (Hale, 1962). Man went, as the saying goes, from capture to culture.
However, this supposedly linear progression has metamorphosed into more of a centripetal force since, with the increase in cultivation and further decline in capture, more and more attempts are being made to manipulate the genetic structure of the species cultured to improve existing brood-stocks, by providing a disease-resistant species, for example. And culture evolves to become an extreme form of capture.
So what has all this got to do with oysters, you might say? Well, possibly, it is the ultimate fate of the poor, sessile oyster, which minds its own business after its first two weeks of free-floating freedom as a veliger before looking for a homely piece of hard surface to settle down on and there remain for its entire life, that it becomes the perfect species to be domesticated, i.e. controlled by humans. It doesn’t provide any resistance nor register any form of complaint. Indeed, its very cultivation is a prime example of culture being the highest form of capture, because the oyster is removed from its very fixated position and becomes imprisoned in artificial environments, whether it be a hatchery, tank, bag, cages, crates or whatever, and where they are meticulously supervised by their human guardians. Aquaculture, often supported by landed businesses, can then exploit domestication to its logical ends, whilst fishing and fishermen are dismissed as a leisure-time pursuit and fade, like their wild stock, into a nostalgic past. It has been estimated that 97% of aquatic species present in aquaculture have been domesticated in the last 100 years, proving the rapidly developing dependence of aquaculture on domestication, which has been mainly due to the huge diversity of marine taxa and increase in our technical and scientific knowledge (Duarte, 2007).
As Jacques Cauvin, the French archaeologist pointed out (1994), domestication of animals was preceded by a symbolic process, whereby the spirit of the animal needed to enter into the human psyche, most likely with the help of shamanistic and burial rituals, so that some power over the wild would first be exercised on a mental and social level. Another way of expressing it would be to say that the animal world had to be humanised. We were forced into a relationship, and understanding of that wild world around us which was mediated by various ritualistic and symbolic enactments. Another archaeologist, Ian Hodder, took his cue from some earlier work of Cauvin and argued that ”the domestication of wild cattle and of the external wild more generally could thus be seen as an attempt to domesticate and control internal and social problems.” Further on he simply states that ”the process of domestication – the control of the wild – is a metaphor and mechanism for the control of society” (1990, 12), although I think it fundamentally concerned the process by which we learnt primarily to regulate ourselves. But that leads us into another bewildering world. Although man has long since moved away from the sea, from the original cave dwellings and huts on stilts on its endless shores (maybe partly due to a growing consumption of shellfish) and moved off into the interior, where the techniques of agriculture were mastered and safe settlements established, the sea had managed to retain its image and lure of a mythic space, boundless, unfettered and eternally free.
Although it seems as though oysters have been harvested for over 6000 years, according to the archaeological record, it is obvious that since the end of the 19th century, oysters have been more and more sucked into what now is called aquaculture after having been a source of subsistence food for the age-old community of hunter-gatherers, as typified by the fishing peasants along the Atlantic coasts of France and Ireland or by the Native Americans and later the watermen on the Chesapeake Bay, until overfishing, greed, urbanisation, pollution and, above all – overconsumption helped to deplete stocks. But even before all this took its toll, it was obvious there were other developments afoot to make oyster gathering more efficient, to regulate oyster reproduction, to privatise the foreshore or to build special oyster ponds (owned by the landed). The oyster couldn’t be left to itself to control its own destiny. Man had to step in to find ways to increase stocks for himself to fish.
Pascale Legué, a French anthropologist and urbaniste, wrote an inspiring book in 2004 about oyster cultivation in the Marennes-Oléron area, a region she grew up in, and pointed out the progression of the space of oyster management as it changed from the shore, to the marais and claires of the former salt-pans, to the cabane, the work-shed, a clear inland move from the sea, the foreshore to the land, where the work of sorting, grading, cleaning, bagging, packing and purifying has been performed. This can mean that the commercial oyster may be handled as many as 40 times during its life cycle, and becomes more a personal property and creature belonging to its patron than a fruit de mer. Indeed the whole process of cultivation in the claires engendered a new set of new values, its own tradition of savoir-faire, and this added to the oyster’s status as a specialty, especially important on festive occasions, when oysters were considered to be the best food to offer – «C’est ce que on a de meilleur » (2004, 206). The wild oysters, which increasingly were the Portuguese oyster, Crassostrea angulata, gathered on the seashore were for the hoi polloi, not good enough for the tables of the bon-vivants, the well-to-do. There was something unbecoming and distasteful about the wild, uncultured and seascaped oyster. It used to be common to refer to the invasive Portuguese oyster as “the oyster of the poor”, « l’huïtre du pauvre » (2004, 163).
The whole process of cultivation is also a metaphor for the way a wild species was brought into the human domus (home) rather than the other way round as it had been before. No, for the owners and their equals, only the oysters that had been nurtured through the entire process of élevage (cultivation) and affinage (refinement/finishing) could be deemed fit enough. Domestication served in this sense, as a sign of a civilised mind and set of values, and a release from the fear of our savage instincts. So this symmetry of refined oysters for the refined members of the human race and wild oysters for the wild ones seems almost perfect! That is, as long as we don’t accuse the French of being snobs about their food!
So, according to Legué and the traditions of the Marennes oyster-growers, the only oysters that could be consumed were those that had been farmed (élevée) and then refined (affinée), their rubber stamp of human approval. However, as she added, there is nothing outwardly that distinguishes one farmed oyster from another wild one. Even though this may not be absolutely true, as there are certain tell-tale marks on some oysters that can help us to see differences, her point is that what we long for is something that is not at all visible or touchable. The shell is in a sense just a pebble (un caillou); its living part, that what we want to eat or taste, is hidden from us, and can never be known to us until it’s about to die. We cannot observe or become attached to its growth, its development, as we can with most other animals; we have only a relationship to this inanimate pebble, however beautiful it can be, that cannot respond or be brought into the human sphere. It seems more like a vegetable, and that is one reason why the French often say bête comme une huître! (stupid as an oyster) since it is so simply passive, helpless and can never be tamed (apprivoisée).
Furthermore, the oyster is not “wild” really at all, quite the opposite! The notion that the oyster is wild is anthropogenic and in a way unfortunate, since from the oyster’s own perspective it is anything but wild; on the contrary it is singularly unassuming, docile, solitarily locked in its own world, staying put in perfect repose, looking after itself without any help from anybody, thank you very much. It is a perfect piece of self-regulating machinery. But if it is untouched or undomesticated by humans, then by definition it must be wild. So if it is a stone or just some “thing”, beyond the human realm, what can we domesticate? Nothing! It’s all a sham! But let’s look after them, just in case! Let’s catch ‘em whilst they’re young enough to swim around looking for something hard to settle on, rods, sticks, ropes – and why not Chinese hats (sounds a ball!) – and then later shut them up in bags, bins, baskets, boxes or whatever, almost as if it was an animal that needed to be put in a cage. Or let’s put them on the backs of lorries and ship them from one country to another so that they can grow more quickly and avoid contaminated water. For instance, some French companies buy spat in Arcachon or from land-based hatcheries, which is then shipped to Ireland, before being brought back to special areas in France so that they can formally be called by the appellation of that area, like the oyster Ostra Regal. And now they have been “bag-trained”, why not go one step further and dress them up and give them a shell manicure, by tumbling them every so often, which will give them such a polished appearance, such a rounded, handsome shell that will look ever so perfect on the restaurant table! Or else, they are given special names that often hide their hybrid provenance, but which sound good.
We put the oyster through this regime for our own sake, although, in my opinion, it is this aspect of ”not-me”, the alien in the oyster, that is one of the most powerful factors in the polarised sentiments the oyster often engenders in either hating or loving it! Because with the oyster as opposed to most other domesticated animals, no mutuality can ever be achieved (even though I recently read a story about a hospital in Chicago keeping oysters as pets for the terminally-ill!).
So all that the process of cultivation boils down to is a collection of controlling routines, traditions, methods that we have chosen to satisfy our needs rather than the oyster’s. Legué writes (2004, 207),«la domestication des huîtres tient exclusivement à leur confinement dans un espace accessible à l’homme, construit et amenagé par lui» (the domestication of oysters depends entirely on their confinement to a space, accessible to man, and built and managed by him). In this sense, it is more an issue of territorialisation than domestication.

So we have in our narcissistic world succeeded in convincing ourselves that what we do, our techniques, our savoir-faire, that we love and respect, is far more important to the oyster than anything else, which may to a certain extent be true! But anyway it’s the sea, that decides its taste, as well as the syzygies, the tides, the currents, the algae, in short nature, not us.

On the other hand, Legué seems to imply (2004, 252-4) that the progression onto the land freed the oyster-farmer from the vicissitudes of the elements that he had no control over, and he was able to develop skills and know-how that he could control. This in turn allowed him to change his mentality and attitudes that before (and in some cases still even today) imprisoned him in a narrow-minded, if not bigoted mind-set, which also caused damage and suffering. On the other hand, some of the rhetoric of cultivation, stewardship and know-how can mask a patronising attitude that accompanies the ideal of mastery and control over nature. The history of the Chesapeake Bay is a classic example of these conflicts (Keiner, 2010). However, it must be said that many traditional occupations of the sea have seen themselves overtaken and abused in some cases, by more land-based businesses that often run aquaculture companies. At the core of territorialisation, in this context, is the landscaping or expropriation of the sea by values and ideas that belong to the landed, urbanised and now indigenous population.
From this more anthropological perspective, there is a parallel between the territorialisation of the oyster-farming profession and also of the oyster itself, because it becomes transformed into a commodity, to be prepared for markets all round the country and overseas, at any time of the year, so that it can be consumed when we want. Yet, we call this activity sustainable, but for whom? Of course, it’s very sustainable for farmers, for consumers but is it for the oysters, which have been deprived of their “wild” identity, as sessile molluscs or for the environment, i.e. nature? There is some evidence that the oysters, especially the triploids, reared in hatcheries, become easily stressed (over-handled and moved around too often), and therefore are less able to cope with viruses and bacteria that are ever-present in the water-column. But this is all done to produce a more presentable oyster for seafood restaurants and the ever-expectant consumer.
Before, buying or eating oysters was more simple; in France, for example, you did it by numbers, as they were sold by sizes. Or you asked for oysters from a certain place, like Belon, or Cancale in Brittany. And in England, you asked for six Colchesters, or six Loch Ryans. Most of the finer restaurants in London still stick to that tradition. However, it’s becoming all the rage to give oysters fancy names. Names do stick and as with any food, labels, brands, provenance in some quarters mean everything, just like the trends in the later 19th century in America where Blue Points were the oysters everyone wanted and were served, whether they originated from there (on Long Island) or somewhere else, and in Paris where Belons were considered haut de gamme, the bee’s knees. The reverse side to all this, unfortunately, is the illegal traffic in oysters, articles about which appear in newspapers every so often.
But now as we sit perusing the menu at any well-stocked oyster bar, into whose warmth and care, we and the raw, living oysters have been brought, we are mesmerised by the pretty names given to the molluscs we are about to devour and enjoy; and we want to find the perfect pairing of drink to wash them down with – all very civilised and all to calm those qualms about gnashing our teeth into the live flesh of those tasty molluscan morsels. Finally, the oyster has been “domesticated”; it has survived its circuitous journey to its final destination, our table. All these ritualistic ingredients are part of that domesticating process of not only the innocent, unknowing oyster but also of ourselves as waited-on restaurant guests. The humanising part of this process also aims at making the oyster consumable, edible, presentable, possibly more importantly so because the oyster is rarely cooked. Customarily, one of the characteristics of domesticated animals is that they are never eaten raw. On the contrary, it is the wild, the prey hunted, that may be eaten raw; among certain tribes, often it is considered an honour to drink the raw blood of the slaughtered animal before it is cooked, i.e the hunter becomes the hunted.
Our civilised rituals are, then, our sublimated way of entering into the spirit of our totem animal, that we humanise it, dress it up and overcome the “not-me” alienation that has dogged our relation with nature. We humanise nature, its species, at the same time as we see ourselves above or beyond nature, and maybe it was domestication that was our first act of hubris, when we decided to put ourselves above nature and bring nature into our domus (home), instead of realising that we were an integral part of this nature. In fact, domestication can be seen as verification of our innate fear of the wild, the raw and the untamed.
Then there is the bigger question of aquaculture, which is one of the largest expanding areas in food production, since it is seen as a method of producing endless quantities of protein-rich food for the growing world population. Much could be sustainable but not all aquaculture is, despite certain popular perceptions, and we really need to think about the long-term effects of damage to the marine environment that certain aquacultural practices cause around the world. There is no doubt that, given its increasing mechanisation and automation, aquaculture is beginning to resemble its agricultural cousin. The sea has mainly been regarded as “the common heritage of mankind”, according to the UN Law of the Sea, but in the view of many suffered just because of this. According to the theory of the tragedy of the commons (Hardin, 1968), this is why overexploitation occurred, and in the end the only viable solution was some form of restriction, which in the guise of current political ideology was interpreted to mean privatisation or leasing of the seas and shoreline. The oceans are being used more, not just in the sense of deep-sea fishing or offshore or open ocean aquaculture, where raft-culture, for instance, with shellfish can take advantage of the stronger ocean currents. In some places, disused oil rigs are being converted into aquacultural facilities. The ocean is being “industrialised” in more ways than one: deep-sea exploration and sea-bed mining, offshore wind-farms, tidal power and wave energy generation, even the use of the ocean as a gigantic dump-site – all point to the growing territorialisation of our seas, and aquaculture plays one part in this “industrial” process. The oceans have long been the last frontier on the planet for man to penetrate. This fantasy extends even into the brainchild of some libertarians who envisage the foundation of ocean settlements, called “seasteading communities”, freed from any state interference.

Garrett Hardin foresaw a scenario where if the tragedy of the commons was not solved, annihilation of the human race was inevitable. There was no technical solution, because what was required was a radical change in the way we lived and the need for mutual coercion in imposing certain necessary restrictions on our freedoms. On fishing the oceans, he wrote this a few years later (1974), but amazingly enough 40 years ago, given that this is still as depressingly true today as it was then:
[talking about the destruction of common resources…] The same holds true for the fish of the oceans Fishing fleets have nearly disappeared in many parts of the world, technological improvements in the art of fishing are hastening the day of complete ruin. Only the replacement of the system of the commons with a responsible system of control will save the land, air, water and oceanic fisheries.

His words have been used as an excuse or justifications for the implementation of private ownership as the only way forward to secure sustainable stewardship of such common resources, and he was probably all in favour of such a solution himself. But as many have pointed out, such as the famous economist Elinor Ostrom, there are in fact many other solutions to managing common resources that can successfully involve local communities preserving and containing marine areas and species. But the march towards privatising the commons, the seas beyond national territorial boundaries goes on with relentless force.

So just as domestication rested on a need to tame the wild, territorialisation also seeks control the unknown, the unfettered, in this case the commons of the seas. In a way, this territorialisation can be viewed as the final instalment of our slow, self-imploding drive to see it as a right to exploit nature, as we return once again to – and we may just long for – our watery origins. Maybe the circle will close and the seas our final destiny, our primordial beginnings, into which we risk disappearing, unless we successfully solve the dire problems of global warming on our oceans (Charter, 2007).


Cauvin, J. (1994): Naissance des divinités. Paris: CNRS Éditions.

Charter, R (2007): Life on the Edge: the Industrialization of our Oceans.

Duarte, C. et al (2007): Rapid Domestication of Marine Species, Science, 316, no 5823, 382-3.

Hale, E. B. (1962): Domestication and the Evolution of Behaviour. In E. S. Hafez (ed), The Behaviour of Domestic Animals. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.

Hardin, G. (1968): The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162, no 3859, 1243-8.

Hardin, G. (1974): Lifeboat Ethics: the Case against Helping the Poor. Psychology Today, 8, 38-43.

Hodder, I. (1990): The Domestication of Europe. Oxford: Blackwell.

Kleiner, C. (2010): The Oyster Question. Athens: The University of Georgia Press.

Legué, P. (2004):La moisson des marins-paysans. Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme.




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Sounds like this is about the noises oysters make; not quite.

But there is a story about a pub in London (long since disappeared) called the Whistling Oyster and how it got its name.


Apparently, at the very beginning of the Victorian era in the Covent Garden area of London, in a courtyard  behind the Drury Lane theatre there was an tavern, reputed for “the superior excellence of its delicate little natives” and its clientele of bohemians. One day, inside from one of the tubs of oysters, a strange and unusual sound was suddenly heard.

“The landlord listened, hardly believing his ears. There was, however, no doubt about the matter. One of the oysters was distinctly whistling or, at any rate, producing a sort of “sifflement” with its shell. It was not difficult to detect the phenomenal bivalve, and in a very few minutes he was triumphantly picked out from among his fellows, and put by himself in a spacious tub, with a plentiful supply of brine and meal. The news spread through the town, and for some days the house was besieged by curious crowds. That the oyster did whistle, or do something very much like whistling, is beyond all question. How he managed to do so is not upon record.”¹

It seemed that one of its shells had a minute hole, through which the sound was emitted with each in/exhalation of water.

Jokes about the musical ability of the oyster appeared in the Punch magazine, although it was reported that an American, who came to see it perform, treated it with the utmost contempt as it was nothing compared to an oyster he had heard back in Massachusetts whistle Yankee Doodle in its entirety.

Eventually, a sign for the tavern was erected, displaying a weird and grotesquely comical representation of a gigantic oyster, whistling a tune and with a humorous twinkle in its eye.

However, it’s amazing how many songs and musical pieces in so many different genres that have been inspired by oysters. Went through a big search on Spotify, but it was difficult finding links for them all. So I decided to try and collect some of them (and the ones I like), all on one spot, just like oysters like to do, in fact. So cuddle up and listen to these pearls!!!


Oysters – Meshell Ndegeocello

Oyster – Elysian Fields

Oyster – Nothankyou

An oyster, a pearl – Sarah Blasko

Oyster – Registrators (to top it, a bite of Japanese punk!)

Les huîtres – Mai Lan (thrown in for our francophiles)

What kind of a noise annoys an oyster? – Frank Crumit (A wail, perhaps?)

What noise annoys a noisy oyster? – Neil Innes  (scroll down to the song)

Noisy oyster – Bob Ropiak and John Higgins

And yet another variation on this same tongue-twisting theme  – A noise-y noise a-noise a-noise-ster – often attributed to a famous American children’s writer, Dr Seuss, but that seems like another fairy tale:

The oyster song – Clinton Ford (a band singer in the 1960’s from northern England) – found only this sample on Itunes

The oyster is our friend – Lloyd Vivola (a folk singer from New York)

The Bluff oyster song – Max McCauley (all the way from Kiwi-land)

Huîtres à Sète – Anne-Thérèse Biéri, Ensemble Tamatakia

You’re not the only oyster in the stew – Fats Waller

The tale of the oyster – Cole Porter, sung by Sarah Mattox

Instrumental music:

Oyster girl – Jabara Home Party (love this mix of the jig/reel and Japanese sang-froid!)

Greasy oysters – Ry Cooder (music from the movie “Johnny Handsome”)

Oyster – Hans Ulrik Quartet (Danish jazz group)

Your oyster – Nimo (Latvian based jazz quartet)

12 huîtres boogie – Pascal Mohy trio (Belgian jazz group)

The oyster – Philippe Sellam/ Gilles Renne with l’Orchestre National de Jazz

Les huîtres étaient bonnes – Mécanos sonores (an obscure French outfit)

An oyster in Paris – Rabih Abou-Khalil (Lebanese oud-player and composer)

Oyster – Moguai (German electronic music)

If you have a favourite, don’t be shy – write a comment!

And if you know of any others worth including, please tell me. Thanks!

¹ John Philpots: Oysters, and all about them. London, John Richardson (1891) 903-904.



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Ostrëiculteur traditionnel

Ostrëiculteur traditionnel logo

There is something almost unreal about the gulf of Morbihan and all its 12 000 hectares (29,650 acres or 46.3 mi2), locked in from the onslaught of the Atlantic Ocean, on the west coast of France. It is more of an inland lake, populated by a host of islands, creeks and bays and silently supervised by those imposing Breton houses, with their steeply sloping, grey-slated roofs and their walls of dark brown granite stone, now often white-washed, scattered all along the shoreline. Now in September, they all seem as empty and abandoned as the lines of moored boats whose masts stand in the reflection of the water like alignments of menhirs and pillars of the megalithic sites that adorn the landscape in Brittany, especially here along the penininsulas of the gulf. In a sense, the gulf resembles the oval interior of an oyster, which is closed in by the long flatter shell of the peninsula of Rhuys, to the south, whilst to the north, the rough and tumble of the land eventually arms itself round into the peninsula and deeper shell of Locmariaquer. For it is only here, in this narrow opening between Locmariaquer and Port Navalo, that the sea can be filtered by the huge area of the gulf. This picturesque village, famed for its prehistoric sites and oysters, has been lovingly portrayed in the book, The Oysters of Locmariaquer, by Eleanor Clark. Beyond its western borders lie the marshland, dikes and pockets of isolated Brittany farmsteads, and even further the sand dunes on the bay of Quiberon and the Atlantic Ocean.

Map of the gulf of Morbihan

– Map of the gulf of Morbihan

The name, Morbihan, means “little sea” in the Breton language and the monumental cairn on the island of Gavrinis near its entrance, testifies to the gulf’s rich historical importance. But it is its oyster that today plays an inherent part in its embarras de richesses. It used to be almost the ancestral home of the flat European oyster before it was ravaged by the pests of the late 1960’s and late 70’s. The oyster today is the creuse, the Crassostrea gigas, the Pacific oyster, introduced in the years between 1969 and 1977 to save the French oyster industry from collapsing. New threats appear, almost yearly, and for the last few years heavy mortalities have been occurring in the young and now adult oyster. There is talk of how long the oyster profession can survive, given the taxing problems it faces.

A few passionate oyster cultivators, ostréiculteurs, have joined forces and are convinced the only way forward is to farm in the traditional way, that is, only use spat born in the open sea. They have formed an association called Ostréiculteur traditionnel – whose slogan is ”Huîtres nées en mer” (Oysters born at sea), which has a national membership of about 70 members, although, according to its chairman, Benoît Le Joubioux1, about 10% of French oyster growers, about 300 in all, refuse to use seed from hatcheries. The association is governed by a charter that its members are obliged to follow and builds on the ethic of sustainability and collective responsibility. All seed which is bought cannot be obtained from any of the hatcheries that now have been set up by private and state organisations. Its members see real dangers in spat raised in hatcheries, since only a few genitors are used, which in turn restrict the genetic variability of the seed. This and the triploid’s accelerated growth during the summer months increase its vulnerability to environmental stressors. However, more recently demands for a moratorium on the use of triploid seed from hatcheries have been raised from several areas, the latest being Normandy, because of the fears that the horrendous mortalities have originated with such spat from these sources since it is the triploids that are dying at such a devastating rate.

According to one French blogger2, it is yet another case of a struggle between the David of a number of small oyster farmers and the Goliath of multinational corporations owning the hatcheries and laboratories in collusion with state and public organisations like IFREMER, promoters of the tetraploid and triploid oyster.

The traditionalists also believe, quite rightly, that traceability of all oysters should be introduced so that consumers can choose between natural and hatchery-reared oysters (and consumers should start demanding this as well!). They also want to have the right to label their product as being the natural oyster, and in this sense, the only oyster considered to be bio, that is ecologically reared. One crazy anomaly is that European Union legislation insists that any organic produce, labelled as such, must be traced back to its source, in the case of animals to its genitors, the result being that the only bio (organic) oyster in France is hatchery-reared (sic), and that the natural oysters, born in the sea, are barred from this brand, since it is quite impossible to ascertain their derivation!!

One of these is Yvonnick Jégat, whose great grandfather started the oyster établissement back in 1925. Along the tranquil point of Arrradon, on the north coast of the gulf, a site of exceptional beauty, he conducts his oyster and shellfish business, working in harmony with nature, the sun, the currents, the fresh water flowing down into gulf. As member of this association of ostréiculteurs traditionnels, which prides itself on the traditional savoir-faire of the profession, he wants to produce an oyster that is as natural as can possibly be grown.

Offloading the afternoon's catch of oysters

Offloading the afternoon’s catch of oysters

He has three parcs in different areas of the gulf, totalling 40 hectares (98 acres). A large one on the northwestern slope of the island of Arz in the centre of the gulf, one in front of the point of Arradon and the third just east of the village of Locmariaquer. After buying his seed from the bay of Quiberon, he cultivates the spat in bags on trestles for two years to make them strong enough to resist predators like the starfish, crab and sea bream and then places them on the sea floor, which is sandy rather than muddy, like most of the gulf’s floor. They are dredged regularly and he eventually farms them with a drag. It takes between three or four years for them to reach a good, marketable size. The first two sites are preferred as they are fed by the swirling, strong currents from the swelling and draining of the gulf by the Atlantic tides.

He has six employees for whom he feels a genuine pride and responsibility. They are busy sorting out the latest batch of oysters Yvonnick has brought in on the afternoon tide. They will be shipped on to the market later, some with the evening train from Vannes, a good  20 minutes away by car, to Paris. He also wants to be able to pass onto to his children a thriving business, built on values that he sees as important not just for himself but also for the environment and man’s future.

Inside the sorting shed with Yvonnick and three of his employées

Inside the sorting shed with Yvonnick and three of his employées

He feels sure that many of the recent problems blighting the oysters in the French Atlantic waters have been caused by the overuse of triploids, whose seed is produced by hatcheries. Loss of genetic diversity is one reason for the vulnerability of young oysters; others the use of antibiotics in hatcheries and the manipulation of conditions to speed up initial growth so that the seed is not healthy enough for the rigours of the marine environment. Like many ostréiculteurs he is angry with IFREMER, the French state agency responsible for supervising the industry, as he thinks they are neither being sufficiently objective nor indeed truthful about the causes of these dire problems. Moreover, they do next to nothing to support those oyster farmers like him, who want to preserve the traditional methods of cultivation. Yvonnick is convinced that the natural oyster, that is one grown on the sea floor, is far more hardy and resistant than those reared by hatcheries, and especially the triploid strains. The latter have proved to be too unstably sterile, and their effect on natural banks of oysters could be devastating. He is still awaiting a reply from IFREMER to a letter he sent them during the summer about his own observations of the oyster mortalities that go against IFREMER’s explanation of the causes. According to him, they prefer to blame adverse weather conditions, such as too much rain in the spring, the heatwave in July or global warming. Also he feels some of his colleagues are too afraid to speak out, even in private, for commercial and marketing reasons, and so prefer to play ball with the authorities.

Anyway, what about his oysters, which have won many prestigious prizes at national agricultural fairs and found their way onto the dinner tables in the Elysée, the presidential palace, and the Ritz hotel, in Paris? But he knows he has so many loyal clients, and with that said, their taste was absolutely delightful. The no 3s had a thick, heavy, dark brown shell, covered lightly in red-brown, bushy seaweed, holding a strong adductor muscle so that they were extraordinarily difficult to open. Inside, the mantle revealed a deep black, lace-like colour, more so against the uniform radiance of the pearl-white surface and jammed pack with meat that was muted beige, plump and firm (no signs at all of any milkiness, this being the middle of September). Almost crunchy, its taste was the immediate flush of sea salt and freshness, which gave way to a slight flowery or grassy sweetness and the finish had a definite flavour of oil and wood. So just how would they taste in January? I’d love to find that out!

Yvonnick Jégat's oysters (carelessly shucked :()!

Yvonnick Jégat’s oysters, carelessly shucked! 😦

1 Le Parisien, 26.06.2013

2 Regard sur la pêche et l’aquaculture


Being a bit of a perfectionist, I find it hard to accept mistakes or wrong statements that seem to get repeated as though they were truths or lazily taken for granted. In this case, I’m being a stickler for spelling.

Let’s start with the word ‘ostreaphile’ which only seems to occur in American literature about oysters. There is even a website with that name. This is completely wrong for the simple reason that the compound word is made up of two words from the ancient Greek, namely a noun ostreon (oyster) and a noun philia (friendship) or adjective philos (loved). All known combinations ending in the English suffix -phile has an ‘o’ before the suffix, like necrophile, bibliophile or halophile. In fact, in English there is no other form in general use. And since the Greek is actually spelt ostreON, then its compound is obviously ostreophile. Now from where the word ‘ostreaphile’ is derived, one can only guess that someone maybe mixed up the Latin word ostreum (of which the plural is ostrea) with its Greek precedent or was just simply guessing. Anyway, grammatically and linguistically, the word should be ostreophile. But ‘ostreaphile’ seems to have become so common in American texts that it will be hard to change that. But it is based on an unfortunate ignorance of the etymology of the words, which is not uncommon, dare I say it, on the western seaboard of the Atlantic.

As a curious footnote to this, the founder of French aquaculture, Victor Coste, whose work on saving the oyster beds in France during the 1860’s ushered in a new era in oyster farming, minted his own word for oyster cultivation, calling it ostréoculture. But soon after he died, it got changed in the Littré dictionary when it first appeared in 1877, as it was spelt ostréiculture!

Okay, let’s move on to my other gripe, the word, which ALSO only seems to occur in American literature – ‘merroir’. It is an attempt to transfer the accepted concept of the French terroir, which has long been used to explain the varying tastes of, for example, wine, olive oil, tea and cheese, to a marine environment, which is fair enough. No complaints so far, at all. But, for Christ’s sake, the word for earth in French is terre and the French for sea is mer not ‘merr’, both originating from the Latin terra and mare! The simple suffix, which is used a lot in French is -oir(e), often denoting a special place, building or instrument (like dortoir, laboratoire or miroir) has its equivalent in English -ory – eg, territory, dormitory or accessory, and both suffixes are derived from the Latin –orium). It was a common way in New Latin of identifying, especially, a place, building or rooms inside with its particular function. For instance the vomitorium in a Roman amphitheatre was not a place to throw up in but an exit passageway to enable people to leave quickly.

There is absolutely no reason whatever to add an extra ‘r’, so grammatically and etymologically it is obvious that the word should be spelt meroir.

In this sense, the concept of meroir recognises the existence of specific and unique properties and functions of a certain area of the sea (various aspects of the water column as well as the topography of the sea bottom) which contribute in giving whatever grows there its special flavour.

There are some good articles in the North American press about meroir and oysters, like this one or this one or even this one! And if that’s not enough then the celebrated Rowan Jacobsen’s authority should sway the doubters: in his connoisseur’s guide to oyster eating (A Geography of Oysters, 2007,p 3), he writes MEROIR (though he chickens out of it by preferring to keep to the term terroir).

It’s strange how that little ‘r’ letter has a nasty habit of popping up so often in connection with oysters!

So now I’ve had my rant!!


Oyster shucking competitions have a good long history from the days in the mid 19th century when oysters were shucked and their meat shipped off in cans from the East coast of America. By the middle of the 19th century when railroads had penetrated into the heart of the country, oyster consumption rocketed and demand for these molluscs was insatiable. Shucking grew up in the packinghouses and canneries, located in the seedy quarters of harbours like Baltimore and New York. It was dirty, exhausting and repetitive work that only attracted the poor from the lowest echelons of society.

In a way to relieve the sheer boredom of the work, shucking competitions started being held from about the last quarter of the 19th century when it was a sport that could earn a good shucker a decent livelihood. In the oyster canning business, the shuckers were paid piece-rates, by the amount or weight they shucked and speed was at a premium. Kurlansky (2006, 180) describes the vibrant atmosphere of the shucking sheds in New York at that time, when shuckers were fiercely competitive amongst themselves. In addition, there were competitions for the fastest sail-boat run from Staten Island to Chesapeake Bay and back with seed oysters, the fastest tonger and so on. Contests were both local and regional and then grew into national events, where blacks and whites, men and women could take part on equal terms. Large, rowdy crowds were there, besides national newspapers; heavy betting took place and prize money was considerable (up to 4 months’ salary). In one contest, a shucker from Rhode Island in a North v South competition succeeded in opening 100 oysters in 3 minutes 3 seconds. Now shucking competitions are held at different oyster festivals that usually are held in the autumn, similar to any harvest festival to celebrate the opening of the season. Patrick McMurray, a Canadian champion several years running, has written an impassioned shucker’s guide to oysters Consider the Oyster (2007). According to him, the fairest and one of the biggest contests, takes place in Seattle in mid-March (formerly called the Oyster Olympics until the US Olympic Committee threatened litigation, despite the existence of the indigenous oyster that is named after the state capital on the Puget Sound called Olympia), where competitors have to chuck 12 each of the five, most common species. The past winners of the American championships reveal that a number of women have been crowned champions, as first men and women compete separately and then the two respective winners compete against each other. One legendary winner, many times over, has been Deborah Pratt who over more than 20 years has been one of the fastest shucker in her native state of Virginia, proving the rule that it is not just a question of brute force at all, more a subtle hand-and wrist technique, coordination and alacrity. The rules of the various competitions differ in detail, as do the competitors’ plan and method of attack, choice of equipment and style, but the aim, the spirit and the need to strike a balance between speed and perfection are the same.

Now this year, Copenhagen hosted a oyster shucking competition for the first time,  called the World Oyster Cup, to which some of the very best shuckers from Europe and North America were invited. Some rumours had long been circulating about the arbitrariness of the judging in the World Championship held annually in Galway in Ireland. Anyway the Danes decided to organise a rival competition, its first ever.

It was a beautiful sunny and warm Saturday for the end of October, Copenhagen at its best. There at the gates of the famous and romantic Frederiksberg Gardens, the annual Oyster Trophy Week reached its climax with its grand finale of the World Cup. The week opens the oyster season when the Danish monarch is traditionally presented with the very first oysters of the season from Limfjorden. Until 1849 Danish oysters were considered part of the royal prerogative, dating from the days in 1587 when the then king Frederik II imposed a royal monopoly on the oyster beds, which at the time lined the kingdom’s western coast in the Wadden Sea. Ever since 1825 however, Limfjorden has been open to the North Sea, after a gale breached the thin Aggertangen isthmus, and flat oysters began settling some 10-15 years later. Since then Limfjorden, especially, its western banks around Nissum Bredning, has been home to its native oysters, where the water column has been free of the parasites Bonamia ostreae and Marteilia refringens which otherwise have been so prevalent along the coasts in Europe. They are among the finest oysters, full of succulent meat, and so rich in flavour without that overpowering metallic taste that often characterises the flat oyster, less briny and with a surprisingly shy, sweet aftertaste.

One of the Danish contestants preparing his fingers for the worst with tape

Back to the competition!  The tent was first filled with Danish shuckers aspiring to win their national championship and to gain 2 places in the World Cup starting line. Two of the contestants were twins, Jonas and Simon Tønsager, young and hungry, and it was Simon who managed to win the Danish Cup and take one of the final spots; though in the qualification rounds  he was beaten into first place by Jesper Knudsen, a well beefed-up combatant. So they were the Danish representatives to participate in the heats with shuckers from Scandinavia, Ireland, North America, England, Estonia and Germany. Unfortunately, no-one turned up from the Gallic countries like France or Belgium, home to some of the most proficient oyster openers. But the competition is what it should be – pure fun. They are all mostly great buddies and love the hype, the atmosphere and the chance to compete and may the best man win.

A presentation tray of delicious Limfjord oysters….mmmmm!

From the heats, four made the final, two from Scandinavia and two from Ireland. Michael Moran, from a star-studded family of Irish shuckers, like his father Willie, who holds the record for the fastest ever time in the Galway World Championships of 91 seconds, who actually works in finance when he’s not looking after the family’s legendary oyster restaurant near Clarinbridge, outside Galway, Moran’s Oyster Cottage, swept into the final with the fastest time from his heat. As the current world champion from Galway a few weeks previously, he has regularly been considered one of the great shuckers of the circuit.  He was joined in the final by his Irish neighbour and colleague, Stephen Nolan, a quiet and unassuming young man, who had been bold enough to come to Copenhagen despite the fact that his wife was expecting their first baby two days later (he told me that she had told him to go anyway, and being a good husband he had decided to obey her!). Stephen had had a slower time in the heat but came through on the basis of his skillful technique which meant he had fewer penalty points.

Simon Tønsager beat his compatriot Jesper Knudsen by just a few seconds to make it into this prestigious final of four. He is one of the co-founders of this competition and passionate about these molluscs. The other Scandinavian who made the final was Johan Malm, runner-up in this year’s world championship in Galway, beaten by Michael Moran – of course! Their rivalry is as intense as their friendship, but Johan from Gothenburg in Sweden, whose restaurant, Gabriel in Feskekörka is the hub of the city’s temple of fish and shellfood, thrives on the challenge of a competition. Not the fastest or first to finish, he prides himself on precision, care and competitive drive. Now he was out for revenge for his defeat in Galway. His qualification time was the best, followed by Michael Moran’s. There was no doubt that this would be a hard-fought contest.

All the contestants scrutinise each oyster from the carton of 32 oysters for size and any irregularity and any suspicious looking oyster is substituted under the approving eyes of the judges.  30 oysters are selected and lined up, in rows of ten, flat side down, by the side of the presentation tray. Some are minutely pedantic, making sure that any seaweed or detritus clinging to the shell is blown or scraped away. Preparing the oysters is not only a necessarty part of the ritual but also functions as a chance to up the ante! Each competitor seems nervous and raring to go, eyes are piercingly focussed, hands are fidgeting, some pace back and forth waiting to be called into position. Each one has a bell on the table to ring to signal they have finished. After everyone is satisfied with their oysters and their placements, hands are raised above the head and the compere and crowd shout out in unison “10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1-go” and off they charge, accompanied by some rousing Irish music and noise from the enthusiastic public.

Jesper Knudsen, one of the Danish finalists, on the left, with Johan Malm, the eventual winner, getting their 30 oysters ready for shucking

Now these Danish oysters were brimming with fleshy meat after a cold summer when little spawning seemed to have occurred. The adductor muscle and hinge were strong so that opening them presented several challenges. The contestants realised that scars and penalty points were going to be inevitable as their knives would immediately encounter the oyster flesh. Since the hinge was strong, more brute force would be needed to penetrate the hinge, thus incurring more risk to the flesh and higher penalty points, so many opted for a thinner bladed knife to avoid initial contact. These professionals make their own special knives and have several depending on the kind of oyster to be opened. Most use double bladed knives, one for opening and the other to cut the oyster from the bottom shell, whilst a few traditionalists, mainly those from North America use a single blade for both purposes. The oysters tasted so good, plump, rich and meaty, having a slightly sweet aftertaste, possibly due to the higher glycogen content after a summer without spawning. Anyway, they would prove to be a hard shell to crack.

Under starter’s orders for the off and on the right is Stephen Nolan, from Ireland, who finished in 4th place

The noise was phenomenal and most were cheering, naturally, for Simon, the Danish contestant and youngest finalist. Michael was racing away at frenetic speed, his white woolly hat bobbing to and fro as he mercilessly attacked each oyster. The compere keeps count of the number of oysters shucked by the competitors, and the noise reaches a crescendo as they finish and ring their bells. Michael was by far and away the fastest, finishing off 15 or 20 seconds before Johan Malm and Simon Tønsager rang their bells at the same time. Johan worked away with methodical concentration, shouting out the odd swearword when something went wrong, and was also sporting a grey woollen hat (but had removed his sunglasses!). Simon was serious, intent, and well-focussed, whilst Stephen hovered over his oysters and seemed economic, almost leisurely, in his approach and style.

So after the judges had been handed the trays and scored each presentation – the trays are numbered so the judges have no idea whose tray it is they are inspecting – the results were announced. 4 seconds are added  for any oyster, not severed from its shell, or with shell or grit on its flesh, or if any flesh is scarred, or not presented upright. In the event (as did happen) that an oyster is lost or not presented, 30 seconds are added; the same goes for any signs of blood (which didn’t happen)! Bonus points (up to 30) are awarded for presentation at the discretion of the judges as to how attractive the oysters would look to a customer in a restaurant.

Johan Malm screams out his delight the moment he is announced winner of the first World Oyster Cup!

All the competitors are ushered onto the stage as their positions are announced, and prizes given, but in the end there are two contestants left for the first two places, inevitably almost, Michael Moran and Johan Malm. Revenge is sweet, after all, and Johan Malm screams out his delight when he’s announced as winner. Michael and he bear-hug each other up  and the crowd, well inebriated, join in. Johan’s overall winning time is just 6 seconds faster than Michael’s and both their times are considerably faster by 25-30 seconds than their respective qualifying times.

Johan and Michael celebrate, having come first and second

It had been a great show, well-supervised by another Nordic legendary oyster shucker, Hasse Johannesson, and the public had been able to eat up the oysters provided by the Limfjord fisheries, Vilsund Blue  and Glyngøre Shellfish, and wash them down with special Oyster Stout, brewed in Fanø on Jylland by the Mikkeller micro-brewery, with one oyster for every liter. So book your tickets to Copenhagen for next year’s Oyster Week!

Simon, Johan and Michael receiving their prizes from the Danish compere



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Long ago were the halcyon days of seas, brimming with all kinds of fish and molluscs, and laissez-faire politics that shunned any form of regulation on fishing, best exemplified by the opinions of one of the intellectual giants of the 19th century, Thomas Huxley, an autodidactic natural scientist, who dubbed himself “Darwin’s bulldog” because of his staunch defence of the latter’s controversial ideas, and who fathered a long line of Huxley geniuses. In his opinion, the bounties of the oceans were considered inexhaustible and nature left to its own devices, in the true spirit of free trade and liberalism, was almost infinitely resilient and could adapt to any pressure imposed by man so that the idea of any threat of overfishing was totally rejected. To be fair to Huxley, towards the end of his life, his tone changed, as he became more convinced that management of oyster beds needed to be introduced and recognised the dangers inherent in certain practices. Apart from France, most countries failed to introduce any viable system of regulation until it was too late. Nowadays, the tragedy of all this naivety, on the one hand and greed, on the other, is only too apparent. Stocks have fallen dramatically and fishing has now become far more regulated. Aquaculture is seen as an economic and environmental necessity to safeguard the finite resources of the seas. However, not all aquaculture is sustainable, and in a recent book by Colin Nash, The History of Aquaculture (2011), a pile of evidence is amassed of the unsavoury involvement of the nuclear power industry and multinational chemical conglomerates like Union Carbide, Dow Chemical and Sun Oil in aquaculture during the 1960/70’s which had devastating consequences for the marine environment. Aquaculture was seen as a way to buy good publicity and acquire a brand as a caring company.

Right from the beginning, science has endeavoured to involve itself in aquaculture. One of its pioneers, known in France as le père de la pisciculture, Victor Coste (1807-1873) was originally professor of embryology, and was instrumental in spreading interest in the methods of artificial collection of wild spat from oysters. His was the age of the first hatcheries which were established to study and allow fish spawn in artificial environments. But science was generally slow to latch on. The first experimental hatcheries on a larger scale were started in the 1930’s, in Conwy, Wales (UK) under first Herbert Cole (1911-1984) and later Peter Walne (1926-1978) and in Milford, Connecticut (US) under Victor Loosanoff (1899-1987). But most of the work only got off the ground after the 2nd World War. Selective breeding and artificial rearing of oyster spat in hatcheries were seen as ways to compensate for the disappearance of wild stocks and unpredictability of spawning in colder climates by providing an almost limitless source of spat for cultivation. The first commercial oyster seed hatchery opened on the US west coast in 1967, but like most hatcheries was beset with various biological problems.

So this was the scene when a young and ambitious student set about trying to create a hybrid oyster, one which had never existed in nature. The narrative begins in a wooded, hilltop research centre, now the Ira C. Darling Marine Center, overlooking the Damariscotta River, on the Maine coast in North Eastern America, where in 1979 marine biologists at the University of Maine were working on methods to help improve the local shellfish industry. It was important to find ways to make fish grow more quickly in the colder waters, to overcome the problems of erratic spawning at such low temperatures and to make more money by producing shellfish for consumption the whole year round. The idea of growing brood stock in hatcheries was not new but producing a sterile oyster was, one that would be denied nature’s most basic function, reproduction, so that meat content, flavour and texture could be improved. Instead of utilising its sugar reserves of glucose and glycogen for gamete production, and reducing its meat content by as much as 70%, the sterile oyster, it was thought, could be freed to harness this energy for meat and shell growth, thus reducing the time to cultivate a marketable oyster. Another benefit in a faster growing oyster was that it could reach market size before being vulnerable to particular types of parasites like the one causing Dermo disease (Perkinsus marinus). In a word, the sterile triploid was going to be created because it made irrefutably marketing sense.

The Ira C. Darling Marine Center at the University of Maine

The story of the triploid oyster is a fascinating and to some extent frightening chapter in the history of aquaculture. It epitomises man’s desire to master and rise above the unpredictability of nature, but it also poses uncomfortable questions about the lengths to which man has gone in the pursuit to modify the ecology of nature. As Sir Maurice Yonge (1899-1986), a distinguished marine zoologist of his day, wrote in his Oysters on the future of oyster culture, “the more man interferes with nature the greater become the problems he creates (1960, 189).

Some elementary facts about genetic biology may be needed here. In the animal kingdom, nearly all species are diploid, that is, each of their somatic cells contains two sets of homologous chromosomes, one each from the male and female parent. Somatic cells give rise to the development of the individual body through the process of mitosis, in which cells divide through DNA replication, thus retaining their two sets of identical chromosomes. Germ cells, which are responsible for reproduction and formation of a new generation, are located in the gonads and develop into male and female gametes (i.e. sperm and egg). This process whereby germ cells recombine their genetic DNA molecules of homologous chromosomes (synapsis) and lose one of their sets of chromosomes and become haploid (a single set of chromosomes) progeny cells or gametes is called meiosis. As a couple of genetic biologists[1] so succinctly wrote, “the very essence of sex is meiotic recombination.” (We never learnt that at school!). Meiosis involves intricate phases of chromosomal separation, rearrangements and segregation before new haploid cells are formed, all within a relatively short period of time, although it is divided into two main stages, meiosis I and II. In each of these two stages, crucially so-called polar bodies are extruded (released) and serve as biological indicators of the development of meiosis, especially in the creation of triploid egg cells. However, the process of meiosis in many marine molluscs, including oysters is delayed and only completed after fertilisation, whereas in most other animals this process is achieved before fertilisation. It is this complicated and amazing process of meiosis that is manipulated, by inhibiting or blocking the release of the polar bodies either in meiosis I or meiosis II, in order to ensure that the egg retains its two sets of chromosomes. Normally, one set of chromosomes would be shed to make way for the set of chromosomes provided by the male sperm to secure the continuation of diploidy in the organism. If this manipulation succeeds, then the fertilised egg contains three sets of chromosomes, that is becomes a triploid cell, which then can undergo mitosis in the usual way. It was generally assumed that adult triploids were sterile since their three sets of homologous chromosomes could not successfully recombine during meiosis.

In humans and mammals generally, the condition of triploidy is always life-threatening, if not lethal, but in the non-vertebrate and plant world, there are many species, which exist in natural states of polyploidy (several sets of chromosomes). For instance, there are wild species of berries belonging to the genus of Vaccinium, like blueberries, cranberries and lingonberries that are polyploid (tetraploid and hexaploid), as well as diploid. There are even varieties of grapes that have been discovered to have this feature. Some common agricultural fruits, such as melons, bananas and oranges have also been manipulated into polyploids to grow bigger and more quickly.

Meanwhile back in Maine, research was geared to creating polyploid shellfish, and after a series of trial and error experiments, one technique, which had been used on clams as well as salmon and rainbow trout in Norway earlier in the early 1970’s, was selected with its fair share of serendipity. It involved the insertion of a toxic chemical, a mycotoxin, cytochalasin B, at a critical moment during meiosis into the newly fertilised egg to prevent the reduction of the two sets of the female chromosomes to one, so that it would end up with three sets (triploidy). Timing, duration and dosage levels were crucial and could in worst cases cause genetic abnormalities (aneuploidy) and high mortalities at various stages of larval development. The optimal point when the toxic chemical was inserted was during meiosis II, to inhibit the release of the second polar body and thus produce a triploid zygote (fertilised egg).

Induced Triploidy

The development of chemically induced triploid zygotes during meiosis II

This laboratory technique of using cytochalasin B was gradually perfected and ushered in a new era in oyster cultivation, in which an artificial, supposedly sterile species, not genetically modified however, the triploid, could be used to produce a more meaty and juicy oyster more quickly, and even during the summer, “r-less” months. The young graduate student behind this work was Standish K. Allen Jnr, who together with his supervisor Herb Hidu and mentor Jon Stanley, is credited with the innovative research, conducted with the Eastern or Atlantic oyster, Crassostrea virginica, although he did not bother to get his “invention” patented. Their paper[2] in 1981 already mooted the idea of creating oysters with an even number of chromosome sets, like tetraploids (four sets), which then could synapse and be fertile. However, the local oyster farmers in Maine were too conservative then to embrace this new technology and the hatcheries that existed were small and more experimental than commercial.

So Allen jetted off in 1983 instead to the Northwest, eventually to complete his doctoral studies with a well-known biologist in the field, Kenneth Chew, in Seattle, where the oyster industry was far more commercialised, and ready at work on the Pacific oyster, Crassostrea gigas. Since this latter oyster generally was unable to spawn naturally in the colder Pacific water, well-established hatcheries had already begun to produce diploid oyster seed for cultivators to grow. He and another researcher, Sandra Downing, successfully applied the technique in 1985 to large batches of oysters in a commercial hatchery setting, whose owners wanted the process patented. The patent was in due course refused on the grounds that an earlier publication (in 1981) of the process meant that it was no longer original. The end result of the application in 1987, however, did create a historical precedent, as a landmark court case, since it was admitted for the first time ever that patents could be granted to new species of animals, genetically altered or modified by science. Suddenly, the door to the world of modern biotechnology was thrown open wide by this ruling.

Even so, health concerns about the carcinogen, cytochalasin B, were growing, because of its links with cancer and the FDA (the Food and Drug Administration) was debating whether to ban its use in commercial hatcheries. The two researchers decided to try another method to produce triploids by subjecting oyster eggs to hydrostatic pressure, and this time their patent application was accepted. Another method that was also used was subjecting the onsetting phase of meiosis to temperature extremes. An alternative to cytochalasin B has been the use of an enzyme inhibitor, 6-dimethylaminopurine (6-DMAP). However, the downsides of these four forms of induced triploidy was that they resulted in high mortalities of the oyster larvae in the hatcheries due to the severity of the treatment, that the success rate varied and that some triploid oysters were unstable enough to revert back into diploids as they grew or were able to spawn themselves, and so were not wholly sterile. There were other contradictions that triploids produced earlier in meiosis (so-called meiosis I) grew faster but were liable to higher mortalities than triploids produced later during meiosis II. But faster growth could also have been due to the fact that triploid cells were 33% larger in volume than diploid cells. Since the whole process was fraught with risks and problems, other ways were sought.

Differences in growth between a triploid and diploid oyster after 36 months

Help came from another non-native source, a Chinese geneticist, who emigrated to Seattle in 1985 to pursue postgraduate work, Ximing Guo, and he wanted to go a step further and create a tetraploid oyster (with four sets of chromosomes) which if breeded with a natural diploid would then produce a “natural” triploid, thus avoiding the use of any toxic and cancerous chemical. The problem was that the diploid egg normally was too small to hold two extra sets of chromosomes and all his attempts ended in failure. Meanwhile, Standish Allen had relocalised back to the East coast and gained his first full-time academic post at Rutgers University and its Haskins Shellfish Research Laboratory in 1989. Within a few years, he managed to persuade Guo to join him there and the two started working together on the specific problem of creating a fertile triploid with large enough eggs, although from the outset triploid oysters were supposed to be completely sterile and unable to develop gametes. However, it was occasionally observed that such fertile triploids did exist. So once these triploid oysters and their large eggs were identified, Guo and Allen still resorted to cytochalasin B to ensure that the triploid eggs could be manipulated during meiosis I to accommodate another set of chromosomes from male diploids and then grow into oyster spat. It was found that it was absolutely necessary to monitor the timing of biological indicators in the actual meiotic events in the individual triploid female eggs rather than to follow more general criteria, if tetraploids were to be bred successfully, because of greater variability and asynchrony of triploid eggs than in diploid equivalents. Even then the average success rate after eight days was about 12% (though others have reported much lower figures), and the vast majority of the fertilised eggs were deformed aneuploids. Other critical parameters were salinity and temperature levels and the length of time spent by the eggs immersed in seawater. According to one paper written by these two scientists and two Chinese colleagues[3], the major cause for the formation of tetraploids was a mechanism during a crucial stage of meiosis II, called united bipolar segregation, when the homologous chromosomes are segregated into different cells. It is quite an ironic quirk of nature that the supply of sterile oysters depends on those very same oysters not being sterile at all!

Natural Triploidy

The production of natural triploid zygotes using tetraploid males and diploid females

In 1993, the new tetraploid oyster was created in the laboratory by Guo and Allen: this was the second time Allen had invented an artificial oyster, but now he wasn’t going to miss out on creating a patent for his work. When the supply of tetraploid oysters could be regularly guaranteed, they could be used, more often than not the male species, on a large scale to breed with female diploids so as produce “natural” triploid offsprings to be used for cultivation. These “natural” triploids were after only 9 months of growth as much as 50% larger than normal diploid oysters, which satisfied both the scientists and cultivators alike, and even a third larger than induced triploids. Because of the growing dependency of the oyster industry on hatcheries for supplying oyster seed of Pacific oysters, Crassostrea gigas, there has been a rapid response from both growers and hatcheries to develop the techniques of tri- and tetraploidy, especially the West Coast of North America. Now most of the oyster seed supplied by commercial hatcheries for cultivation there are triploids, produced with the various methods described, although batches produced with older methods often may contain diploid oysters.

United States Patent 


Guo ,   et al.

October 20, 1998

Tetraploid shellfish


Provided by this invention are novel tetraploid mollusks, including oysters, scallops, clams, mussels and abalone. Also, provided are a method for producing the tetraploid mollusks and a method for producing triploid mollusks by mating the novel tetraploid mollusks with diploid mollusks.

Inventors: Guo; Ximing (Glassboro, NJ), Allen, Jr.; Standish K. (Mauricetown, NJ)
Assignee: Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey (New Brunswick, NJ)
Appl. No.: 08/895,077
Filed: July 16, 1997

The patent (United States Patent 5824841) was accordingly granted in 1998 to both Guo and Allen. They went on to set up a special start-up company for the creation of tetraploid molluscs with Rutgers University, 4Cs Breeding Technologies, Inc, which supplies its patented tetraploid oysters to licensed hatcheries wanting to breed 100% guaranteed triploids for cultivation.

So now this is the most common way of producing oyster triploid seed in hatcheries for the oyster cultivation, and this dependency on tetraploid technology has been growing by the year, especially in North America. Allen has continued to work on producing disease-resistant strains of tetraploids and it is easy to see how the research conducted by him and others, for instance, now at the Aquaculture Genetics and Breeding Technology Center within the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, on chromosome set manipulation will eventually lead, if not already, to genetic selection, to the development of specific strains of triploid oysters which not only grow faster and bigger, but will also have particular shell characteristics and be able to resist viruses, parasites and pollutants and no doubt even in due course – to the area of transgenics and genetic modification where DNA material from another species is introduced. In addition, there are concerns about the long-term risks over generations of using a mycotoxin, like cytochalasin B, in the creation of first-generation tetraploids, as very little is known about such effects.

Oysters have always been considered, like many other shellfish, as one of the last natural products and have often been marketed as such. If they gradually lose not only this status and also reputation, there may be consequences for their consumption. Fortunately there are stocks of wild oysters still being cultivated and even seed from these stocks, which is sold to other growers and hopefully this will continue and be preserved.

France is another country which has taken on board the benefits of growing triploids, known there as l’huître des quatre saisons – the oyster for the four seasons. Ever since 1997 when IFREMER – a State research institute for marine exploitation – purchased tetraploid oysters to breed, many cultivators have been enthusiastic about buying oyster seed from its hatcheries, which became commercially available 2000. However, ethical controversies still arise about their place and effects in the biological diversity of marine ecosystems and also among consumers who are sceptical to the product.

However, on the other hand, science and man are doing all they can to eclipse nature, but nature will have the last say or laugh whatever and man will always be playing a desperate catch-up game in which the rules are surreptitiously altered and which will probably lead us into an irreversible cataclysm. Already it is estimated that 85% of all native oyster reefs have been made extinct globally, and in many areas the loss is more than 99%[4]. But it is not just the reefs that have disappeared but probably more importantly entire marine ecosystems that the oysters basically provide: such services as water filtration, food and habitat for other species and coastal stabilisation and defence. If sustainability in oyster fishing is to be achieved, reef conservation and management need to be strictly enforced, including the establishment of protected areas and the ban of destructive harvesting practices. A concerted and joint effort from various stakeholders, such as fishermen, aquaculture companies, public agencies, environmental and conservation groups and other NGOs, is absolutely necessary if a long-term rebuilding of oyster reefs and sustainable harvests is to be achieved, rather than the short-sighted goals of put-and-take fishing that has often happened. But all this goes against the grain of the ways and shifts of a life of autonomy that have marked fishermen, watermen and sea-faring communities for centuries; they now also have had to resist being overwhelmed by urbanisation, gentrification and industrialisation. And they have seen the source of their livelihood invaded and taken over by conglomerates and with their backs against the wall have become all the possessive about their marine territory, possibly as a last desperate measure to safeguard its dwindling riches. In a way, who can blame them? Rather, it has been the inevitable spread of urbanised life in all its avatars that has killed the oyster beds, the frenzied demand and over-consumption, disease, pollution and acidification – in a couple of words, modern civilisation. So it is now down to those most exemplary carriers of the latter, the scientists, to come up with laboratory solutions that will repair and restore the depleted oyster banks that once filled our coastal waters.

[1] Villeneuve, A.M. & K. J. Hillers: Whence Meiosis? Cell, 106 (2001), 647-650.

[2] Stanley, J.G., S. K. Allen and H. Hidu: Polyploidy induced in the American Oyster, Crassostrea Virginica, with Cytochalasin B. Aquaculture, 23 (1981), 1-10.

[3] Que, H. et al: Chromosome segregation in fertilised eggs from triploid Pacific oysters. Crassostrea gigas (Thunberg), following inhibition of polar body 1. Biological Bulletin, 193 (1997), 14-19.

[4] Beck, M.W. et al:_Oyster Reefs at risk and recommendations for conservation, restoration and management. Bioscience, 61 (2011), 107-116.

The triploid diagrams were taken from the website of 4Cs Breeding Technologies, Inc. http://www.4cshellfish.com