Jan Steen, Het leven van de mens (The Life of Man), c. 1665, Mauritshuis, The Hague

Jan Steen’s noisy, crowded painting, entitled The Life of Man, is more of a theatrical stage with a kind of canopy or curtain raised above the scene and balcony, overtly an interior from an inn, where all sorts of convivial activities are being indulged, but may also be a mirror of the outer world in the Shakespearean sense that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”1 . Its title has been attached to it after it was painted but it has also been described as “a merry company of old and young, very elaborate, alluding to the Life of Man” (van Suchelten, 2016, p. 254). Another title that used to be found is The So-called Brewery. So it is basically about human merriment and how ordinary people enjoy life together, but one harbouring a caveat.

The centre stage is held by a youngish woman, caught in the daylight, diagonally from above, and being “wooed” or solicited by an older man trying to get her to eat the oyster he is holding in his left hand as a kind of offering or bait, obviously asking her for some sexual favour, without much apparent success, it would seem, although her smile would on the other hand suggest she feels flattered or amused. The oyster here has a rather explicit, if not hackneyed, meaning, as have their respective body gestures. It would have been quite clear to any contemporary beholder what the old man wanted and it cannot be any accident that Steen has painted their entanglement as the focal point of this scene. Behind the pair, is a hunchback tuning or strumming a fiddle as if serenading them, in a mocking or drunken sort of way; perhaps he is goading the old man on or maybe both the men are in some sort of cahoots! Roundabout there are people enjoying themselves, eating, drinking, playing music, singing, smoking and laughing whilst animals and children are playing and watching. At the table on the right there is also a woman offering a man behind her an oyster from the plate of oysters on the table in front of her, almost as if she wants to attract his attention or reciprocate his interest. Perhaps she is singing, accompanied by him on the lute, according to one account (ibid., p. 250). The table itself looks like a still-life in reality, arranged with the same delicacies as many such paintings display, on a white cloth spread over a thick, Turkish rug: besides the plate of oysters, we see a peeled lemon and cut orange, some grapes, a glass of white wine and a white ceramic jug as well as a silver salt cellar.

With both couples, the oyster is expressing sexual intent, an erotic gesture, that could be offered by either sex. Steen was exploiting a metaphor to suggest a narrative about the amorous nature of relations between man and woman, that any ordinary person would have appreciated and even, no doubt, found amusing. At the same time, the general scene is one of enjoyment and everyone is pretty well-dressed, even the servant girl, kneeling on the left in front of a fire. In this corner oysters are being opened by a man sitting on a bench in front of a bed chamber whose curtains are slightly and invitingly ajar, whilst the girl is pouring some liquid, an oil maybe, from a bottle onto oysters that seem ready to be barbecued on the coals. The painting is loaded with references to oysters, on various levels, which is quite unique in genre paintings.

Many interpretations have zoomed in on existential aspects of the paintings, especially on the little boy, almost hiding in the rafters of the room by the bird cage with a skull on his right, blowing bubbles2. This particular trope would indicate, as in any vanitas still-life, the vulnerability and incertitude of life, which can go pop at any time, so why not enjoy yourself in the mean-time, in a carpe diem sense, or on the other hand, just be careful if you want to have a good time, because it may be very short-lived like the broken egg-shells on the floor. The explicit nature of some of the symbols used by Steen has an almost ridiculing quality, for example in the old man’s attempt to seduce a younger woman, who probably is also the mother of the children playing around on the floor. The blatancy and absurdity of the gesture says also something of the over-exploitation of the oyster as an erotic symbol, at the same time adding a comment on certain mores in contemporary society. That the painting looks like a theatre stage may add a satirical element to the painting, so that however “realistic” this everyday scene looks like, it is still only for entertainment or pleasure, albeit with some moral reminders about life.

One can hardly fail to inhale the jocular mood of the room and the innocence of adult pleasure (if one weighs in the presence of children playing with some pets) that Steen presents in a natural, and non-condescending sense. There seems to be no manifest intent to moralise or preach, and the presence of oysters being opened and prepared for the fire makes the point that they are quite simply food, thus in a sense neutering their explicitly sexual meaning; perhaps also approving of such flirtatious behavior as something harmless but also life-giving. Why not? This is after all Jan Steen painting! It has been proposed that sometimes in these genre paintings the moral points that could be made were often hidden for tactical or aesthetic reasons or embedded in small details in the background of the painting; for instance, the parrot sitting on the perch by the wall on the left or the cat trying to dance on its hind legs or the gallows in the painting on the back wall could all have an allegorical meaning about life and its vagaries, as some sort of warning or reminder.

Even though the usual tack of interpretation follows a more iconological course, equating, for example, oysters with carnal lust, it would be wise to see the painting narrative as a whole, and perhaps more than the sum of its parts, which can point to other lines of direction towards its underlying sentiments. In the sort of still-life setting on the table on the right there is an indication that there on offer is a selection of the harvest that nature can provide, that oysters are just one of nature’s many bountiful gifts, a treasure from the sea. On the left, by the fire, inferred from its glow on the servant’s arm, oysters are being prepared to be roasted on the coals, which itself could be a metaphor for the domestication of nature, or taming of the raw, as a form of sublimation of sexual lust. So oysters in this setting could symbolize more the potential moderation and control of instinctual impulses. Its portrayed use and enjoyment as food helps to reinforce this idea as well as legitimising the primed consumption of lust as a literally nutritious rule of life. The whole aura of the painting, as it is viewed, is of humans, young and old, enjoying the company of each other and it is also here that the oyster can also signify the immediate and ephemeral pleasure of encounters between man and woman, even though they are sensually charged.

1 The equally prolific 17th century Dutch playwright, as celebrated in Holland as Shakespeare has been in Britain, Joost van den Vondel, used the same metaphor as Shakespeare to grace the entrance of the Amsterdam Theatre (ibid, p.252).

2 There are a few paintings on this theme of children blowing bubbles which have been interpreted as indicating the frailty and brevity of life. In almost all these paintings the bubbles are blown from the soapy liquid which is kept in a shell, often an oyster shell – another possible cue for reflections about the symbolic meaning of oysters!


Van Suchelten, A.: In Genre paintings in the Mauritshuis, ed A van Suchtelen and Q. Buvelot. Zwolle: Waanders, 2016.






Frans van Mieris, The Oyster Meal, 1659, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

In this painting by Van Mieris, a finely dressed young man has his back turned towards the viewer whilst offering a seated young woman, whose face is in pale profile, a plate laden with oysters. Her eyes are concentrated on his face, as if she is listening intently to something he is telling her. Her right hand is holding the base of a wine glass, whilst her left hand is resting comfortably on her knee. However, her facial expression is one more of puzzlement than rapture, which adds to the intensity but also ambiguity of the situation. She is wearing a tight pearl necklace and bracelets on both wrists, while the bodice and sleeves of her dress are studded with small pearls as well. The forefront of the painting shows a refined interior and the garments of both figures reveal a certain sophistication and taste, so exquisitely rendered by the way the artist brings out the sheen of the woman’s long silk dress.

Behind the two figures, the rest of the interior is darkened, where five other people are placed. Perhaps the two on the right at the back are curious servants keeping an eye on proceedings. Her dog waits patiently, if not disinterestedly, behind her chair, whilst a dishevelled man pours a glass of wine for someone. The young man’s stance is a little more earnest and dazzling, even charming, although his face is completely hidden. It is rather the pale face of the girl that commands the focal point of the light of the painting, despite her somewhat frozen pose. In their interaction there is a delicate and tender quality that the light also conveys – her quizzical facial expression and resting left hand, his right hand and position of his right shoe. Between the two young people and directly above the plate of oysters a man’s face can be discerned, feeding himself with something, an oyster it would seem, almost as if he is eating from the plate offered to the young woman.

The passivity of the girl is spatially juxtaposed to the male pleasure in eating. Wheelock ventures to state that Mieris “sought to exploit the emotional power of open-ended narratives in domestic genre scenes” ( 2017, 218), whilst Buvelot in the same catalogue is so impressed “how compellingly Van Mieris could portray the interaction between men and women” (ibid., 169).  The painting manages to draw a fine line between the poise and propriety of this well-heeled couple, and the more visceral and devouring pleasure gained from the oyster meal itself. On the surface it would seem pretty obvious that this is a scene of courtship, rather than seduction, where the man is offering the woman the delicacy of oysters as a veiled invite to signify his amorous interest. The poses of the couple are more static, refined and composed, exaggerated somewhat by the painter only offering the viewer of the suitor’s back. The presence of ambiguity and the outward innocence of the young woman may offer another line of interpretation that the oyster is bridging the delicate gap between male desire and female innocence and eases or nourishes the transition between the two. In this sense, the oyster could be seen as not only an aphrodisiac but also as food for an initiation rite de passage and future enjoyment.


Buvelot, Q. and Wheelock, A.: In Vermeer and the masters of genre painting, ed A. Waiboer. London: Yale University Press, 2017.


Jan Havicksz Steen, Het Oestereetstertje (Girl Eating Oysters), c 1658-1660, Mauritshuis, The Hague

This is one of Steen’s most well-known oyster paintings, showing a girl about to eat an oyster onto which she is sprinkling some pepper. She is peering straight into the viewer’s eyes with a slightly mischievous but alluring smile, while two servants in the background, probably in a kitchen, are opening some more oysters as there is another dish of them. On the table, with its newly pressed blue tablecloth, there is a silver plate with a half-eaten loaf of bread, some salt and pepper and a knife, a porcelain wine jug and a full glass of white wine, also about to be consumed. The way the painter captures the pinch of pepper in the girl’s poised right hand gives an expectant feel to the scene. Pepper was the preferred condiment as it is today in some places, especially if you listen to that magisterial oyster-opener, Helio Garzon, at Bentleys‘ Oyster Bar in London! The young woman is dressed elegantly in a fine red jak, with white fur trimming, and there just in the righthand lower corner we see the shining pleqts of a blue satin skirt. Behind her back, to the right, there is a dark outline of bedcurtains, and a bedstead, so that the painting seems to be narrating some sort of foreplay or preparation for an amorous visit. It is as if the girl is libidinising the interior of the home or spicing another layer to the Dutch sense of domestic virtue. Of course, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the girl wants to eat the oysters herself, but her impish grin would seem to imply something more, that she was offering not only oysters. It was current knowledge at the time, and indeed stated quite categorically by a Dutch physician, Johan van Beverwijck (1) in his medical book, Treasure of Health, published 1636, that “oysters whet the appetite and arouse the desire to eat and make love, both of which merry and sophisticated people do”.

Another salient point that needs to be added to the context was the prominence for that time accorded to, and claimed by women in Dutch society at that time. One of van Beverwijck’s most famous books concerned the excellence of women, arguing that they were superior to men, on account of not only their beauty, but also learnedness in the arts, literature and languages as well as in their human virtues. They had been prevented from fulfilling their potential for greatness by customs in society and the “jealousy of men” (Moore, 1994). Holland during this time was governed by a rich burgher class of largely merchants and tradesmen that was educated and tolerant, where women could apparently enjoy a high degree of independence and social status, despite the religious, political and common misogyny that also reigned. As Schama writes, what is certainly apparent in Dutch pictures of women is that artists went to unusual pains to trace the female with a relaxed clarity, “relatively unclouded by cultural stereotype” (1987, p.413).

Thus it is possible that Steen and artists of his time were attempting to bring female desire and needs into the same realm as that of the male, as also shown by inclusion of themselves and their wives in their genre paintings. They were known for their wit and satire of convention, which might fit into this sort of interpretation. In this painting the girl is turning directly to the viewer and revealing her own wishes and wants, either to arouse herself with oysters or to plan seducing some unsuspecting male. In a sense, she is self-reliant and may have no need for a male consort, filling the painting with her gaze, smile and confidence at being the independent female she appears to be. The oysters are hers or her gift which stand for her appetite and her lust, as she adds zest to her desire. The sight of the oysters and the female about to consume them in a sense doubles the erotic innuendo of the situation. 

Another implicit notion could be the use of domestic interiors, which in this case is the female boudoir but not only as there is a door opening into the kitchen where two servants, a male and female, are working. The home was often seen as a mirror for Dutch society in general, where domestic virtues and relations signified the ideal order and dynamic of social structure outside. The presence of a strong female in the house was considered amenable for a happy marriage, and family contentment, and it was first with the blooming of Dutch art in the 17th century that scenes of everyday domestic situations with married couples were depicted in more realistic terms. However, one of Steen’s attributes as an artist was his love of the comic and Rabelaisian, and his tendency to blur the boundaries between the home, the brothel or inn and society outside, so that this homely scene may indeed have been the interior of a brothel or in some way a parody of the state of Dutch society. The presence of the two servants in the kitchen, whilst the young woman helps herself to the plate of oyters could imply a satirical role reversal in the home, once again highlighting the equal status of female desire and self-esteem.

The details of brushwork are impressively reproduced in this small painting, especially of the girl’s fringe of hair, her complexion and fur trimming in addition to the subtle reflexions of light on the porcelain jug and wine glass, which may signify the care and attention the artist paid to the painting and its aesthetic importance. Its small size and form suggests it may have been held in the hand to be admired, so that the intimacy between the painting and the viewer would have been even more sensually close.

(1) Johan van Beverwijck (1594-1647), a trained physician, wrote books on medicine, Schat der gesontheyt (Treasure of Health) and Schat der ongesontheyt (Treasure of Disease) that were extremely popular and took the form of self-help manuals, in which he collaborated with his friend, the famous poet Jacob Cats (1577–1660), who set some of his maxims to short rhymes. He also published a book Van de wtnementheyt des wrouwelicken Geslachts (Of the Excellence of the Female Gender), published in 1639, which was quite revolutionary for its time in its praise of female superiority and her virtues.


MOORE, C. N. (1994): “Not by nature but by custom”: Johan van Beverwijck’s Van de wtnementheyt des wrouwelicken Geslachts”. The Sixteenth Century Journal, 25, 633-651.

SCHAMA, S. (1987): The Embarrassment of Riches. London: Collins.


The idea that oysters are an aphrodisiac has long entered the corpus of folk-lore and seems nowadays to be a natural concomitant in any context where oysters occur. Most would readily associate the Greek goddess of love and desire, Aphrodite, with the meaning of aphrodisiac, which of course is completely natural. But the truth of the matter is far more intriguing than would initially meet the eye and has more to do with what is hidden in the name of the goddess. For one could say that aphrodisiacs have nothing to do with….aphrodisiacs!

The single most authoritative source ever since Roman times right up until the 18thcentury in matters on the medicinal value of food was antiquity’s revered physician, Galen, a Greek citizen from Pergamon, who is generally accredited with prescribing oysters as a medical remedy for a lack of male sexual desire, allegedly in the case of one of the Roman emperors. He lived towards the end of the 2nd century A.D. (129-216) and was a prolific writer whose volumes formed the basis for medical practice and knowledge during 1400 years or more.

However, there is no specific mention in the writings of Galen of oysters being recommended or prescribed for this ailment, although one can infer this, insofar as he was of the opinion that any food that caused flatulence, or had laxative qualities could also facilitate male sexual desire. It is certainly not the usual idea associated with aphrodisiacs but much of ancient Greek writing on food and medicine focused often on how the stomach was affected. Galen also recognised popular notions that certain foods were reputed to incite the need for sex, like for instance hyacinths, rocket and chickpeas, that were no less flatulent than broad beans, because they were thought to generate sperm. When he writes specifically of oysters as one of the many testaceans, all he really mentions is their salty juice and soft flesh which he considered a laxative and contained little nourishment. According to one of his medieval commentators, Laurent Joubert, a French doctor, Galen thought apparently that oysters, whose flesh was softer and more loose than other shellfish, were less of a food than a laxative, producing, “nothing but coarse and viscous phlegm” and what drove men to the venereal act had more to do with the windiness they caused. Here Joubert added a comment, again quoting Galen, that it was by virtue of its salty juice that the flesh of oysters also had the ability to excite.

All quite circumstantial evidence, but anyway shared and entrenched in popular imagination, it seems. Another widespread belief, that Galen seems to repeat, is that the milky soft texture of oysters was likened to semen and that by eating oysters more semen would be generated. Little did they know in those times how right they were if oysters were eaten during the summer, as then they are spawning and their flesh is mostly composed of gametes, male or female, or contain fertilised eggs. However, in antiquity and according to Aristotelian ideas, oysters were thought to be unable to reproduce naturally, and instead to generate spontaneously from the mud in the water.

There is yet another strand to this equation, far more pertinent to the question of oysters being regarded an aphrodisiac, one which seems to derive from Aristotle’s idea that semen was foam, its whiteness being caused by it containing bubbles of foam, just like in sea water. It seems as though Galen agreed with Aristotle for pointing this out and for referring to “the ancients” who also observed this, that semen is foamy, and linked this in turn to the name of Aphrodite, “the goddess who presides over the union of the sexes” and how she acquired her name. For her name means “foam-born” (from ἀφρός/aphros, foam). And it is this underlying meaning that is most relevant here. It is worth just summarising the circumstances of the origins of her birth.

Aphrodite, goddess of love and sexual desire, was the result of premeditated violence, the paternal castration by Kronos, son of Uranus and Gaia, flowingly described by Hesiod in his Theogony. Goaded on by his revengeful mother, Kronos who hated his father as much he was hated by him, laid in ambush for his lusting father, dismembered him just before a sexual act and threw his genitals into the surging sea. They were swept away over the waves and a white foam formed around them from which grew a beautiful and golden maiden, the foam-born Aphrodite (ἀφρογενέα/aphrogenea) and she was carried across the ocean over to Cyprus in soft foam (ἀφρὦ ἔνι μαλακὦ/aphro eni malako), where she landed. Implicit in this mythic narrative is the notion that foam arose from the semen of Uranus’ genitals which was fertilisedby sea-water.

So this salty taste is also associated with the taste or foam of the sea from which Aphrodite was born, the union of genital fluids, of which she was the tangible personification. That this foam becomes transformed later into a shell, albeit a scallop shell, as in Botticelli’s famous painting of her birth, is an extra dividend that seems to verify a subconscious thought process, linking together semen, foam, the sea, salt, shellfish and sexual desire.

Set against this array of mythological images, and the popular beliefs, some reiterated by Galen, that not only the saltiness and soft texture of oysters gave rise to flatulence and loose bowels which in turn could facilitate penile erection but also were likened to semen and its salty juice to foam, so that by eating oysters more semen would be generated, or desire invigorated, it seems a short step to arrive at the idea that the consumption of oysters re-enacted symbolically, so to speak, the birth of Aphrodite and this very idea itself representing sexual arousal, which then led to the oyster being regarded as an aphrodisiac. All this shows is the power of belief and shared fantasies, but also the residues of ancient fantasies in folk-lore and how an array of various explanations have been attempted to try and keep them alive throughout the ages.

On the other hand, when oysters are referred to as a kiss of the sea, there is something quite seductive in the image of an oyster as “the foam of the sea”. So Byron’s words from the 2nd Canto of his ‘Don Juan’ that “oysters, too, are amatory food” are not likely to be ever forgotten!


Aristotle: De generatione animalium (trans by A.Platt). In: J.A. Smith and W.D. Ross (eds), The Works of Aristotle. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912.

Byron, Lord: Don Juan, Canto II.

Grant, M: Galen on Food and Diet. London: Routledge, 2000.

Hesiod: The Homeric Hymns and Homerica (trans. by H. Evelyn-White). London: Loeb Classical Library/Heinemann, 1914.

Joubert, L.: The Second Part of the Popular Errors (trans. by G. de Rocher). Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995.


Under strecket i Svenska Dagbladet 2 sept 2017

Ostronets dag infaller den första lördagen i september, och firas i Sverige särskilt i ostronets bohuslänska metropol, Grebbestad. Sedan medeltiden har man envisats med devisen att ostron bara får ätas i månaderna med ett ”r”, ett talesätt som först blev känt i en elisabetansk kokbok, ”Dyets dry dinner”, utgiven år 1599, men som hade ännu äldre rötter, vilket framgår av en leoninsk vers med samma innebörd – ”Mensibus erratis vos ostrea manducatis”. Skälet som angavs i kokboken var att ostronet var venerious, det vill säga lekte. Där­emot var det inte bara av hänsyn till ostronets säregna sexliv som man avstod från ätandet och förbjöd fiskandet av ostron under sommarmånaderna, utan för att ostronen annars riskerade att utfiskas.

Som många säkert har märkt kan ostronens kött dessutom vara löst som slem på högsommaren, då upp till 70 procent av deras kropp kan omvandlas till könsorgan, vilket ger ett väsentligt mindre tuggmotstånd än om ostron intas under vinterhalvåret, när köttet är fastare, fylligare och mer smakrikt.

Runt detta skaldjur har det alltid svärmat mystik, behag, lust, högtid, fest och spänning men även motsatsen. Starka känslor väcks ofta som gör att man antingen älskar eller ­avskyr ostron. Få lämnas likgiltiga. Samma polaritet kan märkas på en mängd andra sätt: mellan ostronets grova, vassa och stenhårda skal och dess silkeslena och pärlvita inre, ­eller dess rykte dels som rikemanskost och dels som vardagsmat för de fattiga, eller ostron­yngels första stadium av frisimmande frigörelse under cirka två tre veckor innan de slutligen fäster sig på en stadig yta där de stannar resten av livet, eller ostrons förmåga att byta kön, ibland under en och samma leksäsong om sommaren är lång och varm.

Man kan spinna vidare på detta tema och betrakta det råa ostronet, som ligger levande och sårbart – närmast sensuellt – i sitt skal, som ett rent naturalster i motsats till allt ­annat vi äter som är kokt och odlat. På ett ­djupare och kanske mer primitivt plan anar man hur ostronet omkullkastar gränser mellan det kultiverade och det vilda, mellan det levande och det förtingligade, icke-mänskliga. I folkmun anses ostronet inte bara vara ett afrodisiakum utan kan också liknas vid kvinnans könsorgan som därmed ökar känslan av skräckblandad förtjusning som ofta drabbar dem som smakar ostron för första gången. I litteraturen finns otaliga fall som beskriver denna ofta heliga stund, nästan som en ungdomlig rite de passage. Allt detta bidrar till ostronets renommé som något farligt, gåtfullt och åtråvärt, något som anmärkningsvärt nog har gällt i många olika kulturer och tids­epoker.

Nuförtiden skiljer man i kulinariska sammanhang mellan två ostronsläkten, Crassostrea och Ostrea, varav de två viktigaste arterna är det japanska jätteostronet, Crassostrea ­gigas, och det europeiska platta ostronet, Ostrea edulis. I Sverige räknas det senare som inhemsk art medan det förra anses som främmande art efter att ha följt med havs­strömmar från Holland och Danmark efter inplantering i Nordsjön under 1960- och 70-talen. Det runda, platta ostronet har funnits i alla europeiska kustvatten, men under 1900-talet försvann det på många håll efter successiva angrepp av i huvudsak två parasiter.

I Sverige har dock Ostrea edulis lyckats överleva på flera platser längs västkusten, tack vare det kallare havsvattnet. Detta blötdjur är känsligt och svårodlat, medan dess asiatiska kusin verkar hur lättanpassad som helst och trivs överallt. Därför är det Crassostrea gigas som numera nästan alltid hamnar på tallriken var man än kommer i världen, med undantag för den amerikanska östkusten. Smaken brukar vara mer salt, krämig och även fruktig än hos det platta som oftast är intensivt, metalliskt och jordigt. Precis som vin har sitt terroir har ostron så att säga sitt ”meroir”, då det präglas särskilt av mikroalgerna i den lokala miljö där det växer. Spännvidden i smakupplevelser är frapperande och även beroende av årstider och nyckfulla vattenströmmar som påverkar födotillgången.

Ostronkonnässörer älskar att uttala sig om hur ostron från vissa platser smakar, oftast i marknadsföringssyfte, men som sagt kan samma ostron få en helt annan smak en annan årstid. Initialt kan man dofta havets sälta, tång och ibland blommiga aromer, därefter kan tuggande (ty ostron ska aldrig sväljas hela!) utlösa smaker av nötter som mandel, grönsaker som sparris, gurka eller spenat, jord som champinjon, murkla, sten eller en kryddighet som persilja eller peppar, och frukter som melon eller persika som slutligen kan mynna ut i en finish av sötma, sälta, smörighet och mineraler.

Återgår man till själva ostronet finns fossilbevis om att blötdjuret levde i havet långt före dinosaurierna. Gigantiska ostronfossiler, uppemot tre meter breda, har påträffats högt upp i Anderna i Peru, och har daterats till den mesozoiska eran, för cirka 200 miljoner år sedan, fast molluskerna tycks ha gjort sitt ­inträde på havsbottnen långt tidigare. Vad som är anmärkningsvärt ur ett evolutionsperspektiv är att ostron knappast har ändrat sig som familj eller art, förutom storleken, samtidigt som de visat sig vara otroligt anpassningsbara då de lyckats överleva så länge. På ett sätt har de avstannat i sitt evolutionära ursprung.

Dess adaptationsstyrka har inneburit att ostron har en avgörande betydelse för havsmiljön, där ostronrev framför allt motverkar effekter av algblomningar och övergödning tack vare ostronens enorma filtrerings­förmåga. Dessutom hjälper de till att minska stranderosion och erbjuder skydd för organismer som lek- och uppväxtplatser, vilket främjar ökad biodiversitet och biomassa, på samma gång som det ger förbättrad vattenkvalitet. Det påstås dessvärre att över 90 procent av världens ostronrev, alltså det vilda ostronbeståndet, har försvunnit de senaste 150 åren, främst till följd överfiskning och föroreningar.

I mitten av 1800-talet blev fransmännen först med att undersöka möjligheten att fånga ostronlarver och odla ostron på konstgjord väg, då havsstränderna var på väg att tömmas på sitt ostronbestånd. Även om dessa pionjärinsatser misslyckades, ofta på grund av ­fiskarnas eget motstånd och sabotage, växte det så småningom fram ett praktiskt odlingssystem som fortfarande utmärker den traditionella ostronodling som utövas i Europa, särskilt längs den franska Atlant- och nordkusten.

Skrifter av bland annat Aristoteles och Plinius den äldre visar dock att man hade vissa kunskaper om ostronodling redan under antiken. Under sin tid på Lesbos ska Aristoteles ha talat med fiskare i Pyrrha om hur de förflyttade sina ostron i Kallonibukten till ett smalt sund i närheten där de växte snabbare på grund av de starka strömmarna, en iakttagelse som även gäller idag. Från Roms storhetstid finns dessutom texter som beskriver, och ingraverade glasvaser som illustrerar, ostriaria (ostronbassänger), en uråldrig ­metod att fånga ostronyngel, nämligen på hängande rep, en metod vilken används än idag i Mali Ston i Kroatien och i lagunen utanför Sète i Frankrike.

I Sverige har man som enda land i Europa godkänt enbart manuell skörd av de vilda ostronen, utförd av dykare med särskilda tillstånd – ett föredömligt hållbart sätt att förvalta ostronbeståndet efter att dragning med så kallad ­ostronskrapa förbjöds på 60-talet. Sedan ett antal år tillbaka har ett kläckeri på Koster startat produktion av yngelodling av ostron för att få igång en mer omfattande ostron­näring på västkusten.

Ett forskningsgenombrott på ett amerikanskt marinbiologiskt laboratorium på 1980-talet ledde till att man kunde ta fram ett konstgjort ostron inom Crassostrea-släktet (en så kallad triploid, vars cellkärnor har tre kromosomuppsättningar) för att snabbare få fram ett moget ostron som dessutom var ­sterilt och därför inte mjölkigt under lek­säsongen. Triploiden, känd i Frankrike som L’huître des quatre saisons (”de fyra årstidernas ostron”), blev 1987 det första djuret som beviljades ett patent i USA. Det betraktas dock inte som genmodifierat, eftersom endast en avgörande fas under befruktningsprocessen manipulerades för att förhindra reduktionsdelning av kromosomantalet så att det befruktade ägget behöll en tre kromosomuppsättningar i stället för de två som alla diploida organismer besitter. Speciellt i Frankrike har åsikterna gått kraftigt isär om de eventuella miljöriskerna med att hantera triploidostron i naturen, med tanke på att de inte alltid är sterila och genetiskt sett är instabila och svaga. Triploida ostron, som endast kan odlas under licens i godkända kläckerier, har hursomhelst blivit allt vanligare framför allt i USA och Frankrike.

Att ostron genom historien har betraktats som en delikatess går det inte att ta miste på. Också konsthistorien vittnar om ostronets höga status,
i synnerhet i stillebengenren. Här anar man också att spänningsfältet ­mellan ostronets tidigare nämnda motsägelsefullhet har lockat många konstnärer: ostron som föremål för begär, frestelse, lust – samtidigt som förfallet nalkas. I de flamländska frukosttavlorna från 1600-talet skildras överflöd som eftertraktat, njutningsfyllt men samtidigt dekadent och meningslöst. Moraliska undertoner antyds om livets förgänglighet och priset för högfärd, till exempel en fluga på brödet, ett krossat nötskal eller en halvskalad apelsin. Inte sällan förekommer det ostron på bordskanten, förföriskt närmast åskådaren, där de kan uppfattas som en källa till både naturens rikedomar och människans lust och begär. Återigen stöter vi på ostronets förmåga att göra oss påminda om de inre motsägelser som präglar både människan och naturen.




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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 bowels3(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 4, 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 with 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 were put into ponds (καταβόλοι/kataboloi) as seed where they increased in size. During the spring they became fuller, and fattened with a whitish, milk-warm fluid. Then he mentions a few other places along the Mediterranean coast, such as Tarragona (Spain), Narbonne (France), Puzzuoli, Brindisi (Italy),  Aktion, Lefkada (Greece) and the Libyan Gulf where this practice seemed to have taken place. However, this is not absolutely 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” (τὰ καλούμενα λιμνόστρεα/ta kaloumena limnostrea), which could be found just there in the shallow waters and marshland of the Kalloni bay, a term that would have been used by the fishermen of the area. He also adds that oysters attached 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, such as the  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. However, the fact that certain practices were followed, like the transport of oysters to more favourable growing areas, the observation that oysters preferred a mix of sea and fresh water, the later development of special ponds and that their flavour was influenced by the surface they grew on, all seems to indicate that there were attempts made at cultivating these molluscs.

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,  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).


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