CRUCIAL IMPORTANCE OF AN ω-3 FAT FOR EARLY AND FUTURE MANKIND

I have been busy trying to write a post about the importance of shellfish and oysters in the archeological record from early palaeolithic times and in the diet of early humans, since there seemed incontrovertible evidence that humans became humans because of an ω-3 fatty acid, only really available in fish and algal oil, that was then part of the palaeolithic diet some 130.000 years ago or even earlier. There is also parallel evidence that multi-generational food intake from marine sources led to a consequential increase in the cortex of the early Homo sapiens species which is also reflected in the synchronous origins of a material culture, for example, carvings on fish spears, the use of red ocre and the collection of shells for ornamental purposes.

When I attended the 7th International Oyster Symposium of the World Oyster Society in Bangor, Wales, September 2017, there was a fascinating public lecture given by professor Michael Crawford, of Imperial College, London, on ‘The role of sea foods in reversing the global crisis in mental health‘. I talked to him afterwards and really wanted to find out more (I was just retiring after working nearly all my life in psychiatry). Unfortunately, life took other turns and I never got back into the subject until very recently. Now he began his talk with a stark warning that humanity was facing a crisis in mental health and even as a species, because the food that had made the brain possible was becoming all the more scarce and diets had during the last 100 years or so had changed for the worst. (Palaeolithic diet which had enabled the brain to develop had had a 1:1 ratio in ω-3 and ω-6 fats which now had deteriorated so much that it was roughly 1:20, thus depriving the brain of its crucial building block, especially during pregnancy and early infancy when the brain expands so dramatically). He was quite scathing in his criticism of nutritionists who had emphasised the intake of protein to the detriment of ω-3 fatty acids, especially one of its absolutely most vital components, docosahexaenoic acid, commonly called DHA. It was this that terrestrial plants or any land-based diet could never provide in any significant quantity, as it only existed in abundance in algae, fish and shellfish.

So his message was that estauries needed to be cleaned and restored to supply the nutrients, trace elements and minerals in particular, flowing down from the mountains, and that an agriculturalisation of the oceans was essential if man was going to survive as a species. He saw the ever-increasing rise in brain disorders affecting those dependent on a land-based diet and that mothers or mothers-to-be were not being given the right advice about the need to digest fish oils which were shown to promote healthy brain development in children, despite possible effects from certain toxins. The benefits outweighed the risks was his indisputable message. DHA was a factor in alleviating depression, behavioural disorders, like ADHD in children, and indeeed seemed to promote a higher level of intelligence generally.

Now this doesn’t necessarily prove eating oysters is a panacea for psychological problems as in this talk he was focusing on the role of this ω-3 fat which may be found in salmon, mackerel, herring and tuna primarily (mainly in cold-water fish). But it is also a fact that oysters and mussels, intertidal shellfish, do contain relatively high levels of this fatty acid, as well as other brain nutrients like iodine, zinc, copper, selenium, for instance. And again they were predictably located, in massive abundance and readily harvested along the coastline in palaeolithic times and until relatively quite recently (until about 150 years ago).

So now that these resources which once had helped develop the cerebral cortex were growing ever more scarce, this could have worrying consequences for the future of mankind, unless ways to harness aquaculture on a vast scale were initiated. Wild stocks were already depleted beyond repair.

As an added incentive, replenishing the oyster beds in our estaurine areas is not only necessary for a healthy marine eco-system, and CO² sequestering, but also crucial for the future survival of modern man. Crawford quoted a reviewer of one of his books on this subject who foresaw future humans developing into a “race of morons”!! (It may have happened already)! His lecture is available online and I have put a link here at the end. It is almost obligatory viewing for anyone earnestly bothered about oyster restoration, aquaculture and healthy food! Enjoy!

I am writing a more extensive blog about this subject and delving more into the archaeological evidence of the significance of shells. A complicated subject.

https://bangor.cloud.panopto.eu/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=36f72199-cf5f-45e9-aa26-56d261515600

 

 

NATIVE OYSTER RESTORATION ALLIANCE

The 2nd NORA conference has just finished in Edinburgh after three days of intensive and concerted discussions about the way forward to restore the destroyed sea beds and reefs along the coasts of northwestern Europe, once teeming with the native oyster, Ostrea edulis. NORA, the Native Oyster Restoration Alliance, was kickstarted by German marine authorities in 2017 and headed by professor Henning von Nordheim to initiate a trans-European network of projects dedicated to protect and put back this keystone species into areas that were once the pride of coastal communities a couple of centuries ago and hot-spots for biodiversity and ecosystem services. Signs of a slow recovery had been picked up in various coastal areas and spurred on by efforts primarily in the US, the need was recognised for many reasons to accelerate restocking as many of these littoral habitats as possible.

John Burnet, An oyster-cellar in Leith (c. 1819), National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh

The first workshop in Berlin, November 2017, put forward a number of recommendations concerning production of sufficient oyster spat and recruitment, identification and creation of suitable sites, provision of sufficient substrate, biosecurity protocols to safeguard against the spread of  Bonamia, creation of shared monitoring protocols and preservation of the native oyster’s genetic diversity. The Alliance is mainly research driven and  there are current projects in Sweden, Germany, Holland, France, Ireland, Scotland and England.

This meeting opened with a surprise and some wise words from the legendary Sylvia Earle on the pressing need to multiply the areas of marine conservation and the importance of oysters (rather than humans) as the “super-heroes of the sea”.

So after having been immersed in the problems facing the native oyster and tumbled by the plethora of research projects and organisations dealing with their solution, what transpired from the meeting was not only burning hope for future success but also serious commitment to all the preparatory work performed by research facilities, governmental agencies, NGO’s and private partnerships. The wish to open up for the participation from other stakeholders like oyster fisheries and hatchery companies was also apparent.

A couple of controversies appeared: one about the choice of suitable sites. The original Berlin intention was primarily to restore those areas where oyster abundance had been known to occur but a strong and highly articulate contingent from the Netherlands advocated other areas now designated off-limits to trawling because of wind-farm structures which could be exploited for nature enhancement. Shouldn’t rewilding be the main priority? Another discussion point was the movement of oysters from other areas and countries which potentially could lead to the introduction of unwelcome organisms so that biosecurity procedures needed clarification and what effect the use of certain agents could have. It seemed as if consensus aimed at developing hatchery facilities (rather than spatting ponds and collector techniques) in order to produce the much needed volume of seed oysters.

A personal comment would be that just as one of the directors of the whisky company that had sponsored the meeting had pointed out, reef restoration is like maturing whisky, it requires time (and patience). Perhaps hatchery solutions sound like rushing into “quick-fix” measures (symptomatic of contemporary zeitgeist) and taking a shortcut, as sometimes science suffers from a partial dose of hubris in being convinced of sorting out nature’s problems that humans themselves have created. As the meeting took place in Edinburgh it might to be appropriate to recall some words written by Sir Maurice Yonge (he studied zoology at the city’s university in the 1920’s) towards the end of his delightful book, Oysters, from 1960, where he cautioned that “the more man interferes with nature the greater becomethe problems he creates” (1960,189). Just as the French organisation of traditional oyster growers, ostréiculteur traditionel, refuses hatchery seed, preferring the natural way of cultivating oysters nées en mer and allying itself with slow food advocates, there may be a case to be made of conserving as many of other traditional approaches as possible, also as a way to add value to artisanal practices in restoration projects, as often happens in cultural heritage sectors.

However, on a positive note, the meeting finally selected three important topics to focus on, in specifying the criteria for site selection and conservation policies, in exploring the mutual and sustainable benefits between shellfisheries and restoration projects, and in designing protocol standards (including genetics) for oyster spat supply, especially from aquaculture.

The meeting ended with a field trip along the southern, but very windy, shores of the Forth estuary to places where oysters were fished in their millions in the 18th and 19th centuries and historical anecdotes were entertainingly served up by students from the organising university!

The alliance has secured two more years of funding and appointed a fulltime secretariat and looks forward to getting more support from the European Union, which it obviously more than deserves!

The conference was sponsored by Glenmorangie whisky distillery, Heriot-Watt University, Marine Conservation Society, Scottish National Heritage and Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project.

Photos from NORA’s official Twitter account@NORA_ED_2019

Reference:

Yonge, M. Oysters. London, Collins, 1960.

OYSTERS IN ART (5)

Musical_Party_in_a_Courtyard_by_Pieter_de_Hooch
Pieter de Hooch, Musical Party in a Courtyard, 1677, National Gallery, London.

Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684) exercised apparently a strong influence on Vermeer and was fond of painting domestic scenes, often with doorways into other spaces, using the motif of the so-called “see-through door” (doorkijkje), and especially courtyards of houses, with exteriors which as with this one could be drenched in summer afternoon sunlight. At the same time he managed to explore the balance and extremes of light and shadow. Usually portrayals of couples, family members or several people on familiar terms with each other, they can be seen as a variation of either the earlier merry company or duet genre, however in a more intimate but simultaneously airy setting. His paintings were rarely imbued with explicit, moral ideas or didactics, and colours were often vibrant, warm but somehow also soft-hued. However, there is a fluidity to his contrasts of open and closed spaces, of outside and inside and of private and public spheres, which allowed for pictorial representations of certain ethical and social conventions that could also have had moral implications.

Here is a typical see-through door motif. De Hooch tried to avoid the claustrophobia of domestic interiors by the spatially sharp division between the inside and outside, whilst at the same time binding them together with a form of interdependence, that feels secure, open and harmonious. The elegance inside is matched by the splendour of the house fronts on the other side of the canal (the exact location has been identified as Keizersgracht in Amsterdam).

A couple, both of whom seem middle-aged and attired in elegant clothes, are eating some oysters from a plate on a table, covered by a rich, thick Persian (Herat) rug – the “ubiquitous carpet on the table [which] was a costly import found in elegant households” (Gifford and Glinsman, 2017, 73) – whilst a young girl, who could even be an itinerant musician, accompanies the proceedings on a viola. The couple are looking pleasingly into each other’s eyes, seem at ease, and quite at home in each other’s company. The lady is daintily holding a small glass of white wine in her left hand, whilst in her right she seems to dangling a fan. She is the prominent figure whilst the male is palmed off to the periphery of the shadows. It is her refinement and manner that prevails, whilst his role is more subordinate, muted and toneless, one almost of a retainer, provider or proxy. The warmth of the colours and hint of a hot summer’s day do their bit to augment the sensuality and passion portrayed in the couple’s mutual attraction.

The oysters are a sign and bearer of the interior’s wealth, comfort and status, and something to be enjoyed in the cool and serenity of the courtyard, in almost the same way as the woman calmly assumes her self-evident place at the table, thus also attracting the focus and desire of the viewer. They communicate the lust and arousal that is filling this inner courtyard and the painting itself. Moreover, it is the man offering the female the oyster, as a morsel, and foretaste of his passion and it carries with it all the ingredients of his longing and wish to win over the lady he so desires. He is hoping that the oyster may whet her appetite too for him, thus reinforcing its mutual and reciprocal intent. Tantalisingly, an orange sits on the table, as another delicacy to be enjoyed or used to convey some sort of political message (bearing in mind the painting’s date). The viola and music add to the amatory feel of the scene, in suitable accordance with their symbolic significance. So distinctly there is an erotic tone well-embedded in the seclusion of the courtyard despite the open entrance onto the street but the outside exterior seems also tranquil and well-manicured, and not at all a threat or an invitation for intrusion or penetration. There on the threshold a young man or boy stands in silhouette with what possibly looks like a wide-brimmed hat under his left arm, surveying the sun-lit street outside and perhaps keeping watch. Hollander too underscores the intimacy of the interior, which provides both homely security and worldly pleasure, as belonging to the world of the female in her dual role as virtuous housewife and amorous partner, which is reflected here quite aptly in the refined atmosphere and erotic undercurrent (Hollander, 2002, 164-5). The household and its walls are her dominion, the incubator for all moral and spiritual development, which also served as a model for the Dutch republic as a family and vice versa.

REFERENCES:

Gifford, E.M. and L. D. Glinsman (2017): Collective style and personal manner. In: Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, eds. A. Waiboer et al. London, Yale University Press, pp.65-83.

Hollander, M. (2002): An Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art. Berkeley, University of California Press.

OYSTERS IN ART (4)

Gabriel Metsu, The Breakfast/The Oyster-Eaters, c 1660-62, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Here we have a much more sombre and almost depressing scene, where even the dog turns away disgruntled, painted by Gabriël Metsu (1629-1667). The man standing seems almost forcing with his right arm the seated female to take one of the oysters on the plate he is offering her. She appears to hesitate, a knife is poised gently between her right thumb and index finger ready to extract the oyster from its side shell, possibly. Her downward look, as if she is staring into nothingness, and stiff appearance are hardly signifying any pleasure, more a moment of torment. Perhaps she simply hates oysters! The light of the painting makes the pearl whiteness of her satin dress, sumptuously reproduced with its shades and folds, and fur of her coat quite radiant, and illuminates her vulnerability and meekness even further. Her left foot rests precariously on the edge of a footwarmer that had the function of warming up the legs and undergarments of the woman, often seen in paintings of brothels and prostitutes.

Bearing in mind the idea of oysters being regarded as a trading commodity, it might be that she is aware of being procured or under the duress of some obligation. Nor is her suitor smiling, but he seems rather to be goading her into submission. To his left on the elegantly carved table is placed a large drinking horn that could be interpreted as having some phallic connotation but seems rather out-of-place in this dampened atmosphere, though perhaps its presence is a reminder of what the scene’s intentions are. On the other hand, it has been identified as the drinking horn of the Guild of St. Sebastian, or longbow militia (as he was considered the patron saint of archers). Whether this has any connection with the male in the painting or the lady of the house or even to the situation at hand is, as is expected, very difficult to ascertain. The horn had been painted in an earlier, still-life painting by Willem Kalf in 1653. The leg of the table has been bared as the thick rug of a tablecloth has been pushed aside to make way for the drink and oysters.

All the ingredients for a seduction seem to have fallen into place, except for the apparent reticence of the young, morose woman. However, the knife does present another possible solution and it is as though she could be toying with quite a different idea to resolve this situation in which she does not appear comfortable. The lack of joy, sensuality, or desire affects the dull reflection of the oysters as well. In the State Hermitage Museum and in other contexts, the painting is more prosaically entitled The Breakfast, thus denying any connotation or link with oysters and their intent. It is feasible that this painting reflected the more strict codes of social and courting behaviour that was stringently followed in some circles, and possibly its depressing air might have served as a comment on such customs.

However, the tension in the painting is undeniable between the offer of the oyster, together with certain sexually charged symbols, on the one hand, and the numb despondency emanating from her appearance and gaze, on the other. Kettering (1997) has tried to give a more gender-specific perspective on certain genre paintings, especially those that highlight the radiance of female satin dresses. Her example is a painting by ter Borch but can be equally applied in this context. She sees the shiny surface of these sumptuous gowns as a surrogate for the female body, thus elevating the status of the fabric “to the status of fetish” (1997, 103). At the same time the dress obscures and protects the body from intrusion, thus rendering the female more chaste and virtuous. Possibly Metsu is implicitly recognising the right of the female to deny the male his pleasure and not yield to male pressure and the social norm of the male courting the female.

Kettering sees the narrative of these paintings as one of the female resisting “servitude to Venus”, whilst also maintaining a decorous reserve as a model of restraint, and self-control. This pose of the female gives her paradoxically the upper-hand over the male as she becomes idealised and the centre of attraction in a male-dominated society that puts the unreachable female on a pedestal (ibid., 113). But also she is standing up for her right as a female to protect her femininity and herself from male possession. In this light the oyster threatens to jeopardise the equilibrium of this social stereotype, as if it were a foreign body about to soil the decorum of these sedate surroundings. Indeed, there is a subversive element attached to the oyster not only in these domestic interiors, far away from the capricious sea, but also in the courtship ritual that followed certain rules and procedures.

There may be a deliberate contradiction or paradox embedded in the painting, which occurs in other such pictures (like Ter Borch’s The Gallant Soldier, 1662/3, in the Louvre), where there are explicit erotic emblems in clearly sober and restrained surroundings. It is this contrast that enhances the erotic significance of the offer of oysters. It needs to be born in mind that Metsu had just before painted a scene, called The Hunter’s Present, 1658-61, in the Rijksmuseum, which according to one art historian Eddy de Jongh, was “full of erotic symbols” (1968-69, in 1993)). Here the scene is more esoteric and tense but obviously Metsu was an artist, not purely motivated by realism.

REFERENCES:

Franits, W. (1993): Wily women? On sexual imagery in Dutch art of the seventeenth century. In: From Revolt to Riches: Culture and History in the Low Countries 1500-1700, eds. Theo Hermans and Reinier Salverda. London, UCL Press, 2017.

Jongh, E. de (1968-69): Erotica in vogelperspectief. De dubbelzinnigheid van een reeks 17de eeuwse genrevoorstellingen. Simiolus, 3, 22-74.

Kettering, A. McNeil (1997): Ter Borch’s ladies in satin. In: Looking at Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art, ed. Wayne Franits. Cambridge, CUP.

 

 

OYSTERS IN ART (3)

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 or Persian 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!

REFERENCE:

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

 

 

 

OYSTERS IN ART (2)

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.

REFERENCE:

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

OYSTERS IN ART (1)

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.

REFERENCES:

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 MYTH OF OYSTERS AS AN APHRODISIAC

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!

REFERENCES:

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.

DÄRFÖR ÄTER VI OSTRON MED SKRÄCK OCH FÖRTJUSNING

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.

Link

OYSTERS IN ANCIENT GREECE

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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!

truffles

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.

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