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Ostrëiculteur traditionnel

Ostrëiculteur traditionnel logo

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

Map of the gulf of Morbihan

– Map of the gulf of Morbihan

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

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

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

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

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

Offloading the afternoon's catch of oysters

Offloading the afternoon’s catch of oysters

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

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

Inside the sorting shed with Yvonnick and three of his employées

Inside the sorting shed with Yvonnick and three of his employées

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

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

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

Yvonnick Jégat’s oysters, carelessly shucked! 😦

1 Le Parisien, 26.06.2013

2 Regard sur la pêche et l’aquaculture



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So now I’ve had my rant!!


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

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

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

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

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

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

A presentation tray of delicious Limfjord oysters….mmmmm!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johan and Michael celebrate, having come first and second

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Induced Triploidy

The development of chemically induced triploid zygotes during meiosis II

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

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

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

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

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

Natural Triploidy

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

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

United States Patent 


Guo ,   et al.

October 20, 1998

Tetraploid shellfish


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Oysters are probably the only creature on this earth that can be eaten raw and alive, in natura, in the most varied of settings – in the wild on some isolated coastline, in the warmth of our home or in some fancy or makeshift restaurant. Perhaps this is one of the very palpable reasons for both the delight and disgust they conjure up in their friend and foe respectively or for the simultaneous feelings of fear and excitement that the oyster can arouse, especially in beginners. An animal that has managed to outlive the dinosaurs and their contemporaries has not only adapted itself remarkably well but also its longevity merits our respect in that it has acquired its own idiosyncratic form of existence over these thousands of millennia. And this primeval quality is coupled with the specific marine terroir (sometimes even in these contexts called meroir), which the oyster indelibly carries inside its shells. Nonetheless, there are a plethora of ways to prepare oysters: they can be canned, pickled, dried, smoked, baked, stewed, steamed, fried, grilled, roasted, boiled, barbecued, as a starter or main or side dish, as stuffing or sauce or even taken as a shot. Oysters have been quite aptly compared to mushrooms, in that both seem so innocuous but can be oh so deadly, although one obvious difference is that any slightly off-putting smell other than that of fresh, sea air, betrays it as a bad’un. On the plus side, oysters are today one of the most rigorously controlled foods and strict hygiene standards have to be followed.

Let it be said from the beginning, oysters have never been considered a meal in themselves, although some addicts will beg to differ. On the contrary, they are appetisers and be as it may that they are highly nutritious, they “nourisheth little” (as our redoubtable Henry Buttes wrote [see my first post about the months with an ‘R’]),  i.e. they will never fill you up. And that is why there are untold stories of people eating huge amounts of them only still to be able to devour the main course of the meal.

As we venture then to start eating our platter of oysters, we need to observe some precautions (as with many pleasurable experiences). One safe step to take when eating raw oysters is to turn it over in its shell and inhale its odour. There should be an easily identifiable smell of fresh sea air. If in doubt, don’t eat it; any self-respecting restaurant will always bring in another, even were the waiter to disagree. Certainly, some fines de claires and, for instance Swedish natives, will respectively have a slightly sweeter or earthy smell, as they originate from more brackish water. However, the colour of the raw, moist flesh can range from creamy, pale yellow, grey, beige, green or even reddish, and the rim of the mantle may be coloured in much darker hues, but usually black; for example, some oysters from Arcachon have been known to develop a brownier shade, whilst in certain areas of Brittany oysters can assume a reddish-orange colour, probably due to the reaction between a metal, like iron, and an acid, that can also be present in the some clays along the shore. The liquid inside the shell should be clear, or not excessively cloudy, but often when the flesh is disturbed, some discolouring may occur and it is then that the odour is decisive. Some connoisseurs advise that the “first water” in the shell should be poured out as it may contain impurities from the final stages of cultivation or be only sea water, and if this happens then the living oyster will automatically secrete its own liquid during a couple of minutes, which is milder and richer than the original. Some restaurants will severe the oyster’s adductor muscle holding it in place to the left and lower shell, but some don’t and scraping it off the shell adds to the suspension of elation before the oyster is scooped into the mouth – in the phrase of the Parisian poet and chroniqueur, the Symbolist Léon-Paul Fargue, it feels like “kissing the sea on her lips” (on a l’impression d’embrasser la mer sur la bouche).

Now comes the exciting part, when the solemn enactment of chewing can be relished. Where on earth the idea of just swallowing the oyster whole came from is beyond imagination; no doubt, from someone who didn’t dare to try or even want to experience the real taste of an oyster. Poor old William Thackeray, that novelist of the burlesque, on the first of his lecture tours to America in the 1852 was offered some enormous oysters (some say Saddlerocks) at a dinner in the luxurious Tremont House Hotel in Boston. In horror, he inquired of his host what he should do with this “animal”, and was told “we Americans swallow them whole”. That he proceeded to do, though the experience left him quite shocked after which he blurted out, “I feel as if I’d swallowed a live baby”. Again the Americans are fond of slurping their oysters too in great numbers, which conjures up a more orally aggressive approach to the ritual, as exemplified in the stories about a notorious and brash New York character in the late 19th century, called Diamond Jim Brady, who used to down 300 oysters or so at any one meal. An almost even greater piece of sacrilege is advising the eater to chew just two or three times before swallowing. On the contrary, it is the leisurely act of chewing, the caresses of the tongue on the soft, chilled, juicy flesh, sucking in some air to allow the flavours to moisten the palate and pausing for stillness to reflect that is the joy and essence of any savouring pleasure: “my tongue was a filling estuary, my palate hung with starlight” was Seamus Heaney’s description of eating his oysters “alive and violated” down in Clarinbridge, near Galway in his poem Oysters (1979). On the other hand, Woody Allen would feel far more a greater affinity with the sentiments of Thackeray, as he with characteristic contempt coiled at the idea of eating oysters: “I want my food dead – not sick, not wounded – dead.” Even though the physiology and biochemistry of taste need to be brought into any explanation or understanding of the various taste sensations that are stimulated by the juicy flavours of the flesh, for the enjoyment and appreciation of our food, we are rather guided by our subjective impressions, past experiences and proficiencies which we translate into judgements and comments on what we are eating.

The tongue consists of around 1 million taste cells, which are divided into about 10,000 taste buds on its surface and other parts of the mouth. Taste sensitivity can vary among humans, which may also be affected by the ability of the brain to process complex taste sensations. But generally, there are now considered to be five types of recognisable tastes – bitterness, saltiness, sourness, sweetness and umami (although some would like to include sub-modalities for fats and spiciness as well):

Bitterness has a much lower threshold, as it helps to pick out traces of alkaloids like toxins that can be harmful, but also substances often contained in dark green vegetables;

Saltiness and sweetness, our most easily identifiable and common tastes, have high thresholds: the former can also be receptive to certain metals and minerals too, whilst the latter is associated with carbohydrates and high-energy nutrients such as fruit and cereal foods;

Sourness detects the acidity in food that is also prevalent in fermented products;

Umami is a Japanese word meaning, confusingly enough, “savouriness” but is due mainly to glutamate or glutamic acid, one of the naturally occurring amino acids (building blocks of protein), and three kinds of ribonucleotides, inosinate, adenylate and guanylate, that are present in cured meat, aged cheese and high-protein food generally, and the taste is often translated as “brothy” (in the sense of stock from bones). It is also found in abundance in algae, fish, soy and oyster sauce, green tea and ripe tomatoes.

One of the most splendid descriptions and attempts to “nail” the essence of the rich, multifarious array of tastes in oysters has been given by Rowan Jacobsen in his A Geography of Oysters (2007), who runs an admirable crusade on identifying and preserving the indigenous terroir of American food, though his first love is the enjoyment of oysters. He compares the ritual of eating oysters to some Zen spirit, more like the Japanese tea ceremony, as it is as much art as consumption, though not satiation.

Like wine, the flavour of oysters comes in stages.

The salinity of the sea provokes the first, immediate sensation, filling the nose and preparing the mouth for its morsel. Here there are suggestions often of a sea-breeze, floral traces of, say, samphire, or an aroma of seaweed, rock pools and the shoreline. Too much salt can be neutralised by the addition of acid, hence the lemon or mignonette sauce.

Then comes literally the body of the oyster, drowning the mouth with flavour. All this disintegrates into nothing if the oyster is swallowed. No, chewing and masticating the soft flesh brings out the body of the oyster, however small or slight, and releases the multitude of flavours that we can discern and associate to other food experiences. So we don’t start swooning about amino acids or alkaloids, rather we search for comparable flavours that we have experienced with meats, fruits or vegetables. Just in this moment of culinary magic, the plethora of tastes and flavours that can flood into the mouth can range from oils and metals to greens and fruit, from milk and mushroom to smoke and stone. Generally, the rock oysters tend to have softer, smoother textures, whilst the meat of natives provides more resistance, with an almost al dente quality. However, the range of tastes can be quite extraordinary: the obvious salinity can be expressed as salty, briny or sometimes tangy (the French often mention an iodé taste which is usually translated as briny); tastes of metals such iron, brass, copper or zinc; traces of vegetables as in spinach, broccoli, celery, asparagus, artichoke and cucumber, or of fungi like mushrooms, morels and algae, or of herbs like parsley and black or green tea; the fruitiness can be associated to melon, peach, apricot, even avocado or citruses or translated into various kinds of nuts like almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts; often one can find descriptions of stone, slate, chalk or flint, probably connected to the calcium content of the shell; another taste that can be experienced is that of cream or butter, and even slicks of fish oil. In other more general terms, other adjectives that have been used in characterising oysters are smoky, dry, tannic, rich, smooth, round, crispy or thin, similar to those encountered in wine tasting.

Finally comes the finish – the aftertaste that lingers on in the mouth, sometimes for hours, and more likely to be sensed as one of minerals,metals or oils, but also on occasions slight fruity or floral tones. Before listening in on a few connoisseurs of oysters, it is worth to bear in mind the essence of the French concept of terroir, as oysters change their taste from season to season and of course since they filter the water around them are influenced by the nutrients in their vicinity. For instance, after their summer ordeal of spawning when they can lose 75% of their weight, and as the water cools down and becomes less salty, they build up their body mass again and metabolise food into glycogen, a carbohydrate, and lipids to keep them through the cold months. Then the oyster’s flesh is full, firm, plump and has an almost ivory texture. In itself, glycogen is tasteless, but when broken down glucose is produced, whilst lipids contain fats and fatty acids, essential for energy storage. This can explain the taste sensations of butter, oil, cream and juicy fruits, for example, when the oyster is chewed carefully.

A few quotations from Jacobsen’s book will suffice. He selects his favourite Pacific oysters, many of which “have a hint of melon gone murky, as if you stored cantaloupe slices and sardines in the same refrigerator container…and some a delicious finish that people call watermelon..” (p.49): from the west coast of Vancouver Island, “art-deco-patterned, lavender-flecked Nootkas, in fact, taste strong, with hints of muskmelon and a flavor of cold, slightly sweet raw milk – animal, but good”. Penn Coves from Washington state “are a prime example of the “clean finish” style of Pacific oyster – light, salty, fresh, like a cucumber sandwich wrapped in parsley”. From the other side of the country in the Chesapeake Bay, Rappahannocks are “extremely mild oysters, exhibiting a simple sweet-butter flavor…and…with the most evanescent of wines can be delicacy itself – a lesson in the pleasure of minimalism” (p13-14). North American oysters have long since been marketed with alluring brand names, to distinguish them from their out-of-town neighbours.

The Shellfish Association of Great Britain has produced a well-defined and useful guide to oysters, dividing the various tastes into flavour, saltiness, sweetness and umami and isolating the nose, body, finish and texture of the oysters. Flavour is scored in terms of its lightness or fullness, saltiness in terms of either being neutral or briny, whilst sweetness and umami are assessed as being mild or strong; first of all, the nose often inhales the sea breeze and shore-line aromas of salt, seaweed and floral notes, whilst the body captures the flavours, often of nuts, greens, fruits and butter, from which sweetness can be guessed. In the finish are sensed the metallic, sugary and earthy aftertastes, which range from short and sharp to slow and lingering. The meat’s texture is often described as being firm, plump, smooth, creamy or meaty. However, if one compares the cupped and flat oyster from the same water, then the differences can be quite striking; for instance, from Maldon in Essex, the two are described in the guide as follows:

  Maldon Pacific cupped Maldon European flat
nose light aroma of the sea brackish
body rich flavour of walnut and avocado very subtle taste of driftwood
finish tart tang of steel followed by a sweet aftertaste slow-burning strong metallic finish which builds up to a crescendo
texture smooth and meaty chewy and firm

Mary Fisher’s eulogy to oysters, Consider the Oyster (1941) rarely misses a chance to point out all the goodness they contain, and cites various historical sources emphasising their benefits for body and mind in equal portions. She writes of the 15th century French king, the great Louis XI, who made it obligatory for his advisers to feast on oysters each day so as to aid their intellectual faculties. Of course, whatever the real basis for all these claims from Cicero to Casanova, from doctors to writers and cooks and from ordinary people to lay scientists, there is hardly any reason not to doubt the accumulated popular belief, be it wisdom or superstition that they were brain food, an aphrodisiac or considered a vital appetizer or starter for any serious banquet, worthy its name. Even today, as she concluded an oyster diet for any man “is still good as long as the oysters are fresh and clean, whether it goes to nourish his brain, his belly, or his most private parts” (p29). Nowadays there is more or less scientific proof of the oyster’s nutritional values.

Again its nutritional value does change during the year and even across the different species so that the figures presented here are average estimates: although like most organisms it consists mostly of water, around 85%, they are also one of the most nutritionally well balanced of foods, containing about 9-10% protein, 3-4% carbohydrates and 1-2% lipids, especially its healthy component, polyunsaturated fatty acids. Oysters contain twice as much of the healthier unsaturated fats, of which polyunsaturated fat forms the greater part, than saturated fat, but the overall fat content is still five times lower than for crab or chicken breast. The majority of the polyunsaturated fats comes from the omega-3 fatty acids which the body cannot synthesise itself so that it needs them through its diet. 100g of oysters are considered to be a rich source of them, providing more than two days of the recommended daily allowance (RDA).

As regards trace minerals, it is well known that oysters per 100g provide an overload of copper and zinc, sometimes well over 5 times the RDA: also they are, like most shellfish, a generous source of iron, iodine, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, sodium, calcium, magnesium and potassium in that order. Because of its high sodium content, the oyster is not recommended for those on a low-salt diet. In keeping with its low-fat concentrations, the oyster provides fewer calories, about 70-80 kcal (300-330 kJ) per 100g and therefore is a source of low-energy food and can be reliably included in any low-calorie diet; (a recommended daily calorie intake for adults is between 2000 and 2500 kcal).

But it must be stressed that there are some wide variations between species and this is even more noticeable, regarding the concentrations of different vitamins. Oysters are an excellent source of fat-soluble vitamins like A, D and E – 100g supplying about 10% of an adult’s RDA; and even of water-soluble vitamins such as B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin) and B6 (pyridoxine) 100g provide a sixth of RDA, but only traces of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), although French sources regard the oyster as one of the largest providers of this vitamin in the animal kingdom. However, when it comes to the important vitamin B12 (cobalamin), 100g of oyster supplies up to more than 9 times the RDA.

There has been controversy about whether oysters can be recommended as a low-cholesterol diet, as many would like to, although all shellfish do contain cholesterol, especially lobsters, crabs and shrimps. The USDA claims that oysters per 100g provide as much as a sixth of the recommended daily value, which per se is a high amount. But on the other hand, it seems as if the presence of omega-3 fatty acids, that indirectly counteract the body’s own cholesterol levels, helps to reduce the effects of the relatively high cholesterol in oysters, and also aided by the presence of large amounts of non-cholesterol sterols which inhibit its absorption. In any case, cholesterol from food has only a marginal effect on the level of cholesterol in the blood; in this sense, the amount of the harmful saturated fat in food is of greater significance.


A well-quoted passage from a down Hemingway, during his early years in the 1920’s in Paris, can seem apt as an introduction. He had ordered a dozen Portuguese oysters (Crassostrea angulata), whilst writing in one of its cafés on the Place Saint-Michel:

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans” ( A Moveable Feast, 1964,13)

Mary Fisher, a past doyenne of American cuisine and writer recommended in her charming book Consider the Oyster a good Chablis to float oysters down as the safest wine to accompany these wintry pleasures, with the same chilled temperature as the oysters themselves. But with due irreverence, befitting an American connoisseur, she remarked: “Oysters, being almost universal, can be and have been eaten with perhaps a wider variety of beverages than almost any other dish I can think of…and less disastrously. They lend themselves to the whims of every cool and temperate climate, so that one man can drink wine with them, another beer, and another fermented buttermilk, and no man will be wrong” (p. 69). Obviously local and patriotic customs exercise their traditions in the choice of drink to accompany oysters, so that white wine has been traditional along the Atlantic coast of France, and stout and Guinness in Britain and Ireland. And if you have had the fortune to belong to royalty or landed gentry then champagne has been de rigueur.

But since traditions are so different, this gives a lot of latitude to the oyster eater to drink whatever he or she likes: water, wine, spirits or stout. However, many oyster devotees advise against destroying the unique taste of oysters by refraining from drinking anything but water and that wine cannot stand up to their rich array of gustatory sensations. A well-balanced, effervescing mineral water can be a simple but also sublime foil to oysters, taken only on their own. The taste of the oysters can, as such, be enjoyed in splendid isolation.

The other, more elitist choice of bubbly is, of course, Champagne, which food buffs consider the drink to accompany oysters. But this does not mean any Champagne, rather the younger dry varieties of brut, extra brut and blanc de blancs (produced from the same grape as Chablis). The reasons for this, apart from its legendary association with luxury and sophistication, have to do not only with its light, refreshing, dry body, but also because both champagne and oysters were often consumed as appetizers before the main meal. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the legendary French epicure, judge and gourmet, whose book on the pleasures of taste and “transcendental gastronomy” from the early 19th century was rendered into English by the same Mary Fisher, narrates the anecdote of a colleague who after eating thirty dozen or so oysters was quite capable of joining him for dinner without any loss of appetite. Incidentally, Brillat-Savarin had identified something akin to umami, long before the Japanese isolated it, though he called it osmazome, which he surmised was the substance that gave meats and their soups their characteristic odour.

If other wines are considered, generally a dry chilled white wine, at the same temperature as the cold oysters, with plenty of acidity is the perfect match. But again it depends on the taste of the oyster. Usually, the acidity of the wine helps to dampen the salty taste of the oyster, though the sweeter the oyster, the fruitier the wine can be. However, the drier, high-acidic, mineral-rich wines of the cool Loire valley, where the soil lies on an ancient seabed of fossilised shells, like Chablis and some varieties of Pouilly-Fumé and Sancerre are those that traditionally first spring to mind; so too does any other grassy, crisp Sauvignon Blanc with its citric tones of acidity, and here New Zealand varieties from Marlborough on its South Island are especially appropriate and they regularly come up trumps in most oyster and wine tasting competitions. Bone-dry Rieslings are reliable choices, with their sharp, fresh flavours. Other wine grapes that may provide a similar palate of tastes of earthiness, citric fruit and leanness are in particular Grüner Veltliner and Albariño (or Alvarinho in Portugal), as well as some Pinot Blanc (particularly those from Alsace) and Chenin Blanc (especially wines from Savennières), or Pineau de la Loire as it is also known in that region region. Another classic is a Muscadet-Sèvre et Maine, made from the Melon de Bourgogne grape, grown on mineral-rich soil and aged sur lie. A good thumb-rule is look for dry, white wines from cooler climates (where the grapes ripen more slowly) with high acidity, grown on stonier ground, for example, with a preponderance of limestone, silex, flint or marlstone. However, the Sauvignon Blanc grape retains its tartier flavour wherever it grows, whilst the Mediterranean Piquepoul Blanc grape has the ability to produce acidic, stong dry wines, which blend well with shellfish. What should be avoided are the buttery, heavier and oak-matured wines, often associated with most Chardonnays (although some lighter ones from Côte de Beaune and, of course, Chablis make excellent companions) and other fruitier wines, unless grilled or cooked oysters are on offer or they happen to be of the creamier variety. As a more daring and irreverent alternative, it may even be possible to try a light, fresh Pinot Noir or Gamay (again from cooler climes like Burgundy), or a younger Cabernet Franc from the Loire, which have been known to pair well with the richer Ostrea edulis, again because these wines do tend to have a higher acidity.

One reads of recommendations for drinking bourbon, vodka, gin, sake, martini, Campari and soda, and even a dry fino sherry like Manzanilla. Spirits and oysters can combine nicely in cocktail shots: one oyster bar-owner swears by his horseradish vodka, and the way it fits in with the Atlantic oyster, another by his stirred martini and its compatibility with the European native. Even a smoky single-malt and calvados have their aficionados. What are perhaps working here are the sharper tones and higher alcohol content.

Similarly, as regards porter beers but more especially stout, it is their rich bitterness and roasted flavours that can help balance the freshness of oysters; Guinness is an old favourite and its texture gels well with the strong, metallic flavours of the European native oyster. One of the original Mad Men, the iconic David Oglivy, created as one of his very first pioneering adverts “The Guinness Guide to Oysters” in 1950, extolling the virtues of the Atlantic oyster. According to another, Guinness even “made the oysters come out of their shells.” Yet another, preying on more primitive feelings, simply asked the question “Are you going native?” But stout or originally porter, brewed from roasted malt or barley, had long since been the drinks served up in the public bars of Victorian times and so became the natural complement to oysters for the general public. Attempts have been made to add oysters to the brewing process of stout (to enhance the nutritious content), and isolated, special brands of “Oyster Stout” have been brewed in various parts of the world, the first being made in 1929 in New Zealand. Porterhouse brewery, in Dublin, has been brewing an Oyster Stout for decades, warning vegetarians not to drink it. On the Mersea island, off the coast of Essex, a micro-brewery, produces a dark, malty oyster ale, using loads of oats, called Island Oyster, in which one local oyster per gallon (3.6 litres) has been added to the brew. Another similar ale produced by a small brewery in Bridport, Dorset and marketed under the name of Hix Oyster Ale is considered a rich, nutty and slightly sweet brew. On the other hand, neither Marston’s nor Adnam’s Oyster Stout are in any way brewed with oysters but are regarded as a good companions to a dish of oysters. On the eastern coast of America, a local brewery, Harpoon, in Boston introduced in May 2010 a limited edition beer, called Island Creek Oyster Stout, using about 180 briny and buttery Atlantic oysters in each kettle from Island Creek, just north of Cape Cod, and it has been described as a creamy, mineral-tainted brew with a roasted coffee and chocolate flavour.

Since the taste of the oyster can be both challenging and sometimes quite unpredictable, there is a chance that the choice of drink loses out, but that should not mar the enjoyment of the meal. However, what seems more like the common denominator is that oysters, at their place of origin, go well with the local tipple, that is, what you are used to or simply what you like drinking. After all, what matters is that it’s all in the eye of the beholder or, more literally, on the tongue of the taster.



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As the oysters lie there, raw, moist, tender and glistening, in their half-shell, waiting to be devoured, it is easy to conjure up erotic associations, to which many authors have drawn attention. To paraphrase a comment passed by Rebecca Stott in her book Oyster, ”eat oysters and try not to think of sex” (2004, 170). And what better animal is there to be bestowed with aphrodisiac qualities than the hermaphrodite oyster, as it changes sex back and forth for the betterment of its own species? Once the baby oyster has found somewhere to settle after its 2 or 3 weeks of floating freedom, it’s stuck there for life. The life of attachment it leads could be the envy of many humans, some of whom never achieve such a feat. However, it will never be wooed nor courted and the only visitor or suitor it is likely ever to entertain is one with evil intent – a predator, waiting to get into its insides and eat it. So in its state of complete solitude, like many of its other sessile cousins, its only sexual activity possible (and hopefully enjoyment) is to play around with itself. And that it does, in a truly amazing way! Moreover, both the common genera of Ostrea and Crassostrea oysters have their own way of changing sex, of growing female and/or male gametes, which they do so as the summer seas start to warm up. Though to be fair, they are never desperate enough to mate with themselves. No, they release either their eggs or their sperm, but never both at the same time, which shows just how ingenious Oyster Nature is. Whereas the female of the Ostrea genus incubates the fertilised eggs inside her shell for about 10 days before expelling them into the open sea, the male and female members of the Crassostrea genus spawn directly into the open water column, possibly because they tend to inhabit warmer seas.

Ever since Roman times, we have written sources that claim the sexual potency of the oyster. Imperial orgies were never complete without provisions of oysters in their thousands. Galen of Pergamon (129-199), possibly the most accomplished physician of all antiquity, prescribed oysters as a cure for declining sexual desire. During the Middle Ages, it was generally known that the oyster “exciteth Venus”- and so on throughout history and literature. There was even a Victorian underground magazine of erotica, published in the 1880’s, called The Oyster, and devoted to more heterosexual material than its predecessor, The Pearl. So it was no small wonder that the poor country girls, the oysterwenches who stalked the streets of the growing cities, hawking their wares, were often regarded as prostitutes.

But even in earlier societies, there has been overwhelming evidence of the magical beliefs in shells, as the resemblance between the mollusc shell and the female genital organ helped spawn associations. As Mircea Eliade, the famous historian of religions, wrote “belief in the magical virtues of oysters and of shells is to be found all over the world, from prehistoric until modern times” (1952/1961, 125). Mollusc shells, in particular, seem to have been associated with fertility, and were a valued gift and amulet to girls on reaching puberty. They have been found in places connected with agricultural, nuptial and funerary rites, and symbolised the magical powers of the womb, of birth and rebirth. And the Greek legend of the birth of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, from a shell (often mistaken for an oyster’s but in fact more a scallop’s) in the foam of the sea is a metaphor for the same belief. So this symbolism of mollusc shells is the first part of the aphrodisiac equation of the oyster. As with other aphrodisiacs like avocados, figs, asparagus, bananas, or nuts, because of their appearance or form, we naturally succumb to the temptation to follow the paths of our associations and jump from the idea of fertility enhancers to substances that arouse sexual excitement.

In this context, the name of Giacomo Casanova faithfully rears its head and his own (be it probably all too partial) description (volume 12 of his Histoire de ma vie [Story of my Life], chapter 2, 54-57) of eating his beloved oysters in female company deserves to be quoted in full, as he and his insatiable appetite for oysters are so often taken for granted. In these memoirs of his, most mentions of oysters refer to social gatherings where he is entertained and plied with platefuls of them. But on this special occasion, he is in Rome, amongst friends; it’s 1771 (more than 20 years before he wrote his memoirs) and after an evening at the opera with Armellina and Emilia, two young women from a convent whom he has got to know through common acquaintances, has ordered oysters, rum and champagne in the private rooms of an inn and is introducing them to his “oyster game”, one of his ways of enjoying them:

“I put the shell to her [Emilia’s] mouth, I told her to suck in the liquid and keep the oyster between her lips. She performed the feat to the letter after laughing heartily, and I took the oyster by pressing my lips to hers with the greatest decency. She was delighted by the delicacy with which I took the oyster from her lips…….It was by chance that a fine oyster which I gave Emilia, putting the shell to her lips, dropped into her bosom; she made to recover it, but I claimed that it was mine by right, and she had to yield, let me unlace her, and gather it with my lips from the depth to which it had dropped. In the course of this she had to bear with my uncovering her bosom completely; but I retrieved the oyster in such a way that there was no sign of my having felt any pleasure except that of having recovered, chewed and swallowed it. Armellina watched the whole procedure without smiling, surprised that I appeared to show no interest in what I had seen. Four or five oysters later I gave one to Armellina, who was sitting on my lap, and I cleverly dropped it into her bosom, which brought a laugh from Emilia, who at bottom was annoyed that Armellina had escaped a test of an intrepidity such as she had shown me. But I saw that Armellina was delighted by the mishap, though she refused to give any sign of it.

“I want my oyster,” I said.

“Take it.”

I unlaced her whole bodice, and, the oyster having dropped as far down as possible, I complained that I would have to bring it up with my hand. Good God! What torment for a man in love to have to hide the excess of his delight at such a moment! Armellina had not the slightest pretext to accuse me of anything, for I did not touch her beautiful breasts, hard as marble, except in searching for the oyster. After retrieving and swallowing it, I took hold of one of her breasts, demanding the liquid from the oyster which had spilled on it; I seized the rosebud with my avid lips, surrendering to all the voluptuous feelings inspired in me by the imaginary milk which I sucked for a good two or three minutes.”

However tempting this may indeed seem, it can hardly be recommended form in a public oyster bar or restaurant! On the other hand, there are many accounts from both males and females of their very first taste of oysters, often in the company of their fathers, almost as if they had been initiated into a sexual rite of passage, and lost their virginity, or at least their childhood innocence. One such appealing narrative, with a twist, can be found in Hector Bolitho’s book The Glorious Oyster (1929).

Stott wrote in the prologue to her book, “as a sea creature, it is quintessentially alien to the human form and to human experience” (p. 10): but it is just this alienation, the encounter with “not-me”, that fires our fantasy and stirs a primeval sense of recognition – almost atavistic, as though in that flash we are emerging from our own aquatic (inter-uterine) existence – of the resemblance of oyster flesh with the lips of female genitalia, similar to a freshly-opened sweet fig. Indeed, the oyster has wormed its way into urban slang as another word for “pussy”. Moreover, on a deeper level, there may be a subliminal realisation of human-animal kinship and of our own primordial, aquatic existence that takes on an almost evanescing quality which turns the binary opposites of raw and cooked, of land and sea, of savage and cultured and of revulsion and rapture into turmoil and allows the open “sore” of flesh assume sexual meaning, in our attempt to reclaim some guise of order.

This leads quite naturally to the burning question of why as such are oysters an aphrodisiac. For, they are nowadays hardly the fare of everyday life, as they were in the 19th century; they are eaten on special occasions, at festive moments. Moreover, although belief in the aphrodisiac quality of oysters has survived throughout history and in various cultural contexts, the power of shared fantasies, however mythic, performs a self-fulfilling function and as humans we are suckers for the placebo effect! This embraces many of our belief structures, as the more appeal a belief carries, the more embedded it becomes. So here is another element in the notion, which we no doubt celebrate every time we decide to eat oysters. These social and psychological factors are potent in themselves, but there seems as if there are other more biochemical explanations, which tend to support the oyster’s claim to fame. Because of the similarity of the oyster’s own developed anatomy to very early stages of the human fertilised egg, much of the oyster’s constitution is reflected in those chemicals needed for reproduction and fertilisation. And it is possible for the wild oyster during early summer to convert up to 75% of its flesh into male or female gametes, so that in some sense it may be considered a highly charged and sophisticated egg, or spawning machine.

As regards the protein content in the oyster, which amounts to 9-10% of 100g of meat and is equivalent to a fifth of the RDA for a normal sized adult, like all shellfish, it consists of every one of the nine essential amino acids that the body, as it cannot synthesise them itself, needs to obtain from food, and also several of the non-essential amino acids (alanine, arginine and glycine, which the human body produces) and which are the building blocks of protein. Another interesting point to stress is the relatively high level found in oysters of both aspartic acid and glutamic acid, two more non-essential amino acids and two of the most common excitatory neurotransmitters, which may seem also to account partly for the taste of umami. In addition, in its relatively simple nervous system and its gills, the oyster does contain both significant amounts of serotonin and dopamine, another two vital neurotransmitters. Even more intriguing, according to Italian and American researchers working on the neurochemistry of amino acids, is the occurrence in oysters and other bivalve molluscs of an even rarer amino acid, crucial for neurosynaptic efficiency, N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA). This also plays a role in the induction of the gonadotropin-releasing hormone in the hypothalamus and lutropin in the pituitary gland, both of which stimulate ovulation and help to produce progesterone in females and testosterone in males, thereby enhancing the libido. A boring caveat is that oral digestion of such acids does not always lead to the release of enough sex hormones really to matter. Even the considerable presence of omega-3 fats and another of the non-essential amino acids, arginine, has beneficial effects on bloodflow and general well-being. And if the huge amount of zinc, present particularly in oysters, is taken also into account, and which is well known as an important factor also in the function of the pituitary gland and testosterone production, then it is possible to discern very good grounds for the assertion that oysters are indeed an aphrodisiac, or as near as can be! At least they try their best in more ways than one!



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Along the west coast of Sweden, from its border with Norway down just past Gothenburg to Varberg, the indigenous oyster has been growing in its wild state for centuries, if not millennia. The coldness of the water has helped to preserve it from parasites and viruses, which can only survive in warmer waters. On the other hand, the oyster here takes longer time to grow, is sometimes unable to reproduce and so a steady supply of oysters is difficult to guarantee. Since dredging has been forbidden since the late 19th century, although certain limited exceptions were granted, oysters have basically been left to their own devices.

The west coast was ceded to Sweden in 1658, as part of the treaty of Roskilde, up and to when it had been part of the Danish-Norwegian realm and oysters were regarded as public property and anyone had the right to fish for them. Since the coast was only sparsely populated and considered poor in natural resources, there was never any need to legislate ownership rights of the sea or shore. However, in 1686 sole rights of fishing oysters (and lobsters) were granted to an alderman (rådman) and merchant in Uddevalla, Anders Kock, whose only obligation was in turn to deliver fresh oysters and lobster, at a set price, every fortnight to the royal court in Stockholm from autumn to spring every year, not an easy task by any means given the harshness of Swedish winters and travel conditions. This he apparently managed to accomplish with varying success until the spring of 1698, when the then king Karl XII issued a decree that fishing for these species would once again become a common right. In the 18th century, according to one contemporary source, oysters were divided into three categories, depending on the kind of surface where they were found, mud, sand and rock (bärg) oysters, of which the latter were tastiest, having a “yellow, fat and firm flesh”. From recipes in old Swedish cookery books, it is apparent that oysters were used in soups, paté, bread, sauce and in a flan or pie dish. However, herring became the fish of the 18th and 19th centuries and boat building became an important trade and industry in the region. It appears that the natural beds of oysters were often overfished and during the 19th century occasional attempts were made to farm oysters at different spots along the coast, invariably petering out into failure. Dredging was practised with a so-called ostronskrapa (oyster dredge), which in this area was also known as an engelsman (Englishman), probably because it was brought over from Britain, or ulk (a Danish word for a sea scorpion). In shallower waters, tongs were also used. Even French, English and American oysters were on occasion implanted into beds in the hope of reinvigorating the depleted stocks. Some sought to imitate the French by experimenting with collectors or cultch made from bunches of birch branches and limed roof tiles and chicken-net. But any kind of commercial farming proved to be far too capricious and difficult. The cold winters have always been one great impediment, and it has been calculated that the reproduction cycle only really flourished once every 5 or 6 years. However, the stocks of wild oysters have been quite stable through the years and nowadays, since dredging was completedly stopped in the 1960’s, the only form of farming has been diving and manual gathering.

Although fishing is considered a common right, oysters are exempted from this general rule: firstly, they are regarded as the property of the landowner, and secondly, oysters cannot be taken up anyway without a license. Because Swedish law grants ownership rights to land-owners up to 300 metres out from the shore and fishing rights up to 200 metres, divers need to gain permission from the property owners in order to dive and pick oysters in the offshore areas, which has in some cases proved quite time-consuming, especially when several owners of the land are involved. The geography of the Bohuslän shoreline can be further complicated by the myriad of islands, rocks and skerries that splatter “the sea’s greystone gates” (Tomas Tranströmer’s memorable phrase of “havets gråstensgrindar[1] from his poem Kväll – morgon [Evening – morning]), some of which are privately owned, whilst others belong to the State. The sea bottom tends to be granite-hard, quite flat and often covered with a not-so-thick layer of sand. Where the few streams flow out into the sea, the floor in these inlets is often carpeted with sediment and organic material, where the oyster surprisingly can thrive. The salinity of the water, especially in deeper parts, is quite high, around 22-30 ppt. Along the coast, surface water is usually more fresh, acting almost as a lid, whilst the saltier water is often quite deep and can be churned up by easterly winds, that drive the surface water out to sea and allow the saltier and often warmer water below to well up from the west.

These waters have been a safe haven for the flat oysters as they have had them all to themselves, but recently, in the last five years or so the cupped Pacific oyster (gigas) has become an invasive species, due mainly to the warm summers and mild winters of 2006 and 2007, and much to the annoyance of many of the local fishermen. They have gradually moved up along the German and Danish coasts from farms established in the North Sea. Initially, as with most forms of xenophobia, the gigas was treated as an unwelcome intruder and dangerous enough to swamp and ostracize the indigenous and prized edulis. As attitudes have been reality-tested, so they have softened, at least in some quarters. The cupped oysters are much more of a threat to the blue mussel beds; for instance, in the Wadden Sea during the 1980’s the native mussel beds were turned into oyster reefs, as both species prefer the shallower water, which on the other hand means that they are liable to freeze to death if ice is formed.  And given the gradual rise in water temperature, the species is likely to establish itself and form quite extensive reefs, that can alter the bottom fauna over time.

Generally there is a good flow of nutrients in the water where the oysters prefer to settle, in clusters, often on southwest slopes behind islands that protect them from strong, incoming currents from the west. The flat oysters are found in deeper water, between 3 and 12 meters, whilst the trespassing cupped oysters prefer the shallower and warmer water, and have managed to survive some recent cold winters. But the decisive factor is whether reproduction can be prolific or not and that really depends on a good, long summer, and one without any serious, harmful algal blooms (HABs). It has been noted that the flat oyster has become more apt to spawn more than once during the spawning season, due to the rising water temperatures in recent summers.

Bengt Klemming is the younger of two brothers who run a diving company that not only caters for leisure divers and tourists but whose main occupation is managing oyster beds that lie on the privately owned sea floor along a 50 km stretch of coast between Hamburgsund and Strömstad. Now in the business for almost 20 years, as the only company licensed to operate as such, in which they supply about 80% of the Swedish oysters, he and Peter possess a local knowledge of the oyster banks that is quite unique. Their whole philosophy and business is infused by a total compliance to the tenets of sustainability. The oyster beds need to be sorted out and stewarded so that the oysters on the very bottom do not sink into the sand or be suffocated by the younger oysters that tend to settle on their shells. Another problem they notice is the amount of fecal material that can accumulate and that can stunt the filtering potential and therefore the growth of the oyster. Otherwise the reefs can perish. The flat oyster is a sensitive and fastidious creature that wants everything in moderation and cannot take too much stress and abrupt changes in salinity, temperature or even handling at all. They have noted that in certain cases the oyster will just close up and not eat. It grows quite slowly, especially in these colder waters, and cannot be harvested until it has attained a size of at least 6 cms. Most of the oysters that are gathered by hand lie at a depth of between 3 and 6 metres. Often the colour of the shells of oysters, lying in shallower water, have lighter shades, whilst the shells of deeper oysters are much stronger and darker, and seem almost heavier. According to Bengt, this is due to the ultra-violet rays that can more easily penetrate the surface of the shallow water. The brothers have observed the various cycles of growth and stagnation that have always typified the Swedish oyster population, and have recently witnessed the benefits of the warm summers of 2004 and 2005 when reproduction conditions led to a strong oyster community.  Over the years, there has been a steady increase in the amount of brown algae, which suggests the rise in the presence of nitrogen, most likely from the land, and especially from over-fertilisation in agriculture. At the same time nitrogen is one of the building blocks for amino acids and in turn protein, which filter-feeders can thrive on.

During the cold winters, the oysters can increase their levels of glycogen to protect themselves from the cold, and it is something that can be perceived almost with the naked eye, as fat globules are formed on the mantle; but whether this has also to do with the decrease in the intake of food which appears to happen during these months is difficult to ascertain. That is why, for example, many connoisseurs are prone to rate oysters picked in January and February as the most succulent and tasty. Diving for oysters take time and the oxygen tanks allow for an hour under water. On a good day they can pick as many as 600 oysters (60 kilos) each. And this is done three times a week, so that they take up about 35 baskets every week with roughly 100 oysters in each. The annual harvest is around 15 tons, hardly sufficient for satisfying the growing domestic market, though the price commanded gives them a reasonable margin.  The oysters tend to be covered with detritus and sand on the bottom, so they are moved to special spots  for “steeping”, where they are kept for a few days in shallow and fresher water, in corves (sumpbassäng), to filter themselves clean. Swedish oysters do not need by law to undergo any depuration, as the water is classed as grade A, but this is considered as a traditional method of “purifying” the oyster before it is sent onto the wholesaler that also has a virtual monopoly for the distribution of the native oyster. However, as the coastal population increases during the summer, some of the water can become polluted from household wastewater that can affect the oysters in the autumn.

Grebbestad is the shellfish capital of Sweden, a small, sheltered harbour village, near the famous rock-carvings at Tanum, and one that not only hosts an annual oyster festival during the first weekend of September, and is home of the famous seaweed crispbread (Tångknäcke) but also has a thriving Oyster Academy (Ostronakademien). This association, with about 600 members, has as its expressed goal to protect and utilise the full potential of the Swedish native oyster. It organises events and oyster opening competitions and takes part even in commercial and academic meetings which try and promote awareness and various business possibilities in the cultivation of oysters. It has close connections with the local institute for marine sciences, the Sven Lovén centre, part of the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, one of whose many activities has been spearheading research and development of new technologies and methods for the farming of oysters, especially of the indigenous species. A special 3-year project called Nord-Ostron was started in 2009, pooling know-how from the three Scandinavian countries.

Ostrea is the name of a Swedish company, which started in 2004 to plan a large state-of-the-art hatchery to produce flat oyster spat, which would then be grown in the pristine waters off the coast of the Koster islands near the border with Norway. The hatchery was completed in 2008, although the facility is constantly being refined. A total of €4m has already been invested with the aim of producing 300 tons (3m oysters) annually from 2013, destined primarily for the French market. It is a hugely ambitious programme, both in a commercial and scientific sense, in which its very essence hinges on the crucial question of achieving a regular supply of spat, and that has been the main problem blighting the Swedish oyster industry as a source of regular income and employment in the area. The hatchery has been granted long-term support from the University of Gothenburg and its Sven Lovén Centre for Marine Sciences nearby and from regional governmental agencies as well as private investors, although little assistance has been forthcoming from the State. The staff are all well-trained academics with roots in marine biology. Kent Berntsson has been employed from the beginning as head of R & D. Not only has he completed a doctorate but has also worked as a mechanic and thus has a hands-on approach to the scientific and practical problems facing him and his colleagues at the hatchery. And there is evidence of pride in plenty as he shows off the ultra-modern facility, housed unobtrusively in one of the picturesque harbours of South Koster. It also cultivates its own microalgae.

The parent oysters were originally wild ones growing in different parts of the area and number 200 which are capable of producing up to 100m fertilised eggs, although a rule of the thumb is that only 0.25% survive to settle and grow into an adult oyster. Preselected for genetic variation and brought into the tanks as broodstock in January from cold water, they are gradually conditioned during a period of about 6 weeks to an increase in temperature that is raised 1°C each day to 20°C. The lighting is also incrementally raised to get the oysters to start developing their gonads more quickly. The conditioning process also involved feeding the broodstock large quantities of special microalgae that the hatchery itself produces. At about 13°C oysters have developed sexual organs and at 16°C they can start spawning. They seem to spawn only twice and then stop in the summer. Although oysters develop both sets of gonads, they seem to use one set, usually the male pair initially, and they seem to need more nourishment and energy before they are able to develop and spawn eggs, and so are far less common than active males. After the fertilised eggs have been incubated within the female oysters, they are released and automatically “swim” towards the light and surface. Here in the hatchery, the surface of these breeding tanks are skimmed off into containers where the minute larvae can be fed with specially prepared microalgae, drained, sorted and cleaned every two days with seawater purified by ultraviolet radiation; the larvae need to be thinned out to avoid too much density in the tanks and when they are seen to have developed an “eye spot” and a “foot”, after they have grown to about 0,3mm in size, this means they are ready to settle. Unfortunately it seems that only 5% of the larvae survive this ordeal. They are then transferred to the setting tanks, in which the floor is covered with a microcultch of sand, made from crushed oyster shells, no larger than 0,35mm in diameter. Settlement is another critical stage in the life of the oyster larva and those that have failed die and have to be removed, so that they are filtered through a half millimetre screen. Once this has been achieved the oyster spat will be put in trays, according to size basically, in rectangular nursery silos or growing tanks with an inbuilt upwelling system where they are fed with enrichened algae and salt water. Growth is dependent on such factors as spat density, water flow and the supply of natural phytoplankton in the water, which is supplemented by the introduction of microalgae. The oyster spat, once it has attained a size of 5mm are then placed out into suspended crates in the sea. The hatchery is continually experimenting with algal feed, its composition, concentration and amount, so as to optimise growth at various larval stages.

The company is in the process of installing a system for raft culture with a Canadian Flupsy (floating upweller system) about 200m from the hatchery, where the spat can be well-fed and grown out to marketable size. The first oyster spat grown from the hatchery were placed in the Flupsy in August 2010, and some have already reached a size of 5 cms, more quickly than anticipated. Ostrea has decided to work with a shellfish farmer, Keith Reid, from Vancouver Island in Canada, who has devised an off-bottom raft system of culture, incorporating an elaborate Flupsy unit, whose principal aim is to cut labour costs and raise productivity and yield. Tumbling will also  be incorporated into the process. Proponents of the system stress not only its economic benefits but also its potential for rapid early growth of oyster spat and for conditioning the oyster to be more active. On the other hand, there are critics who voice concerns about stressing the juvenile oyster and about the quality of its flesh and shell structure.

The whole production process is meticulously monitored for presence of any bacterial flora that may accompany the inflow of seawater that can harm the oysters. Hygiene precautions are strictly observed, and the company refuses to resort to any supplementary antibiotic in the culture of algae or spat cultivation. They have recently installed a large, photobioreactor, which lines a glass wall along the southern side of the building, to cultivate their own mix of microalgae for use in the various growth stages. As production gathers pace and reaches the levels projected, there are strong hopes of collaborating with 50 or so contacts growers along the coast, who will buy oyster spat from the hatchery for cultivation, which then will be bought back for distribution and sale by Ostrea, thereby providing a viable or subsidiary means of employment for local fishermen.

There are also plans to build a packing plant on the mainland with depuration facilities, which at the moment according to Swedish law is not needed; as the water has been declared grade A by the authorities for years and since the area has been awarded the country’s first marine national park in 2009 (Kosterhavet National Park), the water quality has improved even more.  Furthermore, it lies adjacent to the bordering Ytre Hvaler National Park that was established at the same time as Norway’s sole marine conservation area. The Koster fjord is a narrow, deep fissure, running like a long dagger from north to south and in parts is over 200m deep. Its biodiversity is quite unique. The water temperature stays a constant 5-7°C and has a high salinity of about 35 ppt. It is this water that is pumped up into the hatchery. The one worry about the salinity of the water is posed during the early summer when the Glomma river, the longest in Scandinavia, which runs down through the forests of Norway’s eastern flank, discharges its melted snow into the sea just north of the islands, especially if there is a southerly current. With the advent of the national park, an increased awareness of the need to protect the marine ecology has stimulated many fishermen to employ more environmentally friendly methods and thereby helped them market their produce as organic. Just in this very special location, nature is on their side, but will the technological advances within hatchery culture be on the side of nature in the years to come?

[1]Gryningen slår och slår i
havets gråstensgrindar och solen sprakar
nära världen.
Dawn bumps and bumps into
the sea’s greystone gates and the sun crackles
close to the world.



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Now what or who was the origin of the adage that oysters should only be eaten in months with an ‘R’?

Its first known formulation has nearly always been attributed to one, William Butler (1535-1618), physician to King James I and Fellow of Clare Hall, at the University of Cambridge, who apparently uttered this pearl of wisdom in 1599, although some authors talk even of a Samuel Butler, but the only reference occasionally given is to a 16th century cookbook.

However, the truth of the matter is far more intriguing than could ever be imagined.

Surprisingly, its articulation took place against a backcloth of the bitter struggle of the Reformation, a symbolically ladened depiction of which are probably the paintings, seen above, by Osias Beert, a Flemish cork-maker whose stilleven and ontbijtjes were in many ways benchmarks for Dutch and Flemish painters of his time. Across the channel in Elizabethan England, conflicts raged between the old-order monasteries and the new seats of learning, the universities. At one of the latter, Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, was an enterprising young student, one of whose ancestors (perhaps great-grandfather), Sir William Buttes (who gets a small part in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII) had been a physician to Henry VIII and whose notoriously Puritan family hailed from Norfolk. His name was Henry Buttes. Unfortunately, it seems as if his family was on the verge of ruin, as its property had fallen into the hands of some distant relation and another influential family, the Bacons. The head of the latter family towards the end of the 16th century was the widow of Sir Nicholas Bacon, Elisabeth I’s Lord Keeper of the Great Seal – a stern, highly intellectual woman, Lady Anne Bacon, mother of the famous Francis Bacon, avid Puritan and an influential member of Queen Elisabeth’s court, as one of her lady-in-waitings. However, her eldest step-son, Nicholas (who was also knighted), by virtue of his marriage to one of Henry Buttes’ relations (also named Anne), had inherited for some quirky reason the entire family fortune and estate of his father- and uncles-in-law, leaving the poor Henry quite impecunious, apparently. In his youth, he tried a way of bringing himself to the attention of the younger Lady Anne Bacon, by writing and publishing, of al things, a cookbook in 1599, entitled Dyets Dry Dinner. So it would appear that it was rather this bizarre book, by the just as bizarre Mr. Buttes that not just offered a fascinating insight into Elizabethan eating habits but was also the source of this legendary tenet. However, Butler’s name never gets a mention; neither under the headings Oyster and Ostreum nor anywhere else for that matter is there is any word at all regarding a William Butler, or any other Butler, so how he got into the story is a complete mystery.

The book, quite a monumental piece of writing and crammed with all sorts of wonderful details and observations, seems to have been composed early in Buttes’ life, possibly with a similar amount of dry, tongue-in-cheek humour, and was dedicated to the younger Lady Anne Bacon, whose father is named in the preface as Edward Buttes Esquire, who in turn was one of the three sons of Sir William Buttes, mentioned earlier (meaning that she was possibly one of his great aunts). The author was obviously keen on ingratiating himself with her and invited her to a feast that he himself would organise and cook (“To whose frugall Table, I invite your Ladyship”)! Up until sometime during the reign of Henry VIII, it had been a custom for the College to invite certain of the townsmen for dinner in hall, but the king had stopped this famous Corpus Christi Day procession, much to the annoyance of the local population, who no doubt viewed it as a free opportunity to make merry. He wanted to invite her to a sober affair and impress her with his temperance and no doubt Puritan views. So he presented the virtues of food which did not need the accompaniment of wine and other alcoholic beverages, lauding on the contrary the benefits of “Tabacco”, thus the title; in a surprisingly informative way, each double-spread describes a food belonging to one of “eight severall courses” of the meal –  “Fruites, Hearbes, Flesh, Fish, Whitmeats, Spice, Sauce, Tabacco – with their specific origins, tastes, uses, effects, serving suggestions, on the left side and on the right hand page, under the heading “Story for Table-Talke”, tit-bits of information are mentioned about his selected food. And it is here under the Latin heading of Ostreum and Story for Table-Talke that he wrote “[The oyster] is unseasonable and unwholesome in all monethes, that have not the letter R in their name, because it is then venerious.” i.e. spawning. It is worth noting what else he had to say about the oyster, on the left-hand page under the title of Oyster: “it hath a kinde of salt iuyce in it, that affecteth the palate more then other shell fishes: exciteth appetite, and Venus: nourisheth litle”. He recommended dressing it “with pepper, oyle, the iuyce of sowre Orenges [lemons?]: after it be roasted on the imbers”. He repeated the Aristotelian notion of the oyster’s spontaneous generation by stating “it is engendred of meere myre, or of mudde inclining to corruption:or of the sea-froth and spume…” as well as the ancient belief of the moon’s influence on its growth, “increasing and decreasing with the Moone”.

Philpots, in his huge opus on oysters (1890, 243), mentioned that in medieval times a Latin dictum, set in Leonine verse, – mensibus erratis vos ostrea manducatis – was in use, which conveyed roughly the same meaning, so the origin of this wise sentiment was probably much older.

Furthermore, Henry Buttes would have been a contemporary and younger colleague of the aforesaid William Butler, as he titles himself as “Maister of Artes and Fellowe of C.C.C. in C”, a playful acronym for the College of Corpus Christi in Cambridge, one of whose greatest benefactors during the 16th century was Sir Nicholas Bacon, husband of the above-mentioned elder Lady Anne Bacon. So whether Butler and Buttes were in connivance or what the origin was of Henry Buttes’ considerable culinary erudition is beyond the pale of this blog and probably any other too. A chapter about Henry Butts (sic) from a history of the C.C.C. noted that ”in his youth he was reckoned a man of Humour and Pleasantry….although not very delicate therein” and that his “small” book was “in truth a whimsical performance”, thus acknowledging its intention to entertain.

British (English) School; Henry Butts (d.1632), Master (1626-1632); Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/henry-butts-d-1632-master-16261632-193623

Henry Buttes 1575?-1632

However, the fate of Master Buttes is known, for being a “Norfolkman”, he was able quite easily to become a “Fellowe” of the College in 1597 (as a number of fellowships were restricted to such requirements), and his “courteous countrymen” are mentioned in the book’s Dedicatorie. After having become ordained a preacher at the university and later a Doctor of Divinity in 1623, he was not only elected as Master of Corpus Christi in 1626, but succeeded in also being appointed the University’s Vice-Chancellor in 1629. However, after having endured a particular fierce plague in 1630, helping the sick and afflicted in the town, “alone, a destitute and forsaken man, not a Scholler with me in the College”, this experience seemed to have had such a detrimental affect on his state of mind that, two years later he was found to have hung himself in his garters in the Master’s Lodge, when he failed to show up to preach the University Sermon at the Church of St Mary the Great on Easter Day. There followed further conjecture on the cause of his “rash and nefarious action”, that it may have been due to a “deficiency in his Circumstances” (implying some financial problem) or “unsufferable torments with the Devils” (suggesting maybe religious disputes). His terrifying apparition is said still to haunt the College premises, the last report of such a “sighting” having occurred in 1967! Thus the origin of this famous adage has a far more bewitching background and makes for a good story!

The rule does, however, have a sound fundament, despite all this, which is one reason why it has survived for over 400 years! Firstly, the warmer seasons spur the oyster to spawn and breed and up to 75% of its flesh can be sacrificed to ensure as profilic a spawning as possible. As the native oyster is larviparous, it fertilises its eggs inside the shell and incubates them for about 10 days before releasing them into the water column as minute larvae. This happens several times during the same spawning season. During this process its flesh often becomes quite milky (although this texture has its aficionados as well!). In line with this reasoning is a practicality of oyster farming, since a spawning oyster is an asset in itself and its sale prevents the possibilities of millions of fertilised eggs from growing and disturbing the oyster beds (at least in bygone times) could seriously impede settlement and growth of future generations of oysters. Secondly, warm seasons were notoriously reputed for their ill-effects on all sorts of fresh molluscs (before the days of refrigeration), so that the chances of being served a bad one were dramatically increased. Nowadays the problems are often at source in the coastal sea in which the bacterial content can also multiply and which in turn can have a detrimental effect on the oyster population. Thirdly, since prices and consumption are higher in the winter months, farmers want to preserve their stock and boost their supplies to the markets then. There are good reasons why, for example, the French have traditionally eaten a huge proportion of their oysters around December, at the height of winter and at Christmas. Not only are oysters considered a winter delicacy, but also they are at their prime in the months following a summer of hectic spawning and breeding and their taste attains the meridian of their perfection.  However, in these days of modern oyster cultivation, sterile triploid oysters, aka in France as “quatre saisons”, can be eaten raw every week of the year. But generally, were the oyster to choose for itself, it would no doubt decide that ‘thou shalt not touch me at all and especially not in those months without an ‘r’ when there are more important things to think about and do’!

Philpots, J. (1890): Oysters and All About Them. London:John Richardson.

Masters, R. (1753): The History of the College of Corpus Christi and the B. Virgin Mary. Cambridge: J Bentham.