THE EROTIC OYSTER

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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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OYSTERS IN SWEDEN

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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.

THE ORIGIN OF THE ADAGE OF EATING OYSTERS ONLY IN MONTHS WITH AN ‘R’

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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 distant relations, Sir William Buttes (who gets a small cameo 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, an avid Puritan and influential member of Queen Elisabeth’s court, as one of her lady-in-waitings. However, her eldest son, Nicholas (who was also knighted), by virtue of his marriage to one of Henry Buttes’ relations (also named Anne), inherited sometimes during the 1590’s the entire family fortune and estate of his father- and two uncles-in-law, perhaps leaving the poor Henry somewhat aggrieved. In his youth, he tried a way of bringing himself to the attention of the younger Lady Anne Bacon, by writing and publishing, of all 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 his third cousin. 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.