The World is your Oyster

Now there’s a strange expression, but it has a fine pedigree. As all you good literati know, it originates in Shakespeare’s play, ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’.

Falstaff: I will not lend thee a penny.
Pistol: Why then the world’s mine oyster, Which I with sword will open.
Falstaff: Not a penny.

I first met Pistol when I was in my early teens, and my English teacher decided to torture the class with Shakespeare’s Henry V. In Act II, Pistol’s cock is up and flashing fire will follow.

Then as now, I was easily amused, and that’s one of the few lines of the immortal bard I can still quote. Some years later, when I lived in the English Midlands, I went on numerous occasions to the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford.

Before the performance, although we were all underage, we had a few libations at the Dirty Duck—one of my friends regularly tried to sell American tourists Shakespeare’s toothbrush.

During the performance, we waited until the theater-goers had deposited their half-finished drinks on the long shelf adjoining the bar, eager to return to their seats before the curtain rose, confident of being reunited with their glasses at the next interval.

Over that next magical half-minute, we drilled through the shelf like the army of Genghis Khan, then sat in the darkness as the thespians appeared, while our stomachs centrifuged a concoction of taste, color, and buzz.

The RSC has always boasted amazing actors—I watched them perform ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, and the rambunctious Pistol telling Falstaff that he would use his blade to prise open the oyster and take his due.

Oysters and men are inextricably bound, so that the history of both cannot be separated—I wonder, in fact, if the phrase shouldn’t be ‘the oyster is your world’. What binds them both is the sea, and the human propensity to settle next to estuaries.

Europe is reeling from an eggy uproar, a kind of yolk Guam—fire and fury soufflé. Of the many things that make a European proud, food quality is certainly in the top five, along with cathedrals and soccer.

This triggers strong views on hormones in US beef, chlorinated chicken, and shellfish microbiological standards—the latter resulted in a mutual trade ban, which deprives the old continent of such delicacies as geoduck (pronounced gooey duck), grown in the Pacific Northwest.

Incidentally, my article about geoduck in these pages remains by far the most viewed ever—size clearly does matter!

In the past, Europe was not so concerned about who ate what, but BSE (mad cows), scrapie (crazy sheep), and other scares have changed our attitude to food. If you go back to the nineteenth century, you find that Scottish trout were fed on oysters and horse meat—a blow indeed for your average pescatarian.

This is described in the history of ‘Howietoun’, one of the oldest fish farms in Scotland, now owned by the University of Stirling. The oyster side of the story is particularly interesting, because in the XIXth century, the critter in question would have been the European flat oyster, known in France (and tony restaurants elsewhere) as bellon—it’s worth considerably more than its counterpart, the rock oyster, which is classed in Europe as an invasive species.

The internet has become an immense resource for scholarship—in a variety of languages, as I joyfully discovered when I researched Clear Eyes. Armed with the information that the oysters used to feed trout most likely came from Edinburgh, I embarked on a voyage that took me back the last quarter of the 1800’s.

Northern Europe and North America have a long-standing tradition of fisheries research boards, and it turns out that the annual reports of the Fishery Board for Scotland, published in the 1880’s and 1890’s, are available for histoysterical scholars.

In those days, oysters were consumed in copious quantities. Lewis Carroll makes the point in ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more–
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed–
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”

“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!”
“The night is fine,” the Walrus said.
“Do you admire the view?

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

The poem doesn’t tell us how many bivalves were scarfed by the walrus and the carpenter—it’s unclear whether carpentry as a profession is particularly conducive to an oyster diet, but the walrus chiefly feeds on molluscs—Carroll (Charles Dodgson) was a mathematician, and thus a stickler for accuracy.

From the multiplication by four, it sounds as if we’re quickly into the bushels—and the walrus will have taken the (sea)lion’s share, because he cracked them open, whereas the carpenter needed to shuck. Nevertheless, the human opposable thumb is a limiting factor for both the pepper and vinegar, but I digress.

In the Firth of the Forth, next to the city of Edinburgh, the oyster grounds covered an area of one hundred and twenty square miles—impossible to imagine today. At the start of the XIXth century, a boat working the Forth could dredge six thousand oysters in one day.

In the 1830’s, not long after the Napoleonic wars, Edinburgh exported about seven million oysters every year, and the locals consumed about a tenth of that.

The Scots were so profligate with their oyster beds that by 1895, the total stock in the Forth was estimated to be only 250,000 animals. Much of the decline was due to relaying, still a very common practice today—young oysters had been sold for decades to restock the depleted oyster beds of Holland and England.

A local fisherman commented:

It used to be a case of picking out clams (queen scallop) when dredging for oysters; now it is picking out an occasional oyster when dredging for clams.

It’s no wonder, with such an impetuous drive to destroy such an important natural resource, that oysters even found their way into trout ponds.

One of the most striking parts of these historical reports is the concern about overfishing. Even then, sensible and prudent recommendations appeal to the powers that be, underscoring the need for controlling fisheries for particular species, and on the importance of protecting salmon waters from pollution in rivers.

In those days, there was a general view that emptying waste into rivers was a reasonable thing to do, since rivers naturally function as conduits for human waste—the Scottish scientists emphasized that water unfit for humans is water unfit for salmon.

And six generations on from such profound wisdom, we still collect data, scratch our heads and wonder what can be done.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: