Sunday, February 15, 2015

Brilliant Bivalves

There’s a small oyster and mussel restaurant on the edge of the harbour in Falmouth, Cornwall, tucked down a narrow alleyway next to a chandlery and opposite a sailmakers.  You’d never know the alley was there if you hadn’t had the occasion to go shopping for marine hardware bits in the past, and if you go more than five steps past the closed door you could easily fall into the dark waters of the harbour. 
It serves nothing but shellfish.  They only accept cash.  It’s one of the most highly regarded food destinations in south Cornwall and you have to book well in advance.  A few of us got lucky last weekend and scored a cancellation, allowing us to enjoy some oysters (the final four that they had left) in celebration of a project that we completed last year for Hog Island Oyster Co in California. 
It set me to thinking; despite being an island nation with strong, deep, ties to the seas that surround us, we British have developed some funny attitudes to shellfish. 
Shortly after being commissioned to write the web copy for Hog Island’s new website I gave a friend-of-a-friend called Nick a lift to a stag party a few hours drive away.  He got in the car after work on the Friday and we got talking, and within a few minutes he told me about his PhD doctorate thesis, studying consumer attitudes to shellfish consumption in the UK.  The shellfish industry plays an important part of the Cornish economy, with £10 million in landings in 2013, however the vast majority of its output is shipped abroad to markets in mainland Europe.  I went to Falmouth Oyster Festival at the end of 2013 as part of my initial research and of all the stalls serving food, there were only two serving oysters and they had pretty short queues.  There were plenty of foodie types wandering around, but few prepared to put their money where their mouths were and actually eat oysters at an oyster festival.  Why?  When did the British public forget that they enjoyed shellfish?  Why has Nick’s research found that so many people feel excluded from “posh” shellfish, consider it a risky choice and have little to no idea of how shellfish are cultivated and harvested?
We used to eat loads of oysters in centuries past – in Victorian London oysters were viewed as far from exclusive and were more commonly consumed as a cheap source of protein amongst the poor and destitute of the capital’s East End.  But then, as in many other oyster-rich regions around the world, natural resources were over-harvested and stocks collapsed.  By the time you get around to the modern day, when oysters are carefully cultivated and harvested, the post war mechanisation of food production and a mid-century desire to be able to mass-produce and sell us our food frozen or in tins did the British public’s attitude to consuming raw shellfish no favours.  That is changing, but slowly, and I still believe we’re an awfully long way behind mainland Europe, American and Australasia.  It makes me thankful that I grew up in a house with a shucking knife in the cutlery drawer (in a special box of tools labelled "seafood and eat it").

But I digress; prior to going off on an enormous tangent I had every intention of sharing with you some of the incredible oyster facts that I learnt whilst working on the Hog Island project.  I did a lot of background reading, digging through my collection of Steinbeck for references to oysters and learning an enormous amount from Rowan Jacobsen’s incredibly well written (and witty) “A Geography of Oysters”.  Did you know, for example, that oysters are one of the few organisms that actually lose the ability to move and see as they develop?  Yup, as larvae, oysters are able to move (by fluttering tiny cilia hairs) and differentiate light and dark (i.e. up and down) using a primitive “eye” – both of which they immediately devolve once they have found their spot and cemented themselves to their preferred substrate.  Once locked in place they have no further need for such trivial things as seeing and moving, and retaining both of these abilities simply diverts energy away from their chief tasks of eating and reproducing.  The lack of such recognisable requirements for a regular life as eyes and legs should really make them modern society’s ideal food source, as there go most of our qualms about eating a sentient organism. 
Oysters are also very good for the marine environment:  In order to eat, bivalves such as oysters filter seawater across their gills and filter out any plankton to eat.  Oysters can filter as much as fifty gallons a day, so the argument for them actually improving an ecosystem is a very strong and scientifically proven one.  Oyster farms are environmentally benign and are high up on most lists of sustainable seafood.  Before I keep on writing and do myself out of any more work, I probably ought direct you to the Science and Policy pages of the Hog Island site, where you can read plenty more about sustainable shellfish farming and their research into ocean acidification.  And if you’re hungry to get more brass tacks on bivalves then check out “A Geography of Oysters”.

I hope that the next time you have the opportunity to hold an oyster up to your lips and tip your head back you recall this post and choose to do so.  I certainly will, if for no other reason than because they TASTE OF THE SEA, and I bloody love the sea.

All images courtesy and copyright of Hog Island Oyster Co.

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