When hunting for a lost volume the other day, I found a book about oysters. In it, I discovered that our house, built in 1851, dates from the time of the great oyster boom, when half a billion of the bivalves were being sold at Billingsgate each year. Oysters had been plentiful before the Victorian era-Dr Johnson famously fed them to his cat.
But the railways made it possible for them to be transported at speed. Around the mud-flats near Colchester, the celebrated natives had to be supplemented by ringers: oysters from other beds that were merely thrown into the waters around Mersea Island to fatten. Incidentally, the Victorians didn’t hold with there having to be an ‘r’ in the month. Their oyster season started on August 4. When the doors at Billingsgate opened at midnight of August 3, people would be killed in the stampede.
After the boom, collapse. There was a Royal Commission, which completely failed to identify overfishing or pollution as culprits-and, in the days of laissez-faire, would have done nothing about them if it had. Oysters became a food of the rich. I’d be afraid of opening one for fear of gouging my thumb. It’s different in France, where they’re expensive, but sold outside many of the big brasseries in Paris. Bless the French. Why can’t we do that here?
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