iPhoneOgraphy – 18 Apr 2016 (Day 109/366)
The word oyster is used as a common name for a number of different families of saltwater clams, bivalve molluscs that live in marine or brackish habitats. In some species the valves are highly calcified, and many are somewhat irregular in shape. Many, but not all, oysters are in the superfamily Ostreoidea.
Some kinds of oysters are commonly consumed by humans, cooked or raw, the latter being a delicacy. Some kinds of pearl oyster are harvested for the pearl produced within the mantle. Windowpane oyster are harvested for their translucent shells, which are used to make various kinds of decorative objects.
Middens testify to the prehistoric importance of oysters as food, with some middens in New South Wales, Australia dated at ten thousand years. They have been cultivated in Japan from at least 2000 BC. In the United Kingdom, the town of Whitstable is noted for oyster farming from beds on the Kentish Flats that have been used since Roman times. The borough of Colchester holds an annual Oyster Feast each October, at which “Colchester Natives” (the native oyster, Ostrea edulis) are consumed. The United Kingdom hosts several other annual oyster festivals, for example Woburn Oyster Festival is held in September. Many breweries produce Oyster Stout, a beer intended to be drunk with oysters that sometimes includes oysters in the brewing process.
The French seaside resort of Cancale in Brittany is noted for its oysters, which also date from Roman times. Sergius Orata of the Roman Republic is considered the first major merchant and cultivator of oysters. Using his considerable knowledge of hydraulics, he built a sophisticated cultivation system, including channels and locks, to control the tides. He was so famous for this, the Romans used to say he could breed oysters on the roof of his house.
In Ireland, it is traditional to eat them live with Guinness and buttered brown soda bread.
In the early 19th century, oysters were cheap and mainly eaten by the working class. Throughout the 19th century, oyster beds in New York Harbor became the largest source of oysters worldwide. On any day in the late 19th century, six million oysters could be found on barges tied up along the city’s waterfront. They were naturally quite popular in New York City, and helped initiate the city’s restaurant trade. New York’s oystermen became skilled cultivators of their beds, which provided employment for hundreds of workers and nutritious food for thousands. Eventually, rising demand exhausted many of the beds. To increase production, they introduced foreign species, which brought disease; effluent and increasing sedimentation from erosion destroyed most of the beds by the early 20th century. Oysters’ popularity has put ever-increasing demands on wild oyster stocks. This scarcity increased prices, converting them from their original role as working-class food to their current status as an expensive delicacy.
In the United Kingdom, the native variety (Ostrea edulis) requires five years to mature and is protected by an Act of Parliament during the May to August spawning season. The current market is dominated by the larger Pacific oyster and rock oyster varieties which are farmed year round.