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Six of the best, fresh from the sea

An oyster's gnarly shell holds many wonderful secrets.

Recently, I wasted half an hour watching an American try, and fail, to eat a record-breaking 422 oysters on the television show, Man v Food. All I could think about as I watched him swallow the quivering bivalves down, three or four at a time, were all those tiny stomachs slipping helplessly into his gigantic belly.

Until I interviewed an oysterman a few years ago, I’d happily assumed they were little more than solid pucks of marine muscle – but Tristan Hugh-Jones of Rossmore Oysters quickly disabused me of that notion, dissecting one at the table, much to the astonishment of our waiter. The miniscule heart was the final straw: as the Victorian anatomist Thomas Huxley observed, “When the sapid and slippery morsel . . . glides along the palate, few people imagine that they are swallowing a piece of machinery (and going machinery too) greatly more complicated than a watch”.

That gnarly shell hides many secrets. In his oddly gripping book Oyster: A World History, Drew Smith describes Ostreidae as “older than us. Older than grass. It was here at the start of civilisation, at the start of the world.” Slight poetic licence, perhaps, but this paleozoic creature was among the first manifestations of life as we know it on it this planet. They’re survivors: earlier this year, fishermen in the Solent found an enormous oyster fossil, which by the growth rings on its shell is thought to have had more than two centuries on the clock when it expired, 100 million years ago.

Perhaps their sex life keeps them young: as Ogden Nash observed, “the oyster’s a confusing suitor/It’s masc, and fem, and even neuter”. Depending on the species, they can be either bisexual in the older sense of the word, swapping between genders as the breeding season demands, or intersexual, changing from male to female as they age. And all this on a diet of plankton.

None of this makes them sound any more appetising – but that “very valiant man who first adventured on eating of oysters” was on to something. They are an excellent source of protein, calcium, iron, folic acid and various vitamins, including B12 and C, and zinc. They may not be quite the aphrodisiac Casanova believed but, given historic dietary deficiencies, there may well once have been a correlation between oyster consumption and fertility.

On the sauce

Certainly we’ve always been drawn to them: early man left vast middens of shells in his wake, and the oyster was valuable trading currency by Phoenician times. It’s still unclear how the Romans’ favourite Colchester bivalves made it from Essex to the imperial capital, a journey of 50 days overland (and far more by sea) with their flavour intact, but, as these gourmets tended to smother them with the pungent fermented-fish condiment garum, perhaps it made little difference. A medieval recipe quoted by Smith teams oysters with fried larks, while a Victorian etiquette manual advises its readers they should be eaten on the servants’ night off – with gentlemen feeding them to their wives. Oo-er.

But, at the start of our native oyster season (the bivalves having taken the summer off to breed), it would be a shame to spoil this treat with any sauce. These rounder, flatter creatures are more temperamental and expensive than the craggier rock oysters that can be eaten all year round. To my mind, the natives have a sweeter, more complex flavour, which only improves as the weather declines. A squeeze of lemon juice on the second half-dozen perhaps, maybe some Tabasco or a whisper of shallot vinegar – but those first few should hit you like an ocean wave. Tiny hearts and all.

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis