My need for oysters was so great that I nearly started a fight at the farmers’ market
Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.
Time for a showdown at the Marylebone Farmers’ Market. It is not normally, you would think, the kind of place one walks to on a Sunday morning with “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” playing on the internal soundtrack, is it? So let me explain.
First, the market. This was billed as one of the chief attractions of the area when I landed in it. I accepted this billing: I am a sucker for artisanal produce, dancing cheeses, chickens so free-range they have to be tracked down with detectives, bread that breaks paving stones if a loaf slips from your hands. Then again, I am not a fan of paying the kind of prices that these people demand. I know that there are economies of scale enjoyed by supermarkets but unavailable to the smallholder, but still . . . paying a fiver for a small bag of stalky spinach is not for me, I’m afraid.
However, there was one attraction that kept me going back week after week: the Maldon Oyster stall. There, for £1 a bivalve, or £5 for six, a jolly bearded fisherman right out of central casting would open oysters for you until either he ran out or you burst. I may be horribly broke all the time but a little luxury on a Sunday is acceptable, I think. It became a ritual: I would go down there with my children and after a while the two eldest would join in. Imagine: a ten-year-old English boy eating oysters! My heart swelled with pride. (I should add that this oyster-eating business represents a personal triumph. I used to get very sick indeed, after a bad oyster experience, every time I tried them again but a wise woman advised me to wait seven years. This advice, which sounds like something out of a fairy tale, actually worked and, touch wood, I have never had a queasy moment since. But it meant my late twenties and early thirties were oyster-free.)
Anyway, one day Beardie Oyster Man decided that doing two London markets every weekend was too much and he decided to drop the Marylebone one and stick with the one off Sloane Square on a Saturday. That’s too much like the suburbs for me but I wish him well. (Free advertising alert: Maldon Oysters really are great.) The slack at Marylebone was taken up by the fish stall on the other side of the car park: smaller and run by a man of sinister mien and pronounced surliness, as opposed to the Cap’n Birdseye warmth of the former. The new oyster man took to his duties with all the bad grace of someone who resents earning an extra 500 quid from upper-middle-class ponces and tourists between the hours of 10 and 2 on a Sunday. He has a high turnover of assistants, for some reason, and often, when serving alone, will not open your oysters for you. I once asked to borrow his knife and do it myself, for I craved some on the spot, and, with the absolute minimum conceivable degree of grace short of outright abuse, said “no”. Internally, I christened him Bunty Oyster Man, or something very like that. (Shift a letter along.)
Last week it snowed and the idea of eating a freezing oyster as the flakes fell on it seemed almost unbearably attractive. Bunty Oyster Man had an assistant; the queue was small; the oysters were there; but the condiments, I noticed, were stashed under the table. The assistant, though, was happy to retrieve them; but Bunty Oyster Man said no, no one was to be served shucked oysters. I offered to do it myself again. No, said Bunty Oyster Man. That evening I resolved, next Sunday, to go along prepared, like the Walrus and the Carpenter, with my own knife, vinegar and pepper. If he was going to be a bunt about opening my oysters, I’d do it in front of him.
This was an idea that had a lot more mileage in it after a bottle of Shiraz than when considered in total sobriety on a Sunday morning, especially as Bunty Oyster Man looks like the kind of man who beats his fish up if they don’t behave themselves. But I was determined and, with the Beloved, set off for the market prepared to do my own shucking, if he couldn’t be shucked to do mine. We timed our arrival for high noon (hence the soundtrack mentioned above).
You can guess the rest. He opened the oysters with no more than his usual ill-temper – they were quite delicious and I even said so – and honour all round was saved. But he will have to be on his guard. I can quite understand how a stallholder can have contempt for his customers but there are limits. One day, there will be a reckoning. The Marylebone Farmers’ Market will be renamed Hadleyville, and I will afterwards also answer to the name of Gary Cooper.