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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 is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

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