20 December 2017

The Wright Brothers: Oysters for All

Seafood specialists The Wright Brothers have just opened their latest London restaurant at Battersea Power Station. Ben and Robin Wright, actually brothers-in-law, originally got into the food business as oyster wholesalers, and it’s probably fair to say that oysters are what they’re best known for: they started selling the delicious shellfish in 2002.

According to the brothers:

‘Back then, in the UK, oysters were eaten by a select few in expensive restaurants. It was all very stuffy and formal and not much fun.

‘We thought they should be available to everyone. That was, and still is, our big idea.’

Among other varieties the Wright Brothers restaurants offer native or ‘flat’ oysters, the British species Ostrea edulis. British native oysters have always been particularly favoured by aficionados, and in their earliest appearances in recorded history they were – as they mostly are today – something of an elite food. The ordinary British people of two millennia ago don’t seem to have been big oyster enthusiasts, but their Roman conquerors were. British native oysters were exported all the way to Rome and considered the equal of the finest Italian varieties, fit to be eaten at the Emperor’s court.

The Roman writer Juvenal tells us that one of Emperor Domitian’s courtiers was a noted gastronome:

No one in my time had more skill in the eating art than he. He could tell at the first bite whether an oyster had been bred at Circeii, or on the Lucrine rocks, or on the beds of Rutupiae.

Rutupiae was the original Roman invasion base and town on the Kent coast, today the site of Richborough Castle. Roman writers commonly referred to all of Britain as the ‘Rutupine shore’, and they called all British oysters wherever they came from ‘Rutupian’. Juvenal is telling us that British native oysters were considered one of the best varieties known to the vast Empire’s greatest gourmets. Roman aristocrats often ate their oysters raw accompanied by fine wines, just as well-heeled diners in 21st-century London often wash theirs down with champagne.

But oysters haven’t always been an expensive luxury. In 19th-century Britain, native oysters had actually become a poor man’s food. Charles Dickens noted the fact in the Pickwick Papers:

‘It’s a wery remarkable circumstance, Sir,’ said Sam, ‘that poverty and oysters always seem to go together.’
‘I don’t understand you, Sam,’ said Mr. Pickwick.
‘What I mean, sir,’ said Sam, ‘is, that the poorer a place is, the greater call there seems to be for oysters. Look here, sir; here’s a oyster-stall to every half-dozen houses. The street’s lined vith em. Blessed if I don’t think that ven a man’s wery poor, he rushes out of his lodgings, and eats oysters in reg’lar desperation.’

In 19th-century London oysters were cheap, and consumed in huge quantities. Oysters sold from stalls would usually have been pickled with vinegar and spices, rather than eaten fresh and raw. It has been estimated that Londoners ate more than 100 million every year in Dickensian times. Oysters were often used as an economical cooking ingredient, rather than being eaten on their own: a favourite of the era was beef and oyster pie, in which a small amount of expensive beef was bulked out with lots of cheap oysters. As Dickens suggests, oysters were probably one of the few consolations of a poor man’s life. Pickled oysters were commonly served as bar snacks in pubs, and people living near oyster beds often collected their own. Indeed, this would seem to have been the case far back into pre-agricultural times. Oysters pre-date the human race, so it’s likely that the earliest hunter-gatherers ate them if they could get them.

But what happened to 19th-century Britain and its culture of oysters for everyone?

The answer comes in several parts. One factor was undoubtedly overfishing, with rich oyster populations rapidly reduced below sustainable levels. A major problem is that young oysters need to anchor themselves to something to survive and grow. In the wild they often attach themselves to the accumulated shells of their ancestors: but if these have all been dredged up by fishermen trying to get the last few living adults, the next generation can’t get a footing. As hungry London gradually ate up all the oysters in its own Thames estuary the fisheries shifted to Essex, Sussex and then further. Oyster farming, which had been in use as far back as Roman times, became more common.

Another problem was pollution of the oysters’ water, often by human sewage. This didn’t always cause a problem for the oysters themselves, but it could lead to fatal results for people eating them. The problem seems to have been exacerbated by the fact that in some cases sewers were deliberately laid leading to oyster beds, so that the shellfish would clean the water; also, it was alleged in at least one case that an oyster farmer had deliberately seeded his oysters near sewage outfalls to make them grow better.

Unsurprisingly, by the early 20th century oysters had acquired a dangerous reputation. In one especially unfortunate case in 1902, contaminated oysters were served at a mayoral banquet in Winchester. Scores of prominent guests became severely ill and several, including the Dean of Winchester, died. The affair became national news and the local oyster industry was devastated, though it was actually sanitation rather than the oysters which were the problem. Oysters are quite safe to eat nowadays, as there are strict rules on water quality and purification after harvesting.

Further problems struck the British oyster industry as the 20th century went on. There were several very cold winters, in which rivers froze and oyster beds died out. Early anti-fouling paints used on boats poisoned the shellfish. Foreign competitors like slipper limpets, which take over the oysters’ attachment points, and predators like the American oyster drill arrived. As supplies dwindled, prices went up. In Britain, oysters have gradually become a luxury food.

In the 1960s the government stepped in, attempting to revive the oyster industry by permitting introduction of the Pacific oyster, Crassostrea gigas. This is also known as the ‘rock’ oyster, and was originally called the ‘Japanese’ oyster: salesmen and restaurants in America are thought to have renamed it ‘Pacific’ due to Japan’s role in World War II. Confusingly, C gigas had actually been introduced for farming in Britain earlier on in 1926, under the name ‘Portuguese’. Rather than arriving via America, the ‘Portuguese’ branch of the Pacific/Japanese/rock oyster family had reached Europe during the 16th or 17th century, brought to Lisbon’s Tagus estuary by Portuguese ships returning from the Far East.

Pacific oysters were chosen for Britain in the 1960s because they grow faster and have a higher survival rate than British natives, and also because it was thought that they would be unable to spawn in cool British waters. This meant that there would be no risk of them driving the natives into extinction: young Pacific oysters would only come from hatcheries. This also meant that there would be no need to avoid harvesting them during the summer breeding season, as with British natives, as this part of their life cycle would be taking place in the hatchery rather than the sea. This is why you can nowadays buy farmed rock oysters even when there’s no ‘r’ in the month, and it’s quite all right to eat them then. The old no-oysters-unless-there’s-an-r-in-the-month rule was originally also for safety’s sake, quite apart from the breeding season, as lower temperatures meant less risk of an infected or rotten oyster. In these days of refrigeration and food standards that’s no longer a consideration.

As it turns out, Pacific oysters can breed in Britain and in some locations they do threaten native populations: for instance in Cornwall’s River Fal. Pacific oysters have, however, been a commercial success. The great majority of British-produced oysters are nowadays Pacifics, and the UK has become an oyster exporter – though not on a large scale. Irish oyster production is several times that of Britain, and French output much greater still.

Oyster advocates like the Wright Brothers believe there is scope for production to expand greatly: some even believe that this could be a solution to world hunger and malnutrition, as oyster farming is one of the lowest-impact forms of food production and oysters are amazingly nutritious. There’s no need to add large quantities of feed and antibiotics to the water, as there is with farmed salmon, for instance: oysters actually make the water cleaner, and modern oyster farming requires it to be quite clean to begin with.

‘If a fraction of the effort, science and capital that goes into agriculture went into oysters, in a few years time, instead of chicken nuggets, kids would be asking for deep-fried oysters. The oyster could feed Africa. There are no ecological arguments against it,’ oyster farmer Richard Green told the independent.

It’s even been argued that oysters should qualify as a vegan food, as they have no central nervous systems and thus cannot feel pain. Ethicist and green activist Peter Singer took this position in the first edition of his book Animal Rights, for example. And a big oyster industry could be a big boost to the British economy, creating a large new source of value, jobs and exports without any displacement to existing businesses or resources.

If a great expansion in oyster farming should come, we might see a return to the days when the tasty shellfish were a cheap staple. There have been positive signs of a resurgence in recent times: you can’t yet buy deep-fried oyster nuggets for the kids at popular burger franchises, and jars of pickled oysters are seldom seen even on the bars of the fanciest pubs, but beef and oyster pies are once again to be had in London. The Wright Brothers sometimes offer them, though for now the proportions of Dickensian times are reversed. A pie made mostly of oysters would be prohibitively expensive today, especially if it was made with relatively rare British natives.

The key to getting supply up and prices down, as the Wright Brothers and many others argue, is to widen the appeal of oysters. The idea that they should always be eaten raw is part of the problem here, as is the oyster’s luxury image.

‘What we want to see now is a sustainable expansion of the oyster industry,’ according to Dr Jon King of Bangor University’s School of Ocean Sciences.

‘Raw with champagne is not the only way to eat your oysters – and we want to move away from some of the snobbery of that.’

There are various obstacles in the way of a return to healthy, eco-friendly and economically sound mass oyster eating in Britain: but perhaps the biggest one, as with various other forms of seafood largely ignored by the British, is a lack of public demand.

That’s something we can all help with, simply by eating more oysters.

Footnote: The Wright Brothers are the third set of well-known Wright brothers to be associated with the Battersea Power Station neighbourhood. The famous American Wright brothers, inventors of the first successful aeroplane, licensed their design for series manufacture in 1908 by the Short brothers, ‘the first aircraft manufacturers in the world’, who had their factory under the Battersea railway arches at the time. Neighbouring arches also held the works of the British Wright brothers, Howard and Warwick, generally assessed by aviation historians as Britain’s premier aeroplane makers in the early years from 1908 to 1911.