- Oysters are a marker of decedence and luxury, but this wasn’t always the case.
- Just 200 years ago the shellfish was handed out as a free bar snack, or used to bulk out pies.
- At the height of its popularity New Yorkers were eating 1 million oysters every day.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: Oysters are a sure sign of high-end decadence, but look back 200 years and they were handed out as free bar snacks. So what made them the luxury food that they are today?
Oysters have been around for a while. Estimates put the shellfish at around 300 million years old, at least, and humans have been enjoying them for centuries.
Oyster cultivation was invented by Sergius Orata, a Roman engineer also often credited with the invention of underfloor heating, and since his invention, oyster farming has become big business. While you may be seeing oysters on the menu more these days, their popularity now is nothing compared to just 200 years ago.
Oyster sales boomed from the early 19th century onwards, and the shellfish were sold as street food across London, Paris, and New York as they remained a cheap and accessible snack to many. In 1860, the small British seaside town of Whitstable alone was sending 50 million tons of oysters to London each year, and by 1900, New York was eating 1 million oysters every day.
But as their popularity grew, so did the problems. Industrialisation and dredging of the waters in England led to overfishing, and as more people moved to the coast, more and more sewage ended up dumped in oyster-growing waters. Soon, there were outbreaks of typhoid and other diseases, and many oyster beds had to be closed.
Hard winters and new diseases killed off many of the remaining native oysters and gave the shellfish a bad reputation that lasted for years to come.
There’s something else that kept the price of oysters down around the turn of the century: child labour. In the early 20th century, American photographer Lewis Hine captured photographs of many of the children working in the oyster industry, even photographing 4-year-old Mary, who had apparently shucked two pots of oysters each day.
Things had to change, though. We soon realised the importance of clean water in the oyster-growing process and outlawed child labour. Making oysters environmentally safe and ethical to grow came at a cost, as the shellfish take a lot of work to produce. And now when oysters are raised, the environment they’re grown in is one of the main considerations.
Andre Hughes, Oyster Farmer: “Here, there’s no industry, there’s very little even farming here. What you’ve got out in the loch is just everything that is natural in the loch, so they’re feeding on the best possible feed that you could want and there couldn’t be an any more natural product.”
Narrator: Each oyster takes two to three years to mature, and they start out microscopically small. The tiny shellfish are grown in hatcheries. When they’re large enough, they’re transplanted to their final growing place.
Hughes: “Well, we get the oysters in from our hatchery when they’re about your thumbnail size. We will grow them in these baskets for approximately two to three years, and then we’ll send them to the depuration centre for depurating, and then for pack and for dispatch.”
Narrator: At Loch Fyne, every oyster is depurated, a process that cleans the oysters and removes any dangerous bacteria. Every single oyster must be checked by hand. Making sure that each oyster is shipped live is paramount.
Hughes: “Believe it or not, we sell roughly about 35,000 oysters every week out here, and every single oyster is individually checked. So, what we would do is when we’re packing the oysters, we’d pick up two oysters, and we would tap them together. Now, you can obviously see that one’s dead, but when you’re packing thousands at a time, you wouldn’t necessarily see it, and sometimes it’s only open just a little tiny bit, but when you tap that oyster, you can hear it almost straightaway, and that is the best way to tell if an oyster’s gonna reach its shelf life, whether it should be discarded.”
Narrator: Oysters may only have a nine-day shelf life, but that doesn’t stop them being shipped all across the globe, and their popularity and image as a luxury treat means that their demand is only going to rise.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in September 2019.
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