We can be thankful that much has changed since Victorian times. We've dispensed with workhouses and got central heating and iPods in return, but one disappointment is the elevation of the oyster from subsistence food to expensive delicacy. Sam Weller's remark in Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers that "poverty and oysters always seem to go together" couldn't be wider of the mark today, when the slippery sea creatures appear on the smartest menus priced at a pound – or even as much as £3.50 – a pop. It is not only the price that puts people off oysters. They are the Marmite of seafood and polarise opinion.
Steve Harris is the head chef and co-owner of Whitstable's Sportsman gastropub, which looks out over the town's abundant oyster beds. He points out that oysters are an acquired taste. "But that's no reason not to try them again." He says. "No one likes their first pint of beer, but they have another one because of peer pressure, and then develop a taste for it. Your first oyster might be like swallowing seawater, but you'll soon find you crave them."
Oyster sales soar in February, so now is a good time to try them. This is partly because February falls in the middle of the traditional September to April oyster season, but mostly because of Valentine's Day, when hopeful lovers invest in a dozen or two to test out their reported aphrodisiac qualities.
The good news, according to oyster expert Ben Wright, is that the rumours hold true, and the high levels of zinc in oysters will certainly give you a "spring in your step". But Wright wants people to appreciate oysters as much more than an annual luxury treat. With his brother-in-law Robin Hancock, Wright runs Wright Bros, an oyster wholesaling outfit which supplies top restaurants including Scott's, The Ivy, Le Caprice, The Wolseley and Mark Hix's Oyster and Chop House. They also have an eponymous stall and restaurant in London's Borough Market, and in 2005 took over the Duchy Oyster Farm on Cornwall's Helford River, where oysters have been grown since Roman times.
Oysters do not have the sort of expensive reputation elsewhere as they do in the UK. In Ireland they're swilled down with a pint of Guinness and it is easy to buy jars of shucked oysters in the US. It is possible, says Wright, that oysters have developed this image because of their scarcity since the 1980s, when a parasite devastated oyster farms across Britain and France. "It wiped out the entire industry in a matter of years," he explains. "In France they diversified into growing a different species, but we were a bit slow to catch on in the UK. Helford never really recovered properly. The Duchy Oyster Farm had slowly declined over 15 to 20 years, and by the time I took it over it was almost completely derelict."
Now all this is changing and the market in British oysters is growing fast. When Wright Bros started in 2002, Britain was harvesting around 10 million oysters. Now that figure has grown to 15 million, reflecting a new adventurousness among British diners, according to Robin Hancock, who compares oysters to wine. "Different oysters have completely different flavours. At Wright Brothers we always have eight different oysters on the menu and lots of people like to sample them all. Hopefully there's a new generation growing up who don't have that fear of fish and shellfish that is endemic in the UK."
Geographically, Wright's spot in Cornwall is still the perfect location for cultivating oysters. "In theory," he says, "you can grow an oyster anywhere there is salty water, but the real trick is getting the magic combination of salt water and fresh water. The temperature of the water and abundance of plankton are important too." These natural elements come together most effectively in only three places, Helford, Colchester and Whitstable, so if you're looking for a good oyster, checking its provenance would be a good start.
One of the reasons oysters are so unpopular could be because people have sampled poor quality ones. When Wright and Hancock joined the oyster business in 2002 they set about dispelling the received wisdom. "When we set out, the market was dominated by one Irish oyster, which wasn't good quality. We turned up with this new oyster from France and people really responded to the difference in quality. You would open the oyster and the chef's eyes would pop out."
Wright Bros still sells this popular oyster, the Speciale de claire, along with Maldon, Wild Colchester, Lindisfarne, Cumbrae, Carlingford Lough and their own Duchy varieties. These are all Pacific oysters, and can be bought alongside Helford and West Mersea Natives at their online shop. Native and Pacific, or rock, oysters are different species, and natives will cost you almost twice as much. Comparing the two is like looking at red and white wine, or chicken and beef. Pacific oysters are greyish and slightly golden or silver and long and thin; natives are darker, brownish and round and flat. Neither should be stringy or chewy. They should be plump, melt in the mouth and have complex flavours with a distinct aftertaste. Another myth about oyster-eating is that you should open your throat and swallow. "Absolutely not," says Wright. "You would miss out entirely."
If you're still recoiling at the thought of chewing on a salty bivalve (a shellfish which can be opened and split into two parts, like clams), Steve Harris recommends starting out with one of his "angels on horseback", a wild native oyster rolled in lardons and fried very quickly, so the bacon is crisp and the oyster creamy. Harris says many people believe cooking with native oysters is a waste because they are such a delicacy, but their abundance in Whitstable makes it worth the indulgence. Wright thinks it better to leave natives au naturel and simply add a squeeze of lemon before eating. With Pacific oysters he advises grilling them, deep frying them in tempura batter, or adding a stronger flavour, such as Tabasco sauce.
Wright calls oysters "nature's fast food", but they are far healthier than a fat-laden burger and packed with omega 3, and the Duchy Oyster Farm has organic accreditation. He is confident he can bring oysters down from the champagne bars and back to the people. "I've always believed the oyster culture is ready for a renaissance," he says. "It never really went away, because we were such a massive oyster-growing and eating nation, so I always refused to believe our interest in them would just die away. Oysters are part of our culture and psyche and I believe that with a little bit of time and effort people will be really receptive to them."
As well as 13-hour days tending his oyster beds, Wright is busy refitting the Ferryboat Pub on the Helford River, which is due to open in March to serve up oysters and ale.
Derrick West has spent 65 years working in Whitstable's oyster industry. Now aged 80, he has passed on the management of West Whelks, one of the town's biggest oyster retailers, to his son, but he still works most days on the harbour where he has spent his entire life, and his father and grandfather before him as fishermen. In the warmer months you can sit down at the West Whelks stall for a dozen pacific oysters at only 40 pence each, with no need to pay a cover charge or buy expensive wine to accompany your snack. What are you waiting for?
Open sesame: How to unlock an oyster
Ten minutes before opening, bury the oysters in ice in the freezer to weaken their resistance.
You will need an oyster knife or a sturdy one with a short, thick blade. Wearing tough but flexible gloves is advisable.
Take an oyster and scrub under running water to clean. Hold it in one hand, the curved bottom shell in your palm with the flat lid shell facing up.
Carefully manoeuvre the knife into the seam between the two, as close to the hinge as possible. If the oyster is too stubborn, place it on a surface on a folded towel. Hold it firmly in place with one hand and manoeuvre the knife into the seam, pressing diagonally downwards.
When the flat of the knife is deep enough, twist it 90 degrees to break the muscle that holds it shut. Once unlocked, work the blade along the opening until the top shell is easy to twist off. Scrape the meat of the lid into the bottom shell. Try to keep the bottom level so none of its liquid spills.
The oyster is connected to the bottom shell by a muscle that looks like a thick cord. Cut this and the job is done!