Back in the 1980s, I once had a peripatetic lunch in London with Michael Broadbent, the delightful chap who was then Director of Fine Wines at Christie's. We had fallen to talking about old wines and old recipes and he had rhapsodised about the beef and oyster pie in a City pub called the George and Vulture, which Dickens mentions several times in The Pickwick Papers. But when he rang to book a table, my drinking companion found the dish was no longer on the menu.
So he devised a literally moveable feast. We began with oysters and a cocktail of Guinness and champagne at Sweetings, then strode out to Pickwick's oak-panelled tavern for steak and kidney pudding, and then to Bow Wine Vaults which was then serving a particularly fine tawny port to accompany the Stilton.
That ambulatory luncheon charted a key point in the history of the British oyster. In the 19th century, the oyster had been a staple diet of the poor. The humble bivalve was eaten in prodigious quantities. In 1860, the three oyster companies in Whitstable alone, employing more than 100 boats and over 500 people, sent 50 million tons of oysters to London. Most of them were eaten by the poorest folk. "Oysters and poverty always seem to go together," as Pickwick's Sam Weller remarked.
Beef and oyster pies and puddings had been a classic Victorian dish. The poorer you were, the more oysters you put in. Rich folk bigged up the amount of beefsteak. But then the see-saw tipped. The meat became less costly than the oysters. Over the years, oysters became so expensive that only the George and Vulture seemed to keep it on the menu. Then it went there, too. Oysters became the rich man's food.
In that mode, the oyster has been undergoing something of a revival in recent years. There are now 40 oyster bars in London and the Loch Fyne and Livebait chains have been spreading oyster consumption at more than £1-a-mollusc throughout the rest of the nation.
"There's been a tremendous revival over the past 10 years," says Robin Hancock, director of Wright Bros Oyster & Porter House in London's Borough Market, which has its own oyster farm and independent oyster wholesaling business. "The smart St James's set has always been fond of quaffing oysters and bars like Wiltons, Bentleys and Greens have always been busy. We set out to make oysters more popular again. We're more spit and sawdust than champagne Charlie." The capital's new outlets are shifting 10,000 oysters a week, according to the food writer Drew Smith, who has just published a comprehensive little volume, Oyster: A World History.
Yet, after all that, the British oyster industry is now teetering on the brink of a new crisis. A new virus, which has never before been seen in Britain, has wiped out more than eight million oysters at a farm in Whitstable. The OsHV-1 virus is, ironically enough for a disease which attacks a foodstuff that has for centuries been regarded as an aphrodisiac, a form of herpes.
It has already devastated the oyster industries in parts of France, Jersey and Ireland, and has led to a ban on the movement of oysters in a containment area in the north Kent coast, Thames and Swale estuary of which Whitstable Bay is part and where oysters have been gathered since Roman times. Though the disease has no effect on humans, it has an 80 per cent death-rate among oysters and no known cure. "It is catastrophic," according to John Bayes, who runs a farm at the centre of the infected area, Seasalter Shellfish, which last year produced 14,000 tons of oysters worth £30m. He fears a "total wipe-out" of the significant investment he has made in seeding new oyster beds.
The scale of the problem is such that, local oystermen estimate, nine out of 10 oysters eaten at the Whitstable Oyster Festival in July were imported from the non-infected parts of Ireland.
"He was a bold man that first ate an oyster," Jonathan Swift once said. But once eaten, that first man was surely captivated by the quintessence of the ocean which is the oyster, as it slips from the iridescent mother-of-pearl bed that is its shell and bursts, as the poet Seamus Heaney once put it, like "a filling estuary" into the waiting mouth and on to "a palate hung with starlight". An oyster is a unique thing, the soft vulnerable body, scented with the sea, salty and flinty, heavy in the mouth, metallic on the tongue, oozing with rich erotic juices, strange, strong and sensual.
Oysters are older than us, older than grass, says Drew Smith, who was for a decade the editor of The Good Food Guide. "The megalithic map of Europe is all along the continent's oyster beds. In the United States, there are middens containing shells from eaten oysters that predate the pyramids. America's great coastal cities – Boston, New York, New Orleans – are all founded on oyster beds, because you know where you find oysters you find clean water and fish and wildlife."
The myths that surround them are as old as history. Pliny thought they were good for the complexion. Casanova thought they boosted the libido; he claimed to eat 50 for breakfast, in his bath, from the breast of his mistress. Those who eat them dice with death, a myth which persists in tabloid newspapers, which love a dodgy oyster story, as headlines about "sewage-filled oysters at the Fat Duck" in 2009 showed. Though as Dr Tom Pickerill of the British Shellfish Association points out, there were only 13 cases of norovirus poisoning from oysters between 2001 and 2008 – compared with several hundred from chicken or unwashed salad.
The reasons for the great decline of what was in 1908 said to be the biggest marine industry in the world are manifold and interrelated. "The initial decline was mainly down to over-fishing," says Richard Green, who runs the Whitstable Oyster Fishery. "Over the centuries, since the Romans, people knew they should take only around 20 per cent of the available stocks in any year – but they got greedy." They began eating the oysters which should have been the seed stock of the future. The beds declined rapidly.
That was not all. The nation's oyster beds were neglected significantly during the First and Second World wars. Frozen winters in 1929, 1940, 1947 and 1963 wiped out nearly all the native stocks. More recently, a growing yachting leisure industry painted the underside of its boats with an anti-barnacle paint which was toxic to oysters. Run-off from fertilisers, weed-killers and pesticides has polluted waters, as has industrial pollution from paper mills and other factories. New predators on oysters – snails, limpets and molluscs – arrived from abroad in the bilge water of foreign ships.
In the 1960s, the British government tried to revivify the industry by introducing Pacific rock oysters to augment the declining native varieties. A younger John Bayes was in the forefront of the move in 1965. Against many predictions, it was a huge success.
The rock oyster is now the standard British oyster; around 30,000 tons of them were produced last year, compared to just 500 tons of native oysters. Unlike natives, which spawn in the summer months, rock oysters can be eaten all the year round, rather than only in months whose names contain the letter "r".
But it is these newer rock oysters that the OsHV-1 herpes virus is targeting. No one really knows why. Some scientist have speculated that it is to do with climate change, since the virus flourishes in warmer waters. Others suspect it may be due to over-intensive cultivation. "All living organisms have herpes, some people say, but it only presents itself when they are in poor condition," says Richard Green.
There is an irony in that. Many in the industry believe that, handled properly, the oyster could be a solution to the global food crisis. "Oyster farming has a very light footprint ecologically," says Green. "It's quite different from salmon farming where you introduce intensive amounts of feed and antibiotics into the water. All oysters need is good clean water. An oyster is only as good as the water in which it grows. An oyster is a barometer of water quality."
The taste of an oyster is determined not by the type or provenance of the seed-oyster, but by the character of the waters in which it is fattened. The taste changes significantly from place to place – The British Shellfish Association has just published a tasting guide to Britain's top 23 oysterbeds – and can even vary through the year as the plankton on which the oysters feed changes. Like wines which vary with their terroir, oysters can be sweet, salty, earthy, nutty, silky, steely or even melony.
That quality could be even higher, laments Drew Smith, were it not for the reluctance of the Department of the Environment to police European laws on water purity. "The Government won't enforce quite sensible EU rules because they want to protect the interests of the water companies."
But it is not just quality, but also quantity, that can be regenerated with depurated coastal waters. Unlike the exploitation of other natural resources, like mining or deep-sea fishing, this is environmental capital which can be renewed. "Oyster farming is good for the environment, not destructive or exploitative of it," says Smith. "In the United States, President Obama has the navy sewing oyster beds back."
Bays like Chesapeake, which for hundreds of years was one of the most productive fisheries in the United States – but whose succulent oysters have been close to extinction – are now the subject of a 25-year $6bn clean-up. Obama has set tough targets for Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania to reduce the amount of pollutants flowing into the 200-mile-long estuary. The scheme is also addressing air pollution, land conservation and rebuilding depleted oyster and fish stocks.
That kind of activity is needed in the UK. Richard Green hopes a new wind farm off Herne Bay, in which oyster dredgers will not be permitted to work, will create a new seed-bed for the waters of the area. "I can see that becoming thick with oysters," he says. But Drew Smith feels that such piecemeal approaches will not be enough.
"We need politicians here with the imagination of Obama," he insists. Smith wants big creative schemes, as well as a more diligent application of EU rules on water purity, which he claims, at present, civil servants are not enforcing because of the power of the water companies and their lobbyists. He also wants changes in the laws governing the ownership of estuarine tidal zones, and the land beneath the low water mark. "Our laws on who owns the seabed go back to Magna Carta or even King Canute," he points out. "There is no legal protection for people who invest in cleaning up the estuary or seeding the oyster beds. You can put £100,000 worth of seed-oysters into the estuary and find they move to someone else's land. It creates a disincentive to invest."
With the right conditions, Richard Green believes the oyster could become a universal food. "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," he says.
Nor even ethical arguments. The two main arguments for vegetarianism are that animals should not be killed because they feel pain and that their cultivation is environmentally harmful. But since oysters lack a central nervous system, and farming of them is not just environmentally sustainable but beneficial to the eco-systems, the potency of the classic arguments is significantly reduced. Even the high priest of animal rights, the philosopher Peter Singer, author of the original Animal Liberation, has said that he sees "no good reason for avoiding eating sustainably produced oysters".
And as for those who find oysters just too slithering a sensation in the mouth, production in large quantities would open the prospect – now verging on the heretical to most oyster lovers – that they could be widely cooked. Trendy metropolitan eateries like Mark Hix's Oyster and Chop House are already at it, although the eponymous chef concedes that he doesn't put too many oysters in his steak and oyster pie, because they are so expensive. "Originally the reason for bringing the two together was to add bulk through the oysters to the steak which was the delicacy. Today, we just put in three oysters to add a bit of fishiness," he says.
Rather, says Drew Smith, oysters should come in a glut so that cooks will not feel deferential about experimentation. His book concludes with a fabulous sounding recipe for The Best Oyster Soup in the World, but which would cost about £30 a panful to cook on present prices.
A glut would be good for all of us. "Oysters are about the healthiest food you can eat in terms of nutritional value," he concludes. They contain a balance of protein, vitamins and minerals – principally zinc, copper, iron and selenium. They are rich in vitamins A and B12 and are great for low-cholesterol diets. "If we can weather this difficult time, we could make the oyster feed the world," says Richard Green, before adding a bitter addendum. "I sound like a salesman, but I have almost nothing to sell".
British oysters: a taster's guide
Caledonian (Loch Creran)
Plump, silky and with a pleasant tang – the oysters served on 'The Titanic'.
Bold and meaty in texture, these Hebridean oysters taste woody and nutty with a sugary finish.
Redolent of woods, these have a sharp and pointy aroma of salt and brine.
The sustainable beds produce some of the plumpest oysters with a flavour of citrus and nuts.
A neutral nose with a faint sense of sea-breeze and a distinct flavour of melon.
Silky, meaty, with an astringent aroma of sea salt and brine. Has an earthy base reminiscent of a forest floor.
One of only three oyster beds in Wales, their distinct salt and pepper flavour gives them a unique edge.
Taking 5 years to mature, these Cornish oysters are thought to have a superior flavour to their faster-growing counterparts.
Duchy Special (Helford)
Firm, plump, intense and with a body bursting with nutty flavours.
Frenchman's Creek (Helford)
Firm and plump with a delicate nose suggestive of samphire and geranium; the finish that hints at tree bark.
Gathered using zero-carbon boats which don't damage the beds, Fal oysters have a salty liquor and sweet flesh.
Flushed with the flavours of the Avon estuary, the fishermen of Bigbury Bay eat them with smoked bacon.
A light freshwater nose that belies strong flavour of cucumber and lettuce.
Mild in flavour with overtones of cut grass and walnut shell; a silky texture.
Oysters from the organic Dorset coast are rich in tones of pecan nut, avocado and cucumber.
A rich-bodied oyster with the flavour of salted butter and a stainless-steel finish.
Thin and delicate with a finish that builds to a lingering tang of stainless steel and ends with a prick of citrus fruit.
Meaty and chewy with a crisp metallic smack in the finish; it has a mild taste of cut grass with hints of walnut shell and driftwood.
Maldon (rock oyster)
Richly flavoured walnut and avocado oyster set off by a whiff of sea breeze; smooth and meaty texture.
A very distinct briny nose, then a complex flavour of salted butter followed by sweet cashew. A plump, firm and meaty texture.
From oysterbeds harvested since 1189, these oysters have a firm, creamy texture. It has a very clear flavour of salted butter.
Source: the British Shellfish Association