Monday, 26 May 2008

Early cultivation

The Persian wars of the fifth century BC probably introduced the Greeks to the pearl and trade with the east. As shipbuilders and sailors the Greeks might have plundered oysters from further afield but by 400 BC they were laying out twigs and pottery in organised shallow ponds to attract larvae. At the time Taranto on the eastern boot of Italy was a Spartan port and is still even today an oyster growing area.

Homer had already observed in Book XVI of the Iliad written some 300 years earlier:

“How active he is and how well he dives. If we had been at sea this fellow would have dived from the ship’s side and brought up as many oysters as the whole crew could stomach…”

Aristotle in the third century BC noted that oysters would be moved from one bed to another to fatten them. The Greeks christened the oyster – ostreum and so the Latin derivation ostrea edulis literally means edible bones. One Roman writer Himilco referred to Brittany as the Ostrymnian promontory.

The oyster ingratiated itself to Greek society in other ways. Shells were used as ballot papers for elections. Voters etched their mark on the mother-of-pearl shell, from which act of choosing one faction or the other derives the usage ostracism.

Pliny records the first Roman attempt at oyster culture around the Bay of Naples probably around the turn of the first millennia.

“The fist person who formed artificial oyster beds was Sergius Orata, who established them at Baiae, in the time of Lucius Crassius the orator, just before the Marsic War. This was done by him, not for the gratification of gluttony, but of avarice, as he contrived to make a large income by this exercise of his ingenuity…; at a later date, however, it was thought worthwhile to fetch oysters all the way from Brindisium, at the very extremity of Italy; and in order that there might exist no rivalry between the two flavours, a plan has recently been hit upon, of feeding the oysters of Brindisium in Lake Lucrinus, famished as they must naturally be after so long a journey.”

A more charitable thesis is that the beds at Lucrinus were being eyed up as possible naval bases and Orata was anxious to save the oyster trade. Orata was a well known businessman who made other fortunes selling villas and inventing shower baths.

His procedures are still broadly followed today. He cleared the grounds of other marine life, placed seed oysters in their place and checked them constantly to be sure they had enough room to grow to a good size sorting them regularly, getting rid of pests that attached to their shells and keeping them clean of silt. More revolutionary, he arranged stones in a pile under the water and placed the mature oysters on them, then surrounded them with stakes and faggots suspended in the waters so as he could catch the spawn and they would be encouraged to attach where he wanted them.

Interestingly the lake at Baiae was also used to farm the admired gilthead bream which were also hand fed oysters to fatten them up.

The name Lucrino it is sometimes said therefore gives us lucrum, the gain made out of the oyster-culture, being a material gain, profit, but also with connotations of avarice which in turn was translated into filthy lucre. Pliny’s sarcastic quip at Orata has stuck down the years.