Friday, 23 May 2008

Of empresses and paupers

The oyster has always seemingly been both rich man and poor man’s food.
In Colchester, England it was the parish duty to keep up the oyster resource so the poor did not starve. The lavish banquets featuring oysters and orgies in Rome must have been about a sense of status and power displayed by serving oysters brought from far off lands. That was Rome’s real opulence. It was not just a good taste, it was a taste of a subjugated land and taxes and extreme wealth. Here is my oyster from my lands in Gaul, in Colchester, in Wessex, in St Just or wherever. Taste it. This is proof of my omnipotence. In a world before people travelled any great distance, here was a flavour of another part of the globe. Eating oysters was gastronomic travel.

Shakespeare has Alexis say in Anthony and Cleopatra

“Say, the firm Roman to great Egypt sends
This treasure of an oyster; at whose foot,
To mend the petty present, I will piece
Her opulent throne with kingdoms; all the east,
Say thou, shall call her mistress.”

And not just for the Romans either because other European kings and queens behaved similarly, notably the French. Queen Victoria too was partial to a Connecticut Blue Point oyster, although she found the shells a bit rough and had them filed down smooth for her.

As always it seems with oysters, they have managed to inhabit more than one universe, more than one culture, more than one science, more than one interpretation, more than one persona, at the same time.. How far has that changed at all, when grand restaurants today offer oyster menus proffering half a dozen Bakers, Barnstables, Beausoleils, Bedeques or Cape Annes?