Saturday, 10 May 2008

A taste of the Neolithic

Take one in your hand. Feel the rough wrinkled grey stone shell, its smoothness ripped by currents and rolling estuary debris smashing into it like marine meteorites; feel how it has rubbed up against the hardness of its cousins, its very shape an archaeology of struggle from when it was infinitesimally small to now when it has grown to the size of the palm of your hand in two to three years; every daily mark etched from its stoic battle with ebb and flow of tides, dangers from marauding predators and incessant fight to hold on, just to hold on to the rest of the colony, to hold on for grim life. One of the (many) mysteries of an oyster is why should its shell be so wizened and riven, troubled really, where the shells of other molluscs like mussels and clams are so notably smooth and shiny?

Hold it cupside down. Tip the point of the blade into the hinge there at the base, push, twist and slide the knife round the edge and flip open. Inside is gleaming white from the nacre the oyster secretes to makes its shell. This is mother-of-pearl, the mother of pearl and yes it is incredibly hard and will last for years, centuries, millennia even, certainly longer than your or me.

And there in the middle spreads the delicate flesh, laid out as neatly as a freshly made bed, neither flesh nor fowl, but bivalve, inhabitor of the half world between sea and land; tenaciously attaching to the one; inhaling the other.

Suck it down. What do you taste? You taste the sea, of course. But you also taste probably uniquely the only food that survives from Neolithic time, the only food we might say with any certainty was also eaten in the stone age by cave men. Their value was not simply edible.

Their shells survive. So sometimes do their pearls, which feature in the birth of all the great religions. Until the 1500s pearls were so valuable that laws were passed to ensure that only royalty could wear them. Armies could be raised by the sale of a single orb.

Through time the oyster provides a constant, a sign post back into pre-history. The megalithic map of Europe overlays precisely with the oyster coves. Oyster shell middens found in the Mississippi, Philippines, Japan predate the building of the pyramids. Even when we do not know who these people were, the oyster leaves a legacy of their imprint on the planet.

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