Oysters

In addition to finding a fully loaded .22 revolver with a dildo over the barrel in Pickton’s stuff, the police also found night vision goggles, two pairs of faux fur lined handcuffs and a small bottle of ‘Spanish fly’ aphrodisiac. The Spanish fly is an emerald green beetle named after the Greek word lytta, for rage. That it is an aphrodisiac, only tells half the story, for the cantharidin, the odourless and colourless chemical that is secreted by the beetle, is also something that has been classified as an extremely hazardous substance in Section 302 of the US Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. It is lethal. Swallow too much of it and you die. Yet it has also been used as an aphrodisiac for as it eases its way through the urinary tract it can rouse the genitals, increasing localized blood flow to eye-popping effect. Yet given the risks getting the dosage right it all suggests, that if you are after a little sexual pick me up, it might be better to stick to oysters.

The oyster has long been regarded as the starter for choice of the hungry lover. Casanova, the 18th century man about town, used to eat fifty oysters for breakfast every day which perhaps helps to explain his fabled prowess. Research has discovered that the rare amino acids found in oysters trigger sex hormones which mean our Casanova would likely have found it very difficult to hold down an office job without quickly breaching HR’s ‘groping’ policy. Fifty oysters; that is a lot of aphrodisiac for a week day. It’s why restaurants stick to serving plates by the dozen. Casanova, who seduced more than a hundred women, shared his tricks in Volume Six, yes Six, of his memoirs.  “I placed the shell on the edge of her lips and after a good deal of laughing, she sucked in the oyster, which she held between her lips. I instantly recovered it by placing my lips on hers.” It’s easy to imagine what happened next.

It must have been a hungry man who first swallowed an oyster mind. He would have had to prise the shell open with bare hands, a job that is hard enough using an oyster knife. Indeed Jonathan Swift, the satirist, essayist and political pamphleteer, so commented: “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster”, one assumes given Jonathan Swift spanned the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, that a little dab-dab of Tabasco or mignotte sauce had also yet to be put with a live oyster. And that they are, alive. Beware the open shell. Don’t reach for the lemon, don’t do anything if the oyster in your hand has an open shell. The oyster is dead. If the oyster is dead, do not eat it.

Much like fine wine, raw oysters have complex and subtle flavours that vary depending on the sea bed from which they are pulled. The texture is soft and slippery, but crisp on the palate. If you don’t want them raw, fret not. They can be smoked, boiled, baked, fried, roasted, stewed, canned, pickled, steamed, and if you must, broiled. They are an excellent source of zinc, iron, calcium, Vitamin A and Vitamin B. They are rich in protein. They are also, which was good news for the prolific Casanova, low on calories. Which perhaps explains why they go so well with Guinness. A pint of Guinness being stuffed full, as it is, with enough calories to render supper irrelevant.

A group of oysters is called a bed and, clustered together, they provide a habitat for much other marine life. Some live intertidal, some subtidal. The little nooks and crannies found in their shells provide ideal safe zones for many small animals. The sea being for small marine life, like Brixton in the mid-80s: not safe. An oyster bed can also increase the surface area of the sea bed, fifty fold which is excellent news for barnacles and sea anemones. They filter large amounts of water to live and breathe, opening and shutting their shells in tune with very strict circatidal and circadian rhythms. Indeed one oyster can filter up to 5 litres of water per hour. For those who gasp “MORE!”, there is a website MulluSCAN eye which is dedicated to following the daily valve behavior of oysters. As niche a website as you are likely to find.

Whilst oysters are now confined to posh seafood restaurants, that wasn’t always the case and back in 1910 the government reckoned that the oyster industry was the most important industry in the world; something which has the slight ring of the marketing board. That said many of the capital’s most famous fish restaurants today started off as Oyster bars which is something to distract your date with next time you find yourself behind the thick curtain of J Sheekey’s desperately scanning the wine list for something that won’t blow the budget. For those then who can’t get enough of MulluSCAN eye there is always the option to take up competitive shucking. Nominally bracketed as a sport, there are competitions all over the world and those who rise up the ranks will end up in Galway in September for the Guinness World Oyster Opening Championship, the ‘sports’ premier event. Fame comes in many different guises.

So that’s oysters. Better than Spanish fly for a bit of slap and tickle, good with lemon, and for those fished out the bottom of the Thames, a very quick way of getting ill.

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