Look out over the Thames at low tide and you’ll spot something that gives a real insight into the foodie history of our great city: oyster shells. Londoners have been munching away on oysters for nearly 2000 years, ever since the Romans introduced us to the custom. Today they may be considered a dish for the wealthy, but this wasn’t always the case, and these discarded shells tell the story of London’s original working man’s street food.
The Roman capital of England was Camulodunum, now Colchester. Here, the Romans began to farm oysters. Indeed, they enjoyed English oysters so much, they would even pack them in ice and ship them back to Rome as gifts. A British Roman seaside delicacy, you know, an old school version of a … stick of rock. Today, Colchester and Mersea oysters continue to be considered amongst the finest in the world. On my Secret History of Street Food walk, we visit Richard Haward, a seventh generation oysterman from Mersea, who brings oysters and clams to London every day. We sample some of his delicious wares by stopping in at his stall in Borough Market.
Perhaps, for most, the image conjured up by oysters is that of the glamorous 1920s. The young, trendy crowd using oysters and champagne to fuel their parties and their libidos. Indeed, Cassanova ate 50 oysters every day for breakfast. However, oysters weren’t always the food of the rich. Until as recently as the mid-19thcentury, they were in plentiful supply in the Thames and were easy to farm, so, they were very cheap. They were eaten as snacks on the riverside, their shells serving as handy little plates. As more and more industrial waste began pouring into the river, it became increasingly polluted, which saw the oyster population begin to dwindle. Later, during the World Wars, when beaches were often off limits and many boats were taken to be used in the war effort, the oyster beds were no longer tended to. Oysters became rarer, pricier and… what do you know? Suddenly more fashionable!
Today, oyster numbers have increased again and are gaining in popularity and not just at champagne parties. If you’ve never risked one, I’d highly recommend you give them a try. Native oysters are better eaten in cooler months (September to April), which is when they thrive. There’s also a non-native oyster in British seas called a rock oyster, which can be enjoyed all year round. So, how do you eat one? Well, generally a small squeeze of lemon juice or a little splash of shallot vinegar will help to bring out the flavour, and they should be chewed. It’s all very simple. But if you’re still not sure, perhaps you should join my Secret History of Street Food tour and we can try a Mersea oyster together. And you can trust me… I’m a Colchester girl myself.
Emma Parker and Shaamar Samuel