Oysters have been consumed for their nutritional and amorous qualities for millennia. The bivalve mollusk, in its various forms, inhabits the coastal plains of many of the world’s great civilizations. The Vikings ate oysters as a matter of course, Greeks farmed oysters, a treatise was written in China on oysters in 850 BC, and the North Atlantic coast is littered with the remains of Native oyster weirs, storage ponds, and shell heaps.
In Europe, native oyster beds are found from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. Although the Greeks dabbled in oysters, the Romans elevated oyster consumption to new levels. Upon discovering the Breton oysters, the Romans were so enamored that they constructed a series of icehouses and carts to transport the chilled mollusks to the privileged palates of Rome. By the fourth century, the Romans were cultivating oysters in the Thames River. Every great Roman statesman, military hero, and emperor enjoyed feasts of oysters.
During the Renaissance, European royalty began their banquets with an obligatory feast of oysters. However, the oyster was not destined to be a treat reserved for only the very privileged. By the 18th century, the oyster became a fashionable food of the bourgeoisie. Over the next century oyster cellars proliferated and became common meeting places to have a drink, discuss the politics of the day, and appreciate the delectable qualities of the oyster.
Appreciation of the oyster endures in Europe to this day. The French, with their tradition of high gastronomic and culinary culture, remain the most prolific consumers of high quality oysters.
In North America, the oyster was a staple of the Native North American diet in coastal areas. The delightful North American oyster, Crassostrea Virginica, was adopted by settlers who learned from the Natives how to stew and cook the precious comestible.
By the 1850s, oyster consumption had entirely permeated the cultures of the young North American nations. It was said that only the rich consumed oysters and Champagne, while the poor ate oysters and beer. At the end of the century, fashionable and bustling New York was the largest consumer of oysters. Oyster boats delivered over six million oysters a day to its wholesalers. As well, every large town of any note had at least one popular oyster cellar.
Although high quality oyster availability has waxed and waned in North America over the past century, it has always remained a favourite of great chefs and gourmets. The discriminating North American palate is rapidly discovering the delights of fresh Atlantic oysters once again. From trendy oyster bars in upscale entertainment districts to private gatherings amongst cherished friends, oysters are appearing (and disappearing!) wherever food connoisseurs gather.