From poor man’s food to rich man’s luxury
Oysters are amongst the most British of foods. They are harvested, often by hand, from near the shoreline. The south east coast of England has been home to oyster beds and fisheries for centuries and even supplied the Romans with oysters. But they have not always been a delicacy.
During the 1800s in particular, oysters were a poor man’s food because they were cheap and plentiful. They were often used as fillers in pies instead of expensive meat. Over-harvesting at this time almost destroyed the native oyster in Britain, and also in the USA. And while many people believe our wild native oyster has the best flavour, most oysters we eat today come from commercial farms, which grow Pacific oysters.
Twenty years ago some 160 boats harvested about 1,500 tonnes of oysters a year. Half were from the Solent, near Southampton. Now, a mere 10 boats harvest the Solent's oyster beds, not as a result of over-fishing but because of a parasite that has decimated the oyster population.
The ‘tingle’, a tiny North American snail, has found its way into British seas. A nasty piece of work, it bores a tiny hole in the growing oysters’ shells and sucks out their flesh. There is great concern that the tingle will destroy other oyster beds around the coast, from Cornwall to Kent.
Oysters are a delicacy and unlikely to find their way into the household waste. Nevertheless, the average household in Britain throws away a staggering 300kg of food and drink a year. That’s about £60 a month. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. We can add to that food thrown away by supermarkets and by producers.
Confusion about ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates accounts for more than 1 million tonnes of perfectly edible food ending up in the dustbin or compost heap. Across Britain we also tend to buy too much and collectively end up throwing out 4.2 million tonnes of unwanted, out of date or mouldy food.