For thousands of years, since prehistoric times, oysters have been eaten as food in any part of the world in all coastal areas where they could be found, either it is Australia or Egypt. They have been cultivated in Japan from at least 2000 BC. The French seaside resort of Cancale in Brittany and the town of Whitstable in United Kingdom are both noted for oyster farming since Roman times.
In Roman Empire people consumed tons of oysters. No wonder that a smart merchant Sergius Orata of the Roman Republic started cultivating oysters to make money and is considered the first major producer and seller. In fact, Orata was a hydraulic engineer and using his considerable knowledge, he built a sophisticated cultivation system, including channels and locks, to control the tides. Craving to take advantage of the Romans’ liking for shellfish as food, he developed many new techniques for breeding oysters. This included the practice of surrounding mature oysters with twigs, to which their young (known as “spats”) could affix themselves and thus be easily transplanted wherever desired. This allowed for the creation of artificial oyster beds, which he surrounded with channels and dams in order to protect them from the sea tides. He was so famous for this, the Romans used to say he could breed oysters on the roof of his house. Actually, he was a noted innovator.
“Table with Parrots” (detail) by Jan Davidsz de Heem, 1650
Oysters are an excellent source of zinc, iron, calcium, and selenium, as well as vitamin A and vitamin B12. Oysters are low in energy; one dozen of raw oysters contains 110 kilocalories. They are also rich in protein (approximately 9g in 100g of pacific oysters).
Now, after this preamble we are going to the point: traditionally, oysters are considered to be an aphrodisiac because they are rich in amino acids, which trigger increased levels of sex hormones, and zinc that aids the production of testosterone. Or maybe because they resemble female sex organs?
When the Dutch first arrived in Manhattan during the 17th century, the island was covered in oyster beds, and oysters were a treat they, as well as the native population of Lenape Indians, thoroughly enjoyed. Throughout the 19th century, oyster beds in New York Harbor became the largest source of oysters worldwide. On any day in the late 19th century, six million oysters could be found on barges tied up along the city’s waterfront. New York’s oystermen became skilled cultivators of their beds, which provided employment for hundreds of workers and nutritious food for thousands.
"Still-Life" with Oysters by Alexander Adriaenssen
"The Oyster Luncheon" by Jean François de Troy, 1735
Legends say that Casanova, who has become so famous for his often complicated and elaborate affairs with women that his name is now synonymous with “womanizer”, used to eat 50 oysters for breakfast.
“The Oyster Luncheon” was painted in 1735 by Jean-François de Troy, a painter at the court of Louis XV. He received a commission from the king to paint a bourgeois lunch of the era for his palace in Versailles. On the picture, the guests were enthusiastically tucking into oysters. This is the first time in the history of art when sparkling champagne was depicted in a painting
Eventually, rising demand exhausted many of the beds. Oysters’ popularity has put ever-increasing demands on wild oyster stocks. This scarcity increased prices, converting them from their original role as working-class food to their current status as an expensive delicacy.
People either love oysters or hate them. There is no middle ground. Oysters may or may not cause people to fall in love with each other, but there are many people who have fallen in love with oysters themselves.