Monday, 26 November 2012

The world's my oyster

Oysters: top –rock; bottom – native.
There are times that we seem to be so scared of random dangers that we allow ourselves – or others – not to experience life fully.

Risk can be rewarding.

But we live in a society where companies tell us that we need to buy antibacterial agents to clean every surface – and then other antibacterial agents to clean our hands, and then still more antibacterial products to clean the surfaces that we touched while reaching to wash our hands with those other antibacterial products.

And different companies (or possibly the same ones) also tell us to buy yogurt drinks to put bacteria back into our bodies.

Presumably, they don’t all waste money on developing, producing and then marketing these products – there is a market for them.

So it’s the old chicken and egg question as to which came first: the fear – or the products that milk that fear.

Not that fear is restricted to what we buy in the shops: it’s also part of what people talk about when they condemn the ’elf ‘n’ safety culture.

Health and safety itself isn’t a problem – people dying or becoming ill because of their work, for instance, is something that any sane person would want to avoid.

The problem, however, is in the culture that uses health and safety as an excuse for not doing something – whether because the person or organisation/company concerned can’t be arsed, or because of a fear of litigation.

And of course fear can also be perfectly healthy and sane – if it’s a block on our doing something genuinely dangerous.

But there is a sense in today’s UK that we seem to be afraid of our own shadows sometimes – in spite of reality. Whether we like the idea of empire or not, Britain punched massively above its weight in creating one – and it didn’t do it on the basis of fear.

Yet today, people are so scared of child abuse, for instance, that they cocoon their children – despite ‘stranger danger’ being so, so, so much less rare than abuse in the home or by trusted, known individuals, they ‘prefer’ to be educated by sensationalist headlines than by facts.

Or there’s the fear-related behaviour mentioned at the top of this piece, whereby people buy those products (presumably) because they don’t understand that natural ones are better or that there is a strengthening of antibiotic resistance that may be at least partly caused by the rise in use of antibacterials in everything from liquid soaps to chopping boards.

On the latter, in Bad Food Britain, Joanna Blythman cites a 1994 study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which showed that bacteria spreads more quickly on plastic chopping boards than on wood.

There’s a reason that beech is the idea wood for a chopping board – it has natural ‘antibacterial’ properties.

Yet even some councils still try to insist that food outlets use plastic chopping boards instead of wooden ones.

But many of us are affected by some form of fear – and I’m far from being an exception to that.

Back in the dim and distant past, I could eat mussels. I quite liked them too, even though this was my pre-foodie days.

However, after two successive incidents, where I was violently ill after eating them, I was rather put off.

Yet later, when I’d become really interested in and in love with real food, I found myself regretting that I had never tasted oysters – and never would.

That thought nagged away for years. I discussed it with Vikki, my Broadway Market fishmonger, who suggested that oysters in general are cleaner than mussels, and that farmed ones would be pretty safe.

This point was mulled.

A month or two ago, I realised that a supplement I’m taking has a warning about not being suitable for anyone with a shellfish allergy – but I can take it with no problem.

So in August, in Collioure, I decided to test this out: I planned to eat one – or more – at a lunchtime. The time was important, so that if I was going to be sick, it would not happen suddenly, when I was in bed in the middle of the night.

But that plan never came to fruition.

Then, with my birthday hoving into view – and it’s a big one – I settled on Corrigan’s of Mayfair for the celebratory dinner. Looking at the menu, The Other Half commented that there was a certain emphasis on oysters.

Okay, not as much as Richard Corrigan’s Bentley’s, which is famous for them; but yes, I had noticed it.

While in one sense having a first taste of something so decadent as an oyster on my half century would have been quite a wonderful way to mark it, I didn’t want to risk having the runs in the middle of the night of my birthday.

There were options. There’s a stall that does them on Broadway Market these days. There’s also a small, independent coffee chop/café just off Columbia Road that does them too on a Sunday morning on a rickety wooden table.

And yesterday, when we pottered down there to go Christmas decoration hunting, I resolved to hunt a new taste experience too.

The very first ever taste.
In the event, I had two. One was a native – rounder and flatter shell – with just a squeeze of fresh lemon. The second was a rock oyster – more of a tear shape, and with the characteristic craggy shell – served with a hint of shallot vinaigrette.

It seems that some people don’t take to them instantly – like tobacco or alcohol, it takes time. I loved them straight away.

My god: they were wonderful. A clear, crisp, fresh taste of the sea.

I wanted more but decided not to risk it.

Yet was that going to be my one and only taste of them?

The afternoon ticked by. I was acutely conscious of every single tiny rumble or comment from my gut.

Please, please be okay.

It was.

I can eat oysters again – and perhaps other shellfish too.

Funnily enough, I mentioned it to a group of colleagues today: the one who I’d discussed it with before – a fellow foodie – was delighted for me, but still (a tad ironically) described it as “shellfish roulette”.

Others almost shivered and expressed the view that what I’d done was far too much of a risk.

See what I mean about fear running your life?

But this isn’t the end of this story.

Way back when I was living on my own in the north west of England, in my twenties, I went for close on a decade without going on holiday.

After moving south for work, and lodging for 18 months with my parents – who were then in Reading, from where I commuted daily to London to sell books to office workers – they dragged me away for a frankly rather strained fortnight in Torquay.

Why no holidays?

Well, I’ve always said that it was the lack of money. And to a large extent, that’s very true. I was (mostly) working, but I was always on very low pay.

But I was also frightened.

From travel agents I got brochures – for skiing trips and for summers in Ibiza. I took them home and spent hours looking at them. They seemed to be filled with young people – just like me – having a good time.

But I was scared. Oh, I was shy and really rather gauche when it came to dealing with my own peers. Very serious, I never knew how to party.

And so I never went any further than gazing longingly at the glossy pages: and then setting them quietly to one side and tying to forget them; only to repeat the exercise with each new season.

A decade ago, I finally went through an adolescence. Better late than never. The cutting free: the fledging – god alone knows how The Other Half put up with it.

Hanging over me ever since, though, has been this fear and this memory of avoiding adventure, of avoiding travel. And I’ve wanted to correct it for a long time.

Next year, I am going to exactly that.

It might not be exotic (whatever that means), but I will travel, outside the UK, on my own.

There are already some plans in place. I’m exhilarated – but nervous at the same time.

But I will do it.

We have one life – and we really shouldn’t waste any of the opportunities that we have. And if we grasp the nettle of our fear later in that life rather than early, then that has to be better than never at all.

Risk can be rewarding.


Watch this space.


  1. Ahhhhhh oysters.

    Somewhere there is a photograph of me, taken outside The Top House, Odsal Top, during my fund raising for the Jack Harrison Memorial. 1 kilo of thawed, frozen oyster meat just about fills a pint glass and I downed it in one, swiftly followed by a pint of Guinness to wash them down.

    Any lover of seafood should make a point of visiting The Jersey Pottery Restaurant and ordering the Seafood Platter. a dustbin lid-sized plate containing: crab, lobster, 6 oysters, langoustines, crevettes, prawn, brown shrimp, ormers, mussells, cockles, whelks and topped off with a slack-handfull of winkles. Seafood heaven.

    1. Wow. Lovely idea.

      The fellow foodie at work suggested that, the next time I'm in the south of France, I get a load, put them on ice and then sit in the sun eating them and sipping a seriously chilled rosé. Apparently it's an absolute woooosh of freshness.

  2. thanks for sharing.