Perhaps the most famous ostreidae celebrated in story and rhyme are those unfortunate, plump – and let’s be honest stupid – young oysters who accepted the Walrus’s invitation to go for a jog along that great expanse of sand. Even though their Elder wisely refused to join the rather unusual pairing of Tradesman and Marine Mammal on their stroll, the foolish young ones eagerly trotted off hand-in-hand (?) with, or puffing behind, the Walrus and the Carpenter. And their sad fate as a result of that inadvisable course of action is well documented and told to Alice, with perhaps unnecessary glee, by those battling brothers Tweedledum and Tweedledee*.
“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes- and ships- and sealing wax-
Of cabbages- and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot-
And whether pigs have wings.”
“But wait a bit,” the Oysters cried,
“Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!”
“No hurry!” said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.
“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed—
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”
“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!”
“The night is fine,” the Walrus said.
“Do you admire the view?”
“It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf—
I’ve had to ask you twice!”
“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
“To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter’s spread too thick!”
“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchiefs
Before his streaming eyes.
“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?”
But answer came there none—
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.
Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) – 1871
Holding my pocket handkerchief before my streaming eyes I hang my head in shame to admit that I would have been more than happy to join Walrus and Carpenter in their oysterian feast. In fact I intend to do so in the next day or so, well not with those two – I mean after all they are fictional aren’t they? Aren’t they? – but with several other friends. However I shall be dining on what I consider to be the second most famous bivalves in the world – PEI oysters. And even better, oysters from the winter harvest.
Until a year or two ago my own taste in oysters ran to those puny little smoked bits found in cans and on Ritz crackers at cocktail parties or on a slightly more sophisticated level baked in La Mediatrice or Oysters Rockerfeller. Though I had tried them once or twice before the mere thought of consuming raw oysters conjured up all manner of horrid images – none of which good taste will allow me to share here. However on my first visit to PEI I bit the bivalve, so to speak, and tasted oysters from the cold waters of the St Lawrence as they should be tasted: raw with a dash of lemon, and a grind of pepper. Several more feastings – including oysters fresh from Galway Bay with a glass of Guinness – has turned me into a fan. Now my palette is not that refined that I could identify a Malpeque from a Colville Bay just by taste but I am beginning to recognize the variations created by location, salinity and time of year. And this time of year the oysters that are being harvested are sure to be plump and tasty.
And since I’m waxing (not sealing I might add) about the joys of eating PEI oysters I thought I’d share a few facts, figures and features about the Island’s second favourite mullusk.
- The Mi’kmaq, the first known inhabitants of the Island, used oysters as a food source.
- The supply of oysters was so plentiful in the 1600s that Acadians on the North Shore used them as fertilizer for their fields.
- They also burned the shells for the lime until a statute was passed in 1832 banning the practice.
- Malpeque oysters have been famous since 1900 when they were named “the best in the world” at the Paris World’s Fair.
- Joining Confederation in 1876 brought with it the railway and access to wider markets which led to the decimation of the oyster beds.
- To meet the demand seeds were brought in from New England to bolster the industry but the imports brought with them the deadly Malpeque Disease and by 1915 over 90% of the beds had been destroyed.
- In the early 1920s a disease resistant oyster was used for reseeding and the work of Dr. A.W.H Needler at the Ellerslie experimental station on the Biddeford River revitalized the oyster industry in the Atlantic region.
For an oyster to grow to the preferred harvesting size of 3 inches takes between five to seven years in the wild; if farmed that time is reduced to four years. And for those puny cocktail oysters? Two to three years.
- Wild oysters are still harvested using long wooden oyster tongs.**
- December to March is one of the prime times for harvesting – with waterways and bays frozen over it’s an arduous cold process involving ice cutting, wet suits and scuba equipment.**
- If that old rule of only eating oysters in months with the letter “r” in them were followed the restaurants on PEI would go out of business. As with many things new methods have improved conditions and it’s now considered safe to eat oysters any month of the year.
- There are four main areas of oyster beds on Prince Edward Island – this interactive map allows identifies the oysters found in each and highlights what gives them their individual taste and characteristics.
Fortunately there are several very good oyster bars within walking distance of the house. So it’s just a matter of making a choice, bundling up, cutting our way through the snow, settling in to a comfortable arm chair perhaps by an open fire, ordering up a loaf of bread, some pepper and vinegar, perhaps a dash of Tabasco, a slice of lemon, a pint of Guinness or a nice crisp muscadet, watch the gentleman behind the bar shuck a few dozen Malpeques or Raspberry Points – and savour the sweet briny goodness! Definitely not “a dismal thing to do”.
*I had not realized that the first mention of Tweedledum and Tweedledee was not Carroll’s but in an epigram on the opera house war betwixt Handel and Bononcini by John Byrom, who also wrote the lovely carol “Christians Awake”.
** This link will take you to a short video on the traditional method of harvesting in the Northhumberland Straits.
***And this link will take you to a CBC report on the winter harvesting up near Malpeque on the St Laurent during the winter of 2015.
On this day in 1645: Archbishop William Laud is beheaded at the Tower of London.