In Falmouth, October marks the beginning of the oyster season. For centuries, this small fishing village on the southwest coast of England has welcomed seafarers and fisherman to dredge its wild oyster beds, which lay dotted along the silt flats of the Fal estuary. Their prize is the native or flat oyster—a sweet, delicate, saucer-shaped mollusk much sought after by the Romans, whose historian Pliny the Elder recommended them for improving the complexion.
Today, it is their taste—an experience that lays somewhere between the sea bed and the salty water—that attracts thousands of visitors to the Cornish village of Falmouth.
Next weekend, the rivers around the Fal estuary will be flooded with small oyster boats, known as Falmouth working boats, powered by sail or hand-pulled, looking to dredge the many oyster beds that lie beneath the waters. (For oystermen fishing in the Port of Truro Oyster Fishery, engines are prohibited, by decree of ancient laws put in place to protect the natural ecology of the river beds and the oysters.) Once the fishermen have collected their haul, the oysters will be purified for 36 hours before they are sold to customers across Europe, a practice that will continue until the end of the season in March.
It is part of a renaissance of the British oyster, says Nick Hodges, executive head chef at the Flying Fish restaurant at St. Michaels Hotel in Falmouth. "Oysters are back in vogue. We've gone through times when their popularity has dwindled, but now they are very much a prize possession again," says Mr. Hodges, whose grandparents farmed oysters. "Even on a local basis, they are on a lot more Cornish menus now. We now export much more to the European market, something we were not doing a few years ago."
There are two main kinds of oysters found in the British Isles: the flat, or native, oyster (Ostrea edulis), most famously grown among the beds in Whitstable, Colchester and Helford; and the rock, or Pacific, oyster (Crassostrea gigas), which was introduced commercially into Britain in the 1960s.
Although they are smaller, the native oysters are widely regarded as tasting superior, with a more delicate, metallic note. Rock oysters, meanwhile, are characterized as having a rough shell and a tear-dropped shaped. They tend to have a sweeter, more salty flavor and are meatier in texture. According to Drew Smith, author of "Oyster: A World History," oyster fossils can be found in England's Portland stone, which dates back to the Jurassic period, making them one of the oldest foodstuffs in the world.
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