Frans Van Mieris, The Oyster Meal, 1659, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
Oysters are filter feeders meaning they glean required nutrients by sifting water. In areas near high population centres, they are often filtering raw sewage. This is why oysters sometimes harbour nasty bugs like norovirus.
The incidence of food poisoning caused by oysters is probably higher relatively than any other foodstuff. For some, this danger may add to their allure, it certainly adds to their price. If an oyster’s available on the cheap, it’s probably not worth it.
I found this out to my detriment three years ago. Again, the anecdote involves feats of freedom unimaginable in October 2020. On Friday night, I attended a friend’s birthday party. The next morning, feeling worse for wear, I boarded a train north to go and watch QPR play Birmingham City at St Andrew’s.
It was one of those blustery February afternoons in which Venice, let alone Birmingham, would struggle to look good. I had to leave the match before the final whistle to travel back south for another birthday being held at Secret Cinema’s Moulin Rouge.
Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1484–1486). Tempera on canvas. 172.5 cm × 278.9 cm (67.9 in × 109.6 in). Uffizi, Florence
Despite the shivers of cringe those four words might elicit, I actually had a right laugh in fin de siècle Paris on an industrial estate in Newham. On Monday morning, I was at my desk basking in the frazzled afterglow of a successful weekend’s revelry.
However, come Tuesday afternoon, I started to feel a bit weird. Eventually, I gave into my body and visited the toilet. Reader, I won’t invite you in further, except to say, there were some fluids. After work, I felt OK enough to travel to my then-girlfriend’s flat for dinner.
This is where the story, and my stomach, turned. Lying on her bed in the foetal position, roiling in pain, I made the only call I felt I could: mum came and picked me up to take me back to her house.
The next two days were unlike anything I’ve experienced, before or since. It felt like what I imagine an ayahuasca trip to be like, in Acton: stomach cramps… hallucinations… reverberations…
After a short moonwalk, there could be only one culprit: a chicken burger I’d eaten in a raffish Birmingham diner.
Lying on my childhood bed in a feverish fugue, I attempted to retrace my culinary steps. After a short moonwalk, there could be only one culprit: a chicken burger I’d eaten in a raffish Birmingham diner. Undoubtedly patient zero.
I returned to my desk the following Monday, a few kilos lighter but smug in my prejudice: of course I got ill in Birmingham!
Then my phone pinged, it was a message from a friend containing a link to an Evening Standard article. Suddenly, a stomach-acid flashback: I hadn’t even remembered eating oysters at Secret Cinema. This arguably makes the whole episode even crueller.
I shared them with a friend, washed down with a glass of Noilly Prat. You said it. It’s hard to elicit much sympathy for oyster poisoning, even less for oyster poisoning suffered at Secret Cinema Moulin Rouge.
Three and a half years have passed since that last quaff. Surely a few Whitstable fishermen have gone out of business as a result.
Scientists say smell is the most evocative sense, but taste must come a close second. Maybe they’re ineluctable. I can still remember the smell and taste of that first oyster back in the smoke-filled basement of Grand Central Station. It was salty, metallic and hitherto unknown.
I thought I was bold, but really I was being greedy.