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Episode
16

British Food Part 1: Oysters

First published on
January 10, 2020
History
-
18
minutes
Food & drink
Life in the UK
Romans

Part 1 of our 4-part mini-series on British food. First up it's the oyster.

It's not something that people normally associate with British food, but this little creature was hugely important in British cuisine.

In this podcast we'll learn about how it went from the choice of emperors to food of the poor, hear about how one man (supposedly) ate 1,200 in a single sitting, about a time when the average Londoner used to eat 1 oyster a day, and when they used to be given away for free outside pubs.

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Transcript

[00:00:03] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:10] I'm Alastair Budge. 

[00:00:11] Hot off the heels of our mini-series about who owns the sea, the sky and space, we are doing another mini-series on something a little bit different.

[00:00:25] This mini series is about the weird and wonderful history of British food. 

[00:00:31] Yes, Great Britain may not exactly have the same place in people's culinary imaginations as let's say, France or Italy, and a lot of British food, quite rightly in many cases, gets a bad reputation. 

[00:00:47] But the history of British food is fascinating, and the food itself, well, it's often a lot tastier than you might think.

[00:00:59] As always, with the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast, we want to cover weird and wonderful stories, and so we're going to talk about the history behind some of Britain's most famous dishes. 

[00:01:14] These are things you probably wouldn't find out about in a textbook or guidebook. 

[00:01:21] So in this mini series, we are going to talk about four very different dishes from British culinary history and traditions. They are all weird and wonderful in their own way.

[00:01:35] So today in the first episode, it's oysters, and then in the second episode, which is coming out on Tuesday, we are going to be talking about fish and chips. 

[00:01:47] In part three, it's time to really fill our stomachs. So we'll be talking about the English breakfast. Then in the final part, it is the sandwich. 

[00:02:01] So stay tuned, that is all to come. 

[00:02:04] Before we get right into it, I just want to remind you that you can get the transcripts and key vocabulary for this podcast on the website, which is Leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:02:15] The transcripts and key vocabulary are very helpful in terms of helping you follow along, so I think it's definitely worth checking out.

[00:02:24] Okay then, let's get cracking. 

[00:02:28] So oysters. 

[00:02:31] If you don't know what an oyster is, it's the shellfish you find in a, in a hard shell, it sometimes has a pearl hidden inside it. 

[00:02:40] So today we are going to be talking about the rise and fall of oysters in British cuisine and find out how it went from being the favourite of emperors to a cheap poor man's food, then how the events of one evening meant that the oyster fell completely out of favour, and became distrusted by almost every person in Britain. 

[00:03:08] You probably now think of oysters as a luxury food, something you might imagine fancy lawyers or bankers slurping down in expensive bars of London or New York, and you'd be right. 

[00:03:25] Now, oysters are a luxury food, something you might have for a treat, a luxury, certainly not something that was a food of the masses. 

[00:03:36] But it wasn't always this way. 

[00:03:39] Oysters have in fact, been central to British food since the Romans arrived in 55 BC, so for over 2000 years. 

[00:03:51] As you may know, oysters grow in saltwater beds, and the coast of Great Britain is almost the perfect growing conditions for oysters.

[00:04:03] Romans loved oysters, and I use the word love here as opposed to like is, it does seem like it really was a love affair. 

[00:04:13] The Roman emperor Aulus Vitellius reportedly ate 1,200 oysters in one single sitting. I imagine that even those of you who like oysters might feel a little bit ill at the prospect of eating 1,200 oysters.

[00:04:31] Anyway, the Romans loved them. And they were evidently pleased when they realised that they had found an island with perfect oyster growing conditions. 

[00:04:43] So although the local Brits at that time didn't think much of the oysters, they were regarded as a delicacy by the Romans, so much so that they were even exported back to Rome. 

[00:05:00] After the Romans left in the fifth century oysters seemed to drift out of favour as a delicacy, but they required little actual farming, and so they continued to grow all across seabeds around Great Britain. 

[00:05:17] They were, for the most part, ignored by the British population for centuries, and it wasn't until around the 15th century that they started to drift back into fashion.

[00:05:30] But they weren't considered a delicacy though, quite the opposite. Remember, they are basically just picked up, plucked from the seabed, so require comparatively little cultivation. And so they were very, very cheap. 

[00:05:46] They were normally cooked with some ale, that's a kind of flat, English beer, so ale and pepper. 

[00:05:56] If you've eaten oysters now, I imagine this is quite different to how you may have eaten them. 

[00:06:03] They were so popular and so cheap that some pubs in London would actually give them out for free as a way of getting people in, of drumming up business, of attracting customers. 

[00:06:17] And the Victorian era was the heyday of the oyster.

[00:06:23] By the end of the mid 19th century, so that's 1850, it's estimated that Londoners alone ate 700 million oysters every year. 

[00:06:38] If you think that London was about two and a half million people, that's almost 300 oysters per person per year. 

[00:06:48] Given that small children evidently weren't eating oysters, that's an average of more than one oyster per day for every adult.

[00:06:58] Now, I know oysters are a sort of Marmite food - you either love them or you hate them. 

[00:07:05] If you're an oyster lover, then I guess the idea of eating one oyster a day could be quite attractive, but if you think they are horrible, slimy pieces of seawater, and, with a horrible texture, then I imagine you might be feeling a little bit uncomfortable right now.

[00:07:23] Anyway, the Victorians obviously loved them, a little bit like the Romans. 

[00:07:28] In fact, they were so popular and so cheap that they were often used as a substitute for beef. 

[00:07:37] One of the most popular dishes at the time was beef and oyster pie, and the richer you were, the more beef and the fewer oysters you would use. 

[00:07:49] Charles Dickens, author of books like Oliver Twist and a Christmas Carol, he once wrote, in Pickwick Papers, he wrote "poverty and oysters always seem to go together". 

[00:08:02] That's weird, right? 

[00:08:03] You fast forward two hundred years and it's completely the opposite with oysters being a symbol of wealth and riches. 

[00:08:13] Producing this many oysters to feed the population of London was evidently a pretty intensive task, and the oyster industry employed about 120,000 people in 1864. 

[00:08:31] To give you some context, in 2015 only 10,000 people worked in the whole of the UK's fishing industry.

[00:08:40] So the oyster industry alone supported 12 times the number of people as now, or five years ago, worked in the fishing industry, even at a time when the UK had a population that was half the size. 

[00:08:57] The heart of this oyster industry was in the English Channel, so that's the stretch of water between England and France. Conditions here are great for oysters, and it's where the vast majority of the oyster cultivation happened. 

[00:09:17] It's also where just over a hundred years ago, one incident is considered by some to have been one of the main causes of the decline of the British oyster industry.

[00:09:31] Now on the south coast of England near a city called Portsmouth, the local industry was dominated by two men. The first was called JF Foster, and the second was called John Kennett. 

[00:09:48] As these two men were the most famous oyster farmers for miles around, when there was a local banquet, a huge celebration for a local mayor, it was only right that one of the men was chosen to provide the oysters for the meal. This task fell to JD Foster. 

[00:10:09] Unfortunately, it transpired that the batch of oysters served by Foster was contaminated and the guests of the banquet were poisoned. 

[00:10:20] Several died, poisoned by the oysters, including the Dean of Winchester, so that's the dignitary of a local city, and he died of typhoid

[00:10:32] How did this happen? 

[00:10:33] Why would this local entrepreneur want to poison the local dignitary? 

[00:10:39] Well, it turned out that he wasn't a murderer and he said that he was as confused as anyone about why these oysters were so bad, about why he had served a batch of poisonous oysters to his esteemed guests.

[00:10:58] It transpired that the local council, so that's the local government, had moved some local sewers, where wastewater is piped away, so that the sewers emptied out just above the oyster beds owned by Foster and Kennett, the two local oyster moguls

[00:11:20] Evidently, if you pour sewage and wastewater over a batch of fresh oysters, well, things aren't going to end very well, and that's why the oysters were contaminated. 

[00:11:36] People were understandably not very keen on eating oysters anymore and the oyster industry collapsed almost overnight,

[00:11:45] But the story does not end there. 

[00:11:49] Foster made a claim for damages against the local council, for 1,500 pounds. 

[00:11:56] He said that the workers putting in this sewer had ruined his business, and after several years of increasingly bitter litigation, fighting in the law courts, he increased his claim to 18,000 pounds. 

[00:12:13] 18,000 pounds in 1902 when this happened is around 2 million pounds today.

[00:12:20] So that's serious money. 

[00:12:23] Kennett, the other local oyster farmer, did not press charges, he didn't request money from the government as compensation, even though his own losses amounted to about 5,000 pounds.

[00:12:37] Why would he do this, you might ask. 

[00:12:40] Well, it turned out that both men had actually known about the switching of the sewers, and Foster had actually moved his oyster farms so that they could make use of the extra nutrients that came from the sewer. 

[00:12:58] He had thought that the waste would actually help his oysters grow, but the result was actually that it contaminated the entire lot.

[00:13:09] Foster's award was reduced to 3,300 pounds, and Kennett, the man who had testified against Foster became a local hero, as the town would have probably gone bankrupt if it had had to pay such a large sum as compensation to Foster. The townspeople were extraordinarily happy.

[00:13:32] They clubbed together to buy Kennett a gold watch inscribed with a message of thanks. But the British oyster industry has never fully recovered, and as you might imagine, it took people a long time to trust eating oysters again.

[00:13:52] It wasn't just the fear of eating a dodgy oyster and dying of typhoid, though, although that's evidently a pretty valid fear.

[00:14:01] Oysters were hugely overfished, so the stocks became seriously depleted. Oysters take three to five years to grow, so it's very different to most other farmed seafoods. 

[00:14:17] When stocks are low, it takes a long time for them to recover. 

[00:14:23] By 1964 only 3 million oysters were fished in the UK. Remember a hundred years ago, that number was 700 million, so it's gone down to 0.4% of its original size.

[00:14:42] One thing that has bolstered the UK's oyster industry, though, is the introduction of something called the Japanese rock oyster, which can be eaten all year round as opposed to just from September to April, like the native British one. 

[00:15:01] The old rule for oysters before the introduction of the Japanese rock oyster was that you could only eat oysters in months with the letter R in them, which is actually every month from September to April. 

[00:15:18] If you count the months now, they've all got R's in them, 

[00:15:22] So if you're eating an oyster and it's not a Japanese rock oyster, then make sure that the month you're eating it in has an R in it. 

[00:15:31] It's January right now and so on the off chance that you're slurping down an oyster while you listen to this podcast, then you don't need to worry too much.

[00:15:40] So then what's next in store for oysters? 

[00:15:45] Well, as you probably know, they are still considered a luxury food in the UK. You might find them at an expensive restaurant served at a fancy cocktail party or at an oyster bar. 

[00:15:58] What you certainly won't find is them being handed out for free outside pubs, although that would be no doubt, a cunning albeit expensive way of getting customers in. Right. That is it for oysters. Next up, we are going to be talking about another cult British food: fish and chips. 

[00:16:22] And don't worry, this isn't just going to be a boring summary of fish and chips. 

[00:16:27] In the next episode, you'll learn all about where they really came from, why they aren't served in newspaper anymore, and how they could have even helped the Allies win the second world war. 

[00:16:42] That's all to come in part two of this mini series. 

[00:16:46] As I said, also in the last episode. I want to know what you think of the show and as a little thank you, if you send in your feedback, then I will correct the English of any feedback you send in no matter how long, and send it back to you, as a small way of saying thanks. Just send it in to hi@leonardoenglish.com and I'll send it straight back to you.

[00:17:10] As always, thank you for listening to the show. 

[00:17:13] You've been listening to the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast by Leonardo English with me, Alastair Budge. 

[00:17:20] I'll catch you in the next episode for some fish and chips.



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[00:00:03] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:10] I'm Alastair Budge. 

[00:00:11] Hot off the heels of our mini-series about who owns the sea, the sky and space, we are doing another mini-series on something a little bit different.

[00:00:25] This mini series is about the weird and wonderful history of British food. 

[00:00:31] Yes, Great Britain may not exactly have the same place in people's culinary imaginations as let's say, France or Italy, and a lot of British food, quite rightly in many cases, gets a bad reputation. 

[00:00:47] But the history of British food is fascinating, and the food itself, well, it's often a lot tastier than you might think.

[00:00:59] As always, with the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast, we want to cover weird and wonderful stories, and so we're going to talk about the history behind some of Britain's most famous dishes. 

[00:01:14] These are things you probably wouldn't find out about in a textbook or guidebook. 

[00:01:21] So in this mini series, we are going to talk about four very different dishes from British culinary history and traditions. They are all weird and wonderful in their own way.

[00:01:35] So today in the first episode, it's oysters, and then in the second episode, which is coming out on Tuesday, we are going to be talking about fish and chips. 

[00:01:47] In part three, it's time to really fill our stomachs. So we'll be talking about the English breakfast. Then in the final part, it is the sandwich. 

[00:02:01] So stay tuned, that is all to come. 

[00:02:04] Before we get right into it, I just want to remind you that you can get the transcripts and key vocabulary for this podcast on the website, which is Leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:02:15] The transcripts and key vocabulary are very helpful in terms of helping you follow along, so I think it's definitely worth checking out.

[00:02:24] Okay then, let's get cracking. 

[00:02:28] So oysters. 

[00:02:31] If you don't know what an oyster is, it's the shellfish you find in a, in a hard shell, it sometimes has a pearl hidden inside it. 

[00:02:40] So today we are going to be talking about the rise and fall of oysters in British cuisine and find out how it went from being the favourite of emperors to a cheap poor man's food, then how the events of one evening meant that the oyster fell completely out of favour, and became distrusted by almost every person in Britain. 

[00:03:08] You probably now think of oysters as a luxury food, something you might imagine fancy lawyers or bankers slurping down in expensive bars of London or New York, and you'd be right. 

[00:03:25] Now, oysters are a luxury food, something you might have for a treat, a luxury, certainly not something that was a food of the masses. 

[00:03:36] But it wasn't always this way. 

[00:03:39] Oysters have in fact, been central to British food since the Romans arrived in 55 BC, so for over 2000 years. 

[00:03:51] As you may know, oysters grow in saltwater beds, and the coast of Great Britain is almost the perfect growing conditions for oysters.

[00:04:03] Romans loved oysters, and I use the word love here as opposed to like is, it does seem like it really was a love affair. 

[00:04:13] The Roman emperor Aulus Vitellius reportedly ate 1,200 oysters in one single sitting. I imagine that even those of you who like oysters might feel a little bit ill at the prospect of eating 1,200 oysters.

[00:04:31] Anyway, the Romans loved them. And they were evidently pleased when they realised that they had found an island with perfect oyster growing conditions. 

[00:04:43] So although the local Brits at that time didn't think much of the oysters, they were regarded as a delicacy by the Romans, so much so that they were even exported back to Rome. 

[00:05:00] After the Romans left in the fifth century oysters seemed to drift out of favour as a delicacy, but they required little actual farming, and so they continued to grow all across seabeds around Great Britain. 

[00:05:17] They were, for the most part, ignored by the British population for centuries, and it wasn't until around the 15th century that they started to drift back into fashion.

[00:05:30] But they weren't considered a delicacy though, quite the opposite. Remember, they are basically just picked up, plucked from the seabed, so require comparatively little cultivation. And so they were very, very cheap. 

[00:05:46] They were normally cooked with some ale, that's a kind of flat, English beer, so ale and pepper. 

[00:05:56] If you've eaten oysters now, I imagine this is quite different to how you may have eaten them. 

[00:06:03] They were so popular and so cheap that some pubs in London would actually give them out for free as a way of getting people in, of drumming up business, of attracting customers. 

[00:06:17] And the Victorian era was the heyday of the oyster.

[00:06:23] By the end of the mid 19th century, so that's 1850, it's estimated that Londoners alone ate 700 million oysters every year. 

[00:06:38] If you think that London was about two and a half million people, that's almost 300 oysters per person per year. 

[00:06:48] Given that small children evidently weren't eating oysters, that's an average of more than one oyster per day for every adult.

[00:06:58] Now, I know oysters are a sort of Marmite food - you either love them or you hate them. 

[00:07:05] If you're an oyster lover, then I guess the idea of eating one oyster a day could be quite attractive, but if you think they are horrible, slimy pieces of seawater, and, with a horrible texture, then I imagine you might be feeling a little bit uncomfortable right now.

[00:07:23] Anyway, the Victorians obviously loved them, a little bit like the Romans. 

[00:07:28] In fact, they were so popular and so cheap that they were often used as a substitute for beef. 

[00:07:37] One of the most popular dishes at the time was beef and oyster pie, and the richer you were, the more beef and the fewer oysters you would use. 

[00:07:49] Charles Dickens, author of books like Oliver Twist and a Christmas Carol, he once wrote, in Pickwick Papers, he wrote "poverty and oysters always seem to go together". 

[00:08:02] That's weird, right? 

[00:08:03] You fast forward two hundred years and it's completely the opposite with oysters being a symbol of wealth and riches. 

[00:08:13] Producing this many oysters to feed the population of London was evidently a pretty intensive task, and the oyster industry employed about 120,000 people in 1864. 

[00:08:31] To give you some context, in 2015 only 10,000 people worked in the whole of the UK's fishing industry.

[00:08:40] So the oyster industry alone supported 12 times the number of people as now, or five years ago, worked in the fishing industry, even at a time when the UK had a population that was half the size. 

[00:08:57] The heart of this oyster industry was in the English Channel, so that's the stretch of water between England and France. Conditions here are great for oysters, and it's where the vast majority of the oyster cultivation happened. 

[00:09:17] It's also where just over a hundred years ago, one incident is considered by some to have been one of the main causes of the decline of the British oyster industry.

[00:09:31] Now on the south coast of England near a city called Portsmouth, the local industry was dominated by two men. The first was called JF Foster, and the second was called John Kennett. 

[00:09:48] As these two men were the most famous oyster farmers for miles around, when there was a local banquet, a huge celebration for a local mayor, it was only right that one of the men was chosen to provide the oysters for the meal. This task fell to JD Foster. 

[00:10:09] Unfortunately, it transpired that the batch of oysters served by Foster was contaminated and the guests of the banquet were poisoned. 

[00:10:20] Several died, poisoned by the oysters, including the Dean of Winchester, so that's the dignitary of a local city, and he died of typhoid

[00:10:32] How did this happen? 

[00:10:33] Why would this local entrepreneur want to poison the local dignitary? 

[00:10:39] Well, it turned out that he wasn't a murderer and he said that he was as confused as anyone about why these oysters were so bad, about why he had served a batch of poisonous oysters to his esteemed guests.

[00:10:58] It transpired that the local council, so that's the local government, had moved some local sewers, where wastewater is piped away, so that the sewers emptied out just above the oyster beds owned by Foster and Kennett, the two local oyster moguls

[00:11:20] Evidently, if you pour sewage and wastewater over a batch of fresh oysters, well, things aren't going to end very well, and that's why the oysters were contaminated. 

[00:11:36] People were understandably not very keen on eating oysters anymore and the oyster industry collapsed almost overnight,

[00:11:45] But the story does not end there. 

[00:11:49] Foster made a claim for damages against the local council, for 1,500 pounds. 

[00:11:56] He said that the workers putting in this sewer had ruined his business, and after several years of increasingly bitter litigation, fighting in the law courts, he increased his claim to 18,000 pounds. 

[00:12:13] 18,000 pounds in 1902 when this happened is around 2 million pounds today.

[00:12:20] So that's serious money. 

[00:12:23] Kennett, the other local oyster farmer, did not press charges, he didn't request money from the government as compensation, even though his own losses amounted to about 5,000 pounds.

[00:12:37] Why would he do this, you might ask. 

[00:12:40] Well, it turned out that both men had actually known about the switching of the sewers, and Foster had actually moved his oyster farms so that they could make use of the extra nutrients that came from the sewer. 

[00:12:58] He had thought that the waste would actually help his oysters grow, but the result was actually that it contaminated the entire lot.

[00:13:09] Foster's award was reduced to 3,300 pounds, and Kennett, the man who had testified against Foster became a local hero, as the town would have probably gone bankrupt if it had had to pay such a large sum as compensation to Foster. The townspeople were extraordinarily happy.

[00:13:32] They clubbed together to buy Kennett a gold watch inscribed with a message of thanks. But the British oyster industry has never fully recovered, and as you might imagine, it took people a long time to trust eating oysters again.

[00:13:52] It wasn't just the fear of eating a dodgy oyster and dying of typhoid, though, although that's evidently a pretty valid fear.

[00:14:01] Oysters were hugely overfished, so the stocks became seriously depleted. Oysters take three to five years to grow, so it's very different to most other farmed seafoods. 

[00:14:17] When stocks are low, it takes a long time for them to recover. 

[00:14:23] By 1964 only 3 million oysters were fished in the UK. Remember a hundred years ago, that number was 700 million, so it's gone down to 0.4% of its original size.

[00:14:42] One thing that has bolstered the UK's oyster industry, though, is the introduction of something called the Japanese rock oyster, which can be eaten all year round as opposed to just from September to April, like the native British one. 

[00:15:01] The old rule for oysters before the introduction of the Japanese rock oyster was that you could only eat oysters in months with the letter R in them, which is actually every month from September to April. 

[00:15:18] If you count the months now, they've all got R's in them, 

[00:15:22] So if you're eating an oyster and it's not a Japanese rock oyster, then make sure that the month you're eating it in has an R in it. 

[00:15:31] It's January right now and so on the off chance that you're slurping down an oyster while you listen to this podcast, then you don't need to worry too much.

[00:15:40] So then what's next in store for oysters? 

[00:15:45] Well, as you probably know, they are still considered a luxury food in the UK. You might find them at an expensive restaurant served at a fancy cocktail party or at an oyster bar. 

[00:15:58] What you certainly won't find is them being handed out for free outside pubs, although that would be no doubt, a cunning albeit expensive way of getting customers in. Right. That is it for oysters. Next up, we are going to be talking about another cult British food: fish and chips. 

[00:16:22] And don't worry, this isn't just going to be a boring summary of fish and chips. 

[00:16:27] In the next episode, you'll learn all about where they really came from, why they aren't served in newspaper anymore, and how they could have even helped the Allies win the second world war. 

[00:16:42] That's all to come in part two of this mini series. 

[00:16:46] As I said, also in the last episode. I want to know what you think of the show and as a little thank you, if you send in your feedback, then I will correct the English of any feedback you send in no matter how long, and send it back to you, as a small way of saying thanks. Just send it in to hi@leonardoenglish.com and I'll send it straight back to you.

[00:17:10] As always, thank you for listening to the show. 

[00:17:13] You've been listening to the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast by Leonardo English with me, Alastair Budge. 

[00:17:20] I'll catch you in the next episode for some fish and chips.



[00:00:03] Hello, hello, hello, and welcome to the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:10] I'm Alastair Budge. 

[00:00:11] Hot off the heels of our mini-series about who owns the sea, the sky and space, we are doing another mini-series on something a little bit different.

[00:00:25] This mini series is about the weird and wonderful history of British food. 

[00:00:31] Yes, Great Britain may not exactly have the same place in people's culinary imaginations as let's say, France or Italy, and a lot of British food, quite rightly in many cases, gets a bad reputation. 

[00:00:47] But the history of British food is fascinating, and the food itself, well, it's often a lot tastier than you might think.

[00:00:59] As always, with the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast, we want to cover weird and wonderful stories, and so we're going to talk about the history behind some of Britain's most famous dishes. 

[00:01:14] These are things you probably wouldn't find out about in a textbook or guidebook. 

[00:01:21] So in this mini series, we are going to talk about four very different dishes from British culinary history and traditions. They are all weird and wonderful in their own way.

[00:01:35] So today in the first episode, it's oysters, and then in the second episode, which is coming out on Tuesday, we are going to be talking about fish and chips. 

[00:01:47] In part three, it's time to really fill our stomachs. So we'll be talking about the English breakfast. Then in the final part, it is the sandwich. 

[00:02:01] So stay tuned, that is all to come. 

[00:02:04] Before we get right into it, I just want to remind you that you can get the transcripts and key vocabulary for this podcast on the website, which is Leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:02:15] The transcripts and key vocabulary are very helpful in terms of helping you follow along, so I think it's definitely worth checking out.

[00:02:24] Okay then, let's get cracking. 

[00:02:28] So oysters. 

[00:02:31] If you don't know what an oyster is, it's the shellfish you find in a, in a hard shell, it sometimes has a pearl hidden inside it. 

[00:02:40] So today we are going to be talking about the rise and fall of oysters in British cuisine and find out how it went from being the favourite of emperors to a cheap poor man's food, then how the events of one evening meant that the oyster fell completely out of favour, and became distrusted by almost every person in Britain. 

[00:03:08] You probably now think of oysters as a luxury food, something you might imagine fancy lawyers or bankers slurping down in expensive bars of London or New York, and you'd be right. 

[00:03:25] Now, oysters are a luxury food, something you might have for a treat, a luxury, certainly not something that was a food of the masses. 

[00:03:36] But it wasn't always this way. 

[00:03:39] Oysters have in fact, been central to British food since the Romans arrived in 55 BC, so for over 2000 years. 

[00:03:51] As you may know, oysters grow in saltwater beds, and the coast of Great Britain is almost the perfect growing conditions for oysters.

[00:04:03] Romans loved oysters, and I use the word love here as opposed to like is, it does seem like it really was a love affair. 

[00:04:13] The Roman emperor Aulus Vitellius reportedly ate 1,200 oysters in one single sitting. I imagine that even those of you who like oysters might feel a little bit ill at the prospect of eating 1,200 oysters.

[00:04:31] Anyway, the Romans loved them. And they were evidently pleased when they realised that they had found an island with perfect oyster growing conditions. 

[00:04:43] So although the local Brits at that time didn't think much of the oysters, they were regarded as a delicacy by the Romans, so much so that they were even exported back to Rome. 

[00:05:00] After the Romans left in the fifth century oysters seemed to drift out of favour as a delicacy, but they required little actual farming, and so they continued to grow all across seabeds around Great Britain. 

[00:05:17] They were, for the most part, ignored by the British population for centuries, and it wasn't until around the 15th century that they started to drift back into fashion.

[00:05:30] But they weren't considered a delicacy though, quite the opposite. Remember, they are basically just picked up, plucked from the seabed, so require comparatively little cultivation. And so they were very, very cheap. 

[00:05:46] They were normally cooked with some ale, that's a kind of flat, English beer, so ale and pepper. 

[00:05:56] If you've eaten oysters now, I imagine this is quite different to how you may have eaten them. 

[00:06:03] They were so popular and so cheap that some pubs in London would actually give them out for free as a way of getting people in, of drumming up business, of attracting customers. 

[00:06:17] And the Victorian era was the heyday of the oyster.

[00:06:23] By the end of the mid 19th century, so that's 1850, it's estimated that Londoners alone ate 700 million oysters every year. 

[00:06:38] If you think that London was about two and a half million people, that's almost 300 oysters per person per year. 

[00:06:48] Given that small children evidently weren't eating oysters, that's an average of more than one oyster per day for every adult.

[00:06:58] Now, I know oysters are a sort of Marmite food - you either love them or you hate them. 

[00:07:05] If you're an oyster lover, then I guess the idea of eating one oyster a day could be quite attractive, but if you think they are horrible, slimy pieces of seawater, and, with a horrible texture, then I imagine you might be feeling a little bit uncomfortable right now.

[00:07:23] Anyway, the Victorians obviously loved them, a little bit like the Romans. 

[00:07:28] In fact, they were so popular and so cheap that they were often used as a substitute for beef. 

[00:07:37] One of the most popular dishes at the time was beef and oyster pie, and the richer you were, the more beef and the fewer oysters you would use. 

[00:07:49] Charles Dickens, author of books like Oliver Twist and a Christmas Carol, he once wrote, in Pickwick Papers, he wrote "poverty and oysters always seem to go together". 

[00:08:02] That's weird, right? 

[00:08:03] You fast forward two hundred years and it's completely the opposite with oysters being a symbol of wealth and riches. 

[00:08:13] Producing this many oysters to feed the population of London was evidently a pretty intensive task, and the oyster industry employed about 120,000 people in 1864. 

[00:08:31] To give you some context, in 2015 only 10,000 people worked in the whole of the UK's fishing industry.

[00:08:40] So the oyster industry alone supported 12 times the number of people as now, or five years ago, worked in the fishing industry, even at a time when the UK had a population that was half the size. 

[00:08:57] The heart of this oyster industry was in the English Channel, so that's the stretch of water between England and France. Conditions here are great for oysters, and it's where the vast majority of the oyster cultivation happened. 

[00:09:17] It's also where just over a hundred years ago, one incident is considered by some to have been one of the main causes of the decline of the British oyster industry.

[00:09:31] Now on the south coast of England near a city called Portsmouth, the local industry was dominated by two men. The first was called JF Foster, and the second was called John Kennett. 

[00:09:48] As these two men were the most famous oyster farmers for miles around, when there was a local banquet, a huge celebration for a local mayor, it was only right that one of the men was chosen to provide the oysters for the meal. This task fell to JD Foster. 

[00:10:09] Unfortunately, it transpired that the batch of oysters served by Foster was contaminated and the guests of the banquet were poisoned. 

[00:10:20] Several died, poisoned by the oysters, including the Dean of Winchester, so that's the dignitary of a local city, and he died of typhoid

[00:10:32] How did this happen? 

[00:10:33] Why would this local entrepreneur want to poison the local dignitary? 

[00:10:39] Well, it turned out that he wasn't a murderer and he said that he was as confused as anyone about why these oysters were so bad, about why he had served a batch of poisonous oysters to his esteemed guests.

[00:10:58] It transpired that the local council, so that's the local government, had moved some local sewers, where wastewater is piped away, so that the sewers emptied out just above the oyster beds owned by Foster and Kennett, the two local oyster moguls

[00:11:20] Evidently, if you pour sewage and wastewater over a batch of fresh oysters, well, things aren't going to end very well, and that's why the oysters were contaminated. 

[00:11:36] People were understandably not very keen on eating oysters anymore and the oyster industry collapsed almost overnight,

[00:11:45] But the story does not end there. 

[00:11:49] Foster made a claim for damages against the local council, for 1,500 pounds. 

[00:11:56] He said that the workers putting in this sewer had ruined his business, and after several years of increasingly bitter litigation, fighting in the law courts, he increased his claim to 18,000 pounds. 

[00:12:13] 18,000 pounds in 1902 when this happened is around 2 million pounds today.

[00:12:20] So that's serious money. 

[00:12:23] Kennett, the other local oyster farmer, did not press charges, he didn't request money from the government as compensation, even though his own losses amounted to about 5,000 pounds.

[00:12:37] Why would he do this, you might ask. 

[00:12:40] Well, it turned out that both men had actually known about the switching of the sewers, and Foster had actually moved his oyster farms so that they could make use of the extra nutrients that came from the sewer. 

[00:12:58] He had thought that the waste would actually help his oysters grow, but the result was actually that it contaminated the entire lot.

[00:13:09] Foster's award was reduced to 3,300 pounds, and Kennett, the man who had testified against Foster became a local hero, as the town would have probably gone bankrupt if it had had to pay such a large sum as compensation to Foster. The townspeople were extraordinarily happy.

[00:13:32] They clubbed together to buy Kennett a gold watch inscribed with a message of thanks. But the British oyster industry has never fully recovered, and as you might imagine, it took people a long time to trust eating oysters again.

[00:13:52] It wasn't just the fear of eating a dodgy oyster and dying of typhoid, though, although that's evidently a pretty valid fear.

[00:14:01] Oysters were hugely overfished, so the stocks became seriously depleted. Oysters take three to five years to grow, so it's very different to most other farmed seafoods. 

[00:14:17] When stocks are low, it takes a long time for them to recover. 

[00:14:23] By 1964 only 3 million oysters were fished in the UK. Remember a hundred years ago, that number was 700 million, so it's gone down to 0.4% of its original size.

[00:14:42] One thing that has bolstered the UK's oyster industry, though, is the introduction of something called the Japanese rock oyster, which can be eaten all year round as opposed to just from September to April, like the native British one. 

[00:15:01] The old rule for oysters before the introduction of the Japanese rock oyster was that you could only eat oysters in months with the letter R in them, which is actually every month from September to April. 

[00:15:18] If you count the months now, they've all got R's in them, 

[00:15:22] So if you're eating an oyster and it's not a Japanese rock oyster, then make sure that the month you're eating it in has an R in it. 

[00:15:31] It's January right now and so on the off chance that you're slurping down an oyster while you listen to this podcast, then you don't need to worry too much.

[00:15:40] So then what's next in store for oysters? 

[00:15:45] Well, as you probably know, they are still considered a luxury food in the UK. You might find them at an expensive restaurant served at a fancy cocktail party or at an oyster bar. 

[00:15:58] What you certainly won't find is them being handed out for free outside pubs, although that would be no doubt, a cunning albeit expensive way of getting customers in. Right. That is it for oysters. Next up, we are going to be talking about another cult British food: fish and chips. 

[00:16:22] And don't worry, this isn't just going to be a boring summary of fish and chips. 

[00:16:27] In the next episode, you'll learn all about where they really came from, why they aren't served in newspaper anymore, and how they could have even helped the Allies win the second world war. 

[00:16:42] That's all to come in part two of this mini series. 

[00:16:46] As I said, also in the last episode. I want to know what you think of the show and as a little thank you, if you send in your feedback, then I will correct the English of any feedback you send in no matter how long, and send it back to you, as a small way of saying thanks. Just send it in to hi@leonardoenglish.com and I'll send it straight back to you.

[00:17:10] As always, thank you for listening to the show. 

[00:17:13] You've been listening to the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast by Leonardo English with me, Alastair Budge. 

[00:17:20] I'll catch you in the next episode for some fish and chips.