One of the upsides to spending my weekends and summer holidays washing pots and dishes in a seafood restaurant on the Irish Coast as a teenager was that I was able to sample and acquire a taste for a wide range of strange and exotic foods whose very mention – almost without exception – induced frowns and wincing from my schoolmates. I must have eaten at least ten tons worth of mussels, clams, winkles, whelks and prawns over those years, but the absolute and unrivalled champion of the lot had to be the Atlantic oysters. Whenever I was asked to shuck a dozen of these fat and succulent beauties on order, I would treat myself to a surreptitious thirteenth for good measure; a transgression I admit without hesitation. I introduced Herself to her first oyster earlier this year and although she still prefers the Mediterranean clams of her native Greece, when she suggested visiting this year’s Whitstable Oyster Festival, it didn’t take much persuading to get me out the door and to Victoria Train Station.
The Whitstable Oyster Festival has been running annually in the Kentish town of Whitstable since 1985 and is a modern revival of a Norman holy festival taking place around the feast day of St. James when local fishermen would hold thanksgiving ceremonies ahead of the opening oyster season. The exactitudes of what the original ceremony would have entailed are not absolutely clear today, however, it is speculated to have included formal blessing of the town, the waters, the fleet, and the fishermen and dredgers themselves for good best.
Whitstable Bay’s positioning on the shallow end of Swale estuary, where the nutrient-rich waters of the River Thames meet with the salt-waters of the North Sea, provides an ideal environment when it comes to the algal growth that comprises an oysters’ diet – a windfall that local populations figured out and have exploited since before they began recording history. Extensive archeological evidence confirms that prehistoric hunter-gatherers consumed sizeable quantities of shellfish in the region, but the first records of oyster cultivation on the beds of the Kentish Flats come from the Romans who were so taken by British oysters that they exported them as a delicacy throughout their empire. “Poor Britons,” wrote the Roman historian Sallust in 50 AD, “there is some good in them after all – they produce an oyster.”
If you’re in the know when it comes to eating shellfish then you would have perhaps noticed that the festival is held outside of oyster season – the received wisdom being to “Never eat an oyster in months without an R.” The festival is held at this time of year so as not to interrupt the busy fishing season and, as a result, a fair portion of the oysters on offer are not in fact the native flat Whitstable oysters (Ostrea edulis) – which breed during the summer months and are quite unpalatable at this time – but the more readily available rock oysters which can be eaten at anytime. I hope that I am not alone in appreciating the irony of such a revelation.
According to the press release for this year’s celebration: “The Festival has grown from a community celebration to a massive event, which sees 80,000 people from all across the UK and the world descend upon the seaside town for ten days of quality food and live performances.” Bearing in mind that Whitstable has a general population of approximately 30,000, I’m sure you can imagine how packed-out the town gets during festival season, and especially during those days that fall over the weekend. Of course, local business owners would be crazy to not try and cash-in on such a concentrated flood of traffic and so when we arrived on the morning of the festival’s penultimate Saturday, we weren’t particularly surprised to find most of the cafes and restaurants in town charging well above London prices for breakfast and coffee. We may have understood the reasons for such price hikes, but that doesn’t mean we were happy about them.
Before heading down to the waterfront food fair (festival ground-zero) we took a walk around the Whitstable town centre. At any other time of year I imagine that Whitstable is everything that you would expect of a small provincial British township (i.e. quietly going about its own business), however, during the last week of July, the town is entirely consumed with the Oyster Festival buzz. As such, you can expect to find all manner of charms and souvenirs on sale in most of the local shops. There are “I ♡ Whitstable Oysters” t-shirts, snow globes, socks and meshed caps, in addition to a wide and impressive selection of anatopically displayed miscellanea including authentic Chinese-manufactured models of the Roman Coliseum, polyester Rasta caps with detachable dreadlocks, and copyright infringement skirting artworks created specifically to capitalise on the latest pop-cultural trend.
One of the more striking buildings on the high street is the old art-deco cinema that was been converted into a JD Wetherspoon’s chain pub a few years ago. The venue was renamed “The Peter Cushing” in tribute to the British film star who retired to Whitstable, having bought a house there in 1959. From what I know about Cushing, I get the impression that he would most probably have hated such a gesture.
We arrived at the food fair in time for lunch and the place was heaving. We negotiated our way through the hefty crowds and – after some very British queuing – got hold of a plate of oysters, with some winkles and whelks thrown in to share. Finding somewhere to sit near the fair is nearly impossible at this time of day, so instead we ventured down shore and setup shop next to the pier. The popular and entirely overused simile offered when describing oysters is that they “taste like the sea.” Although this description does go in some way to capturing the synesthetic quality of oysters, as anyone who has ever caught a gob-full of sea water can tell you, it is also wholly misleading. In truth, the taste of an oyster is wholly dependent on an individual’s life experience, and as such, they will have a different taste for everybody. I know what I just wrote comes across as more than just a little pretentious and somewhat ridiculous, but that does not stop it from being true. For example, I grew up on the Atlantic coast, and so, as far as I can tell, most of the really good oysters I’ve ever eaten taste exactly like how Dooega beach on Achill Island smells at mid-tide on a fresh and wet winter morning – Hypotheses non fingo.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon slowly strolling along the Kentish waterfront until the sun came down and it was time to journey back to London. On the train home, I got to thinking about that seafood restaurant and all those weekends I spent working up to my elbows in dishwater and how strange and fascinating it is how much all those early experiences in life impact and shape a person’s tastes and interests later on (even if you might not be aware of it at the time). It is a matter only of pure speculation as to where we would have ended up this weekend (or in life) had I instead spent those summers working in a Burger King, McDonald’s, or perhaps in a rendering plant, maybe even as a toilet cleaner. Given the choice of the four, I’d probably have preferred one of the latter two.
 Purely for reasons of quality control, I promise you.
 One local we got to talking with described it as an “affordable Brighton.”
 Which, by the manufacturer opting to produce their caps from this particular synthetic material, as opposed to the more customary woven wool variety, makes them guilty of not only committing a gross disservice to the crafts workers of the Caribbean who know crochet as a profession, but also of a certain insensitivity to the culture they are trying to commodify. That is, of course, only one way of looking at it. From another angle, it could be argued that the polyethylene cap is an ironically knowing and self-consciously substandard appropriation of Afro-Caribbean culture and that its actual raison d’etre is therefore as some sort of satirical statement on Europe’s patronizing attitude toward the peoples of the Caribbean basin. Although, that would make the appearance of such an item in newsagents in a humble fishing community in Kent rather an odd place to make such a statement – and clearly I’m radically overthinking the matter. It’s probably much more likely that the whole thing can be explained by the lower production costs incurred by using low-quality polyester as compared to more expensive wool.