Oysters ain’t exotic food

Early Cornish kings feasted on a diet of oysters, roast pork and fine wine, eating and drinking from bowls imported from Turkey and glass goblets from Spain, a new dig at Tintagel Castle has suggested.

The connection with tin trading is well known and was there a couple of millennia before the site of this dig. But really, oysters back then were not exotic nor rich food. With a low population and thus pretty much entirely clean water (and the amount of shit running free would just make filter feeders grow faster anyway) oysters would be damn near everywhere just for the price of picking them up. They were poor man’s food.

As was salmon, truth be told, often enough at least.

17 thoughts on “Oysters ain’t exotic food”

  1. I remember a story about one of the earliest trade union agreements which apparently had a condition whereby the dock workers “would not have to eat lobster more than three days a week”. It was cheap food then.

    Not sure if true; can’t remember source; seems plausible though.

  2. @Firefoxx,

    In the version I know, it was a law banning the too-frequent feeding of lobster to prisoners in 17th-century Massachussets on the grounds that it was inhumane.

  3. Crab is still poor food in parts of the US North-East, and not expensive when poshed up either.

    If anyone can show me it’s Brussels that stops us getting US-sized seafood at US prices (plus shipping costs) you might even win me for the cause.

  4. @SE – in the Fifteenth Century London apprentice boys went on strike because they were fed salmon too often

  5. In the early to middle of the 20th century where my dad grew up in the fishing village of Kalk Bay near Cape Town, crayfish (lobster to you Poms) was used as bait. The fishermen wouldn’t eat it.

  6. You want to see the truth of this, go walk on the beaches of the Thames, downstream of the City. You’ll mostly be walking on oyster shells. (And clay pipes)

  7. For a while I was living in one of the wharehouse convesions by Wapping steps. Used to take the dogs for walks on the beach at low tide. There’s nothing at all natural in that beach. It’s oyster shells, clay pipes, various bits of detritus, fragments of bricks going back to Roman. One day, turned up an early mediaeval glazed clay pot,just lying there on the top. American I was with got to take it home with her. Something older than the discovery of the continent she lives on.

  8. If you spend enough time on archaeological reports from sites around the Bristol Channel in the Early Medieval Period you’ll see plenty of mentions of Porpoise, which might have been a higher-status foodstuff by distribution (admittedly no-one seems to have dug up an everyday village that I can see). But I think the only way of telling status would be the use of foreign tableware, wine and oil as these seem to be the only things not commonly available to anyone with access to the shore or fields (note the oil and wine might primarily have been for church services anyway – this was arguably the main economic driver for people to produce tin).

  9. Used to regularly commute on British Airways and in those days they invariably served salmon as the inflight meal. Became so sick of the stuff, I didn’t touch it again for ten or more years.

  10. Bloke in Costa Rica

    I’ve often wondered what wine and beer from days gone by would be like. I know there’s people who resurrect recipes but they brew the stuff with modern equipment and store it properly. What I’d like to know is if I were, say, magicked back to the courts of Henry II or Pepin the Short (or Domitian, Ptolemy II and Hammurabi, for that matter) and someone handed me some wine or beer, would I be able to drink it without pulling a face and gagging? I wouldn’t be surprised if most of the time it was basically vinegar.

  11. @ BiCR
    Only vinegar when it went off.
    But usually not as good as today’s – because no-one would spend a lifetime on improving wine unless the result really was better.

  12. Bloke in North Dorset

    I spent 6 months in Zimbabwe straight after independence teaching at their School of Signals. We had boiled chicken for lunch and dinner most days.

    I won’t eat chicken now, much to Mrs BiND’s annoyance as she loves it. When I spent most of my life on abA planes I told them didn’t want chicken and they put me on one of their super allergy diets and the food was disgusting. I cancelled the no chicken and lived on peanuts when chicken was served.

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