My local grocer, Partridges, curates a Fine Food Market every Saturday in the Duke of York Square, which draws hundreds of residents and visitors to the fashionable Chelsea neighbourhood in London. I have a sweet tooth so naturally my favourite stall is L’Amuse Bouche Crêpes which operates every other weekend (a travesty, really). On one of those unfortunate Saturdays when crêpes were pas disponible, I wandered around the stalls in search of a substitute and stumbled across the Maldon Oysters stand.

Maldon Oysters has been cultivating oysters in the Blackwater River since 1960 and is one of the largest producers of Blackwater Wild, Kumomoto and Rock oysters in the UK. I should state upfront that I don’t eat oysters and therefore cannot attest to their appeal. I have a shellfish allergy and follow Leviticus 11 which limits my seafood choices to fins and scales. However, I was intrigued by the history of oysters, how this delicacy apparently went from working class food to Posh Nosh and how Africa can increase production to meet global demand.

The gentrification of oysters

According to The Oyster Gourmet, oysters were considered working class food in the 19th century. At the time, New York City was the world’s largest producer with over 6m beds which were destroyed in the early 20th century when foreign species introduced to increase production brought disease. The restricted demand triggered an increase in price of oysters, which were no longer affordable for the working class.

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Oysters were sold by street vendors in lower Manhattan. Photo credit: 99percentinvisible.org

I still didn’t understand how price alone could have triggered this social mobility, so I dug a little deeper and went back further in time. I discovered that oysters have always been a luxury product that went through a mass-market phase when production peaked in the 18th and 19th century.

According to Food Worth Writing For, oysters were a delicacy for the wealthy class during the Greek and Roman empires. As with most things, the Greek were the first to cultivate oysters and they also used the shells to cast ballots during elections. The supply of oysters started to shrink during the Roman Empire, and it was this time that the practice of importing oysters from colonies begun. The 18th and 19th century saw the highest production of oysters in the world’s history as new techniques were deployed.

With the surge in production, oysters became cheaper to purchase than meat, poultry, and fish. In 1885, oysters cost $0.03 each (equivalent to $0.73 today) and dropped to $0.01 (equivalent to $0.25 today) each by 1889. The low prices meant anyone could eat them …

Food Worth Writing For

Today, oysters are more expensive than meat, poultry and fish but are more affordable thanks to an increase in supply from China, which accounts for 86% of global production.

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No photo of the goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, is complete without an oyster. Photo credit: ArtStation
Did you know: The Greek goddess of love and beauty, Aphrodite, first emerged from the sea on an oyster shell.  Her son, Eros, is the god of intimate, erotic, romantic love. This family tie is how the belief that ‘oysters are an 
aphrodisiac’ started.

Oysters’ production in Africa

Oysters are mostly cultivated in West Africa (Senegal, Sierra Leone, The Gambia), Southern Africa (South Africa and Namibia) and East Africa (Kenya) and eaten across the continent.

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Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company farm in Sierra Leone. Photos credit: thetimes.co.uk

Back in 1986, a Belgian marine biologist working in Kenya championed locally-grown natural oysters as a superior protein-rich food source for locals and a lucrative business opportunity to supply hotels frequented by Western tourists. At the time, locals did not eat oysters, but this has changed over the years.

Senegal was the first country in Africa to commercially produce oysters. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is currently supporting female oyster producers in Senegal, who make up 90% of the 6,000 employees, through its FISH4ACP program.

Most of Senegal’s oyster production of nearly 400 tonnes per year is consumed at home, while a small portion is exported within the West African region. Cooked and dried oysters are traditionally used in local dishes, while fresh oysters supply the urban and tourist markets.

FAO – March 2021

South Africa has the capacity to be Africa’s largest producer of oysters however efforts have been hampered by a surge in concentrations of biotoxins and other hazardous substances. Namibian oysters have great potential as they can be harvested after eight months instead of the traditional three years because the cold water in the Atlantic contains more oxygen and plankton which promotes fast growth.

Oysters’ recipes from around Africa

While most of the world prefers to eat oysters raw with a dash of lemon and pepper to taste, most African countries prefer to eat the oysters cooked.

Here are a few recipes from around the continent that demonstrate the variety of ways this delicacy can be enjoyed:

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