Oyster: flesh and bone

At the beginning of last year I left some oyster shells on a friend's fresh grave in Pennard churchyard on the Gower peninsula in South Wales: he loved the sea. I couldn't get to his funeral a few weeks earlier and I wanted to have a chat and say goodbye. So I collected shells from Aberafan Beach, where my parents live, shells washed in from Swansea Bay, a bay we shared during different parts of our lives, relics of an oyster fishing industry that can be dated back to Roman times but which had its heyday in the 19th century. At its peak in 1871 fishermen brought 18 million of them ashore, exporting them to London and Europe, and there's still a seemingly endless supply of sea-rubbed, encrusted half shells to be found on the bay's beaches. 

Oysters are on my mind as I've just come back from Jersey, a nostalgic trip to the island where I lived between 1978 and 1985, where I ate Jersey oysters poached in a champagne butter sauce at The Oyster Box in St Brelade's Bay.

Swansea Bay oysters had fallen into decline in the 1920s from over-fishing, pollution and disease but at the end of 2014 a project, led by marine biologist Dr Andy Woolmer, to repopulate the bay started to show positive results: a brood stock released into a 35-hectare area of sea the previous year were growing and starting to reproduce. 

My friend, Nigel Jenkins (1949 - 2014), would have appreciated this, a man who was deeply connected to his town's and country's heritage and history. He'd have surely written about it in a third Real Swansea if he'd lived. He may even have known Andy Woolmer who completed a PhD studying the seabed of Carmarthen Bay at Swansea university where Nigel led the creative writing programme until the months before his death from pancreatic cancer.

Words and laughter. The two things that come to mind when I think of Nigel. His passion, energy and precision in the former, the rumble of his deep bass voice and genuine enjoyment for life in the latter. 

Jonathan Swift is reported to have said, 'He was a bold man that first ate an oyster'. And you have to agree with him even if you're a big fan of grey, wobbly bi-valves. My first experience of eating them, at an oyster festival in Toronto in 1988, was shored up by several glasses of champagne. My friend told me to swallow them whole and the experience of wet flab slipping into my throat alienated me from them for years.

I met them again in a more positive light, when I was living in Antibes/Juan les Pins, at the exquisite Festival de la Mer, where they were served in the half shell coated in a warm sabayon sauce and flashed under the grill. Not too dissimilar from the Jersey oysters above, except the latter's sauce was more delicate and seasoned with fresh, chopped chives. 

I am grateful to Nigel Jenkins for the years of his friendship. In my last letter to him in December 2013 I told him, I want you to stay around for a long time. For Margot and your daughters and close friends. And selfishly for me too. When you like people, and they feel that warmth, it makes a difference to their lives, Nigel. Maybe because they know – I know – that you do not tolerate navel-gazers and clever dicks and pomposity! So we feel saved!  

Hungry writing prompt
Write about being saved or saving someone.

But I am grateful to him for his support and encouragement too: his invitations to edit and teach with him, how his belief in me as a a writer convinced me I could write a good Real Port Talbot

The word 'oyster' has its origins in the Greek ostreon, related to osteon meaning 'bone'. We also tend to think about oysters in conjunction with pearls, and the enduring myth of how an irritating grain of sand transforms into a thing of beauty. The reality is even more wondrous:  

It is thought that natural pearls form under a set of accidental conditions when a microscopic intruder or parasite enters a bivalve mollusc and settles inside the shell. The mollusc, irritated by the intruder, forms a pearl sac of external mantle tissue cells and secretes the calcium carbonate and conchiolin to cover the irritant. This secretion process is repeated many times, thus producing a pearl. Natural pearls come in many shapes, with perfectly round ones being comparatively rare. Wikipedia

Oyster. Flesh and bone. The health of which we all rely on for each and every tenuous day of lives. 'Accidental conditions': how else to explain those cruel, indiscriminate cells?

What did I talk about as I settled the oyster shells on the corner of Nigel's grave? I apologised for the Aberafan shells in favour of the Swansea ones he once pointed out to me on the beach near the marina there. And I swore about the damn unfairness of his death. And I told him about my dead Carmarthen grandmothers, their footsteps I was tracking along lanes between church and farm, from village to village in the 18th and 19th centuries. About running like a startled whippet along one lane too narrow to accommodate a whippet plus a convoy of monster tractors and trailers! You gave me this, I told him, the idea I could write their stories, that I could conjure them back to flesh and bone. And then I said thank you and went home.



In January I blogged about 'The Year of Eating Everything' and while I started out brimming with enthusiasm and good intentions not to throw any food away I have to be honest and say it's been more 'The Year of Eating Mostly Everything' so far. Damn those little salad bags that turn all seaweedy if you open one and forget about it for a few days. 

But this week's experiment might compensate for any previous failings. In fact, I didn't even consider this particular food item as something that should or could be eaten when I wrote that post. You probably wouldn't have either. 

Can you tell what it is yet?
No, not worms. Candied orange peel. Made from the peel of some large dessert oranges we've been buying from our local garage's inspirationally stocked Spar Parkfoot supermarket near West Malling, Kent. (It was voted Convenience Retailer of the Year in 2014 as well as Best Independent Store and Best Chilled Retailer.) 

However, now I've Googled 'candied orange peel' it appears that the world is already awash with knowledge and recipes... but I am taking a big chunk of satisfaction from the fact that the process I made up as I went along is pretty much identical to the BBC's Good Food recipe here. Except I didn't change the water as instructed in Stage 2 - let's hope there's nothing nutritionally toxic in that oversight!* 

I've yet to try dipping them in chocolate, as this and other on-line recipes suggest, but I might give that a go the next time we have people around for dinner and serve them with coffee. But for now I'm just enjoying their chewy, slightly bitter and crunchy sugariness: they are better than fruit gums, or wine gums, or any other shop bought fruity rubbery sweet. 

I'm now inspired to try lemon and lime peel. Grapefruit too. I'm wondering about the subtleties of flavour between clementine and mandarin peel, between common and garden lemons and Meyer lemons. 

You know how there are always new songs being written, new musical arrangements that move and astonish us even though there are only 88 keys and 7 octaves on a piano keyboard? How with only 26 letters in the alphabet writers keep on assembling them into words and creating stories we could not have imagined?  

I feel like that about my little culinary discoveries sometimes. Small leaps of imagination and curiosity that produce something new, or new to me at least.

Wonder. I guess that's what we all must have and pursue. It brings light to our lives.   

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about some wondrous things.

* Tipping away that first batch of water removes some of the bitterness from the peel. And the end result is definitely better. Why don't recipes tell you stuff like this?!


Birthday breakfast and writing for someone you love

It's Tony birthday today and we've just had his birthday brunch made with eggs from a local farm whose shells cracked with an ease and precision I have never known from shop-bought eggs (Note to self: find out why...) and whose yolks were as yellow as buttercups. 

scrambled eggs with creme fraiche and smoked salmon on buttered sourdough toast
I left Jersey and moved to Kent to be with him on his birthday in 1985 and I remember standing in the open doorway in the kitchen of his ragstone cottage looking at the acres of grass and trees that surrounded it and wondering how I might find my place there. And that thought led me to this year's birthday prose poem for him.


The first one you’d already made: from the doorway of the kitchen I looked across grass to a greenhouse, a swimming pool and tennis court, and beyond, the driveway’s arc of shingle. Then you gave me stone and the sound of water: a cobbled yard, a blooming meniscus of lilies where once a dragon fly landed on my knee. Later you raised the walls of a garden room, crowned them with a roof that curved to a peak, like the ideas for a book taking shape inside my head. Then you presented me with the North Downs and ten thousand apple trees, but brought them nearer so I could walk out, barefoot if I chose, into the green. Today there is cherry blossom outside my door. I watch the drift of bees, their industry that seems so effortless: you are like this. You lay your hands to wood and stone, glass and earth with such patience, such joy, an absence of burden. You gaze across a landscape and see the possibilities there: how a wall needs to curve, how one fruit tree will replace another. How there is always something over the next horizon. 

Happy birthday, TB. Love, always.

Hungry writing prompt
Write about the view from your window.