In 55BC Julius Caesar landed along this Kentish coast. It wasn't a long stay. Hoping to find gold and silver, he found only painted thugs, fog and oysters. He beat a hasty retreat back to Gaul and left the conquest of Britain to Claudius 12 years later. 2,075 years on and the oysters, perhaps the only civilised thing he did find, are still worth a mention.
For coastal dwelling people oysters have been a staple for millennia. Archaeological sites on the shores of Scandinavia, China, Japan, Africa and the Americas are all unified by their almost monumental piles of discarded oyster shells, or middens. These huge mounds of prehistoric rubbish are replicated along the beach here at Whitstable, where one of the most famous oyster fisheries remains today.
Once only 'Natives' were plucked out of the littoral zone here. These are the fat and juicy wild oysters that cost a premium. Now, however, many come from farms, grown on racks in the tidal zone. Re-enter our toga-wearing friends. Oysters were so prized by Romans that they were willing to pack them in ice, snow and straw, bundle them on the backs of mules and transport them from Northern Europe through hostile lands and over the Alps to Italy. Seems like a lot of effort for a slimy ‘philandering sigh of the ocean’ in your mouth.
In 95BC one enterprising gourmet called Sergius Orata realised he could cut out the transport pain by growing his own oysters on racks along the shoreline before his villa in Baiae. Armed thus he threw bacchanalian parties where oysters were gulped down in their thousands – often before being vommed up with the help of a peacock feather throat tickler.
But Natives remained the real white truffle of the sea. So after Rome’s conquest of Britain, the Native Oysters of Kent became the centre of a booming trade lasting to today. Even now oysters are more experience than sustenance, ever associated with sensuality and sexuality (perhaps to be expected in a bivalve that changes sex every few years). Casanova apparently fuelled his bonking on 60 oysters a day. The Oyster was an infamous Victorian erotic magazine and Aphrodite herself was born from a seashell.