As Valentine’s Day approaches, Amanda Nicholls proposes a rescue mission to save an age-old aphrodisiac…

Viewed by many as the ultimate food of love (thanks to Aphrodite’s dramatic rise from the ocean in an oyster shell, so we’re told), the oyster is a symbol of style, indulgence and luxury – although this wasn’t always the case. Back in Victorian times, these meaty little molluscs were the preserve of the penniless alone, used to bulk out stews and pies. Steadily they have risen through the ranks, and gained the respect they deserve – but now it seems, they could be in a spot of bother.

Today many of our native species – once plentiful – are in decline due to overfishing, disease and pollution. They include the Cornish Wild Fal oyster which boasts such a unique, almost coppery taste, it’d be a crime to let it disappear. This British oyster is losing out to the popular Pacific oyster; a cheaper, more resilient species available all year rather than just September to April, and so, much more commercially viable.

It has been estimated that native stocks of these sea-salty beauts have fallen greatly in the UK – by up to 99% – which has led to intermittent fishing bans in some areas. It’s bad news for the livelihood of the fishermen, the economy, and shellfish lovers.

The answer? Eat more of them, apparently! Creating demand for our native varieties will make managing the remaining beds more worthwhile, and help fishermen continue to champion local supplies by simply harvesting a small number and leaving the youngest oysters to thrive.

Unfortunately though, reports of shellfish poisoning in the press have done their image no favours. Neither have widespread preconceptions of oysters as exclusive, costly and rather slimy (on the contrary, they can be so delicious, and are often naturally infused with subtle nutty or fruity flavours, depending on where they grow).

So, staunch seafood fans, the fate of the divisive oyster may be in your hands. And if you haven’t tried these little fellas before, now’s the time to do it. Why not get some for February 14th? Just remember to buy them from a reputable merchant, eat them as fresh as possible – and preferably cooked to avoid any nasties. Poach them, bake them, fry them, grill them. Simply drizzle them in lemon juice and pepper; pair them with pork; use in a chowder or perhaps try them with cream cheese, fresh diced cucumber and dill.

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