Legend has it that the only reason Julius Caesar invaded Britain was to steal the fresh European oysters that grew on the country's banks. Maybe for their pearls, maybe for their sweet delicate taste or maybe, as some say, for their rumored capacity to make a man a better lover. (It was, after all, Casanova who was said to eat 50-a-day for breakfast.)
Caesar would send them back to Rome from Britain packed in sacks of snow, an arduous task for sure and in Denmark, where I currently stand in tight rubber boots with cold water up to my waist, they were for many years reserved only for royalty, the act of fishing them punishable by death.
At one point they were dismissed as mere peasant fodder, however, throughout most parts of history they've been been regarded as one of life's greatest delicacies and as I slowly wade into the icy cold water of Limfjord in North Jutland nearthe very top of Denmark, net in one hand, bright orange oyster spotter in the other and Old Billy - the name given to the trusty shucking knife in my back pocket - I realize I'm about to help myself to one of the most sought after foods on the planet. Picked directly from the largest remaining wild bed of European oysters in the world. "Spot it, pluck it, shuck it".
"We think this is the only thing we have in Denmark that resembles caviar - it's a truly delicious pure food. You taste it and you can taste the nature that we live in," explains Kasper Fogh Hansen, my head swaying with the water as I use my bright orange spotter to check if what I think I've found is a fresh oyster or yet another rock. Kasper works with 'Food', a small team of people intent on educating the world about Nordic gastronomy and just how great the European oysters of Denmark are.
"We started two years ago. At that time most of the Danish people didn't even know we produced oysters, maybe the best in the world. They were being exported without any name, brand, destination. Without anything printed on them."
The sun continues to beam. Maybe the thick hat was overkill. I'm half a mile from shore, water rising with every step I take and very aware that it's now up to my stomach, any doubts of drowning flattened by the thrill of the catch. I reach down and submerge my hand before plucking my first one. Flat? Check. Smooth? Check. Round? Check. "I've got one".
It's what I'm here for and what Kasper and his team are working so hard to promote, a variety of oyster that is now particular to the North of Jutland - what may well be the last of the European flat oysters. Not your regular Pacific but the Ostrea Edulis - a variety that, in many parts of Europe, is on the edge of extinction due to parasites and over fishing. A variety of oyster that many, including Kasper, believe is the tastiest of them all.
"It's a real rarity and it an expensive animal, they cost around 10-times the price of Pacific oysters. The only people who really appreciate them are in Spain, Italy and France. They have a real tradition of eating this animal but no idea of where it's coming from. If you compare a European oyster to a Pacific one they're very different. It's a much more meaty animal and has a great bite. With a European oyster you have this strong meaty texture, you can taste fat, nuttiness - its much closer to eating raw shell fish than eating a Pacific oyster."
The safari I'm so excitedly taking part in is one of Kasper and his team's latest ideas, a way to show the world that Denmark has some of the best. Invite people into the clear waters and let them hunt, let them see where many of the world's European oysters now originate. They can't officially be called Belon - one of the world's most famous oysters - because these carry an AOC classification and must be picked from The Belon River in Brittany, but they're the same variety and with French and British oysters both plagued by a series of parasites, bacteria and viruses in the past ten years, the clear waters of the North Sea are now one of the last remaining places in Europe where the Ostrea Edulis appear to be thriving.
It could be the cold waters, a genetic resistance, a certain evolved breed or a number of geographical factors. No one really knows why Jutland seems to have escaped the problems that have wiped out billions of oysters in France and England.
The guide leading the hunt/safari, whatever you want to call it, shouts us back. Apparently it's time to retreat but I have one more in eye shot. I'm determined to catch another, knowing that in a few minutes I'll be biting into its umami rich, mineral goodness fresh from the shell. Neck back and poured directly in. Is there anything better? Kasper thinks not: "The Nordic food movement is very much about telling a story of natural preservation, about bio-diversity, eating more species, understanding surroundings through food and I don't think there's anything that communicates this better than the European oyster."
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