Stone Age
Middle Ages
18. & 19. Cent.
Belle Epoque
20. C. - 1. Half
20. C. - 2. Half
21. Century

The Greeks
John McCabe

Without Without oysters and fine wine a true Greek feast was simply incomplete. Greek fishermen would collect enormous quantities of the European oyster to satisfy the constant demand. Only one oyster species, the illustrious European oyster (Ostrea edulis), takes the stage in the ancient Greek (and Roman) context. Quite a number of firsts in the (western) history of oysters can be traced to the ancient Greeks. The scientific approach to the world of oysters and many other animals and plants in the then known world was initiated. The "love enhancing" quality commonly attributed to oysters in our present day world finds its beginnings in old Greece. Perhaps most importantly, the old Greeks were the first to actually cultivate oysters.

By the time the 4th century B.C. rolled around, the Greeks had begun to study oysters and other life in their world scientifically. Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) analyzed oysters and many other animals extensively in his famous "Historia Animalium". Simultaneously, the humble oyster had gained a powerful spiritual dimension. There was no doubt in any Greek's mind that there was a clear connection between oysters and the gods, in particular Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love. Since Aphrodite had been born of the sea foam in an oyster, this humble mollusk was subsequently elevated to the status of a powerful "aphrodisiac", a word derived from Aphrodite's name. Incidentally, Aphrodite was the only Greek deity who had no parents. Instead, she was the result of a rather gruesome mythological prelude, the animated and liberally embellished recounting of which very likely earned many an ancient Greek story teller at least one free flask of wine and perhaps some delicious oysters to go with it, courtesy of his thoroughly flabbergasted listeners.

Greek fishermen had noticed, quite by accident, that for some reason oyster babies were particularly fond of growing on broken pottery which had been discarded in some coastal waters. In what can be considered the earliest form of oyster cultivation, broken pottery was then collected deliberately and distributed in coastal areas where oysters were naturally plentiful. Once they observed a good number of oyster babies growing on the pottery shards, they would collect them and transplant them in commercially more readily accessible coastal areas. Here, the oysters would then continue to grow to a marketable size. Although the Greek fishermen could now rejoice in producing oysters just about anywhere they wished, they also learned that the transplanted oyster would often not reproduce. Hence, the continued remote placement of their pottery shards or other suitable substrate for the collection of oyster babies could not be avoided.

The cultivation method of first collecting suitable substrate (called "cultch"), then spreading this substrate in a chosen marine area (called "shelling") for the collection of oyster babies (called "spat"), then replanting either the "spatted cultch" or larger young oysters (called "seed") in other coastal areas for grow out (called "planting" or "bedding") for continued grow-out to marketable size, is still one of the cornerstones of modern oyster cultivation worldwide. Regrettably, this ancient cultivation technique was long lost after the Greeks and Romans, only to be rediscovered and implemented in the latter part of the 19th century in French and North American coastal regions (more details in the Coste section).

The Greeks incidentally used the shells of oysters to cast their ballot in the voting process. Each year, representatives of the general population were asked if an "ostracism" should be held. If so, the Greek citizens would carve the name of a particular person into an oyster shell or a pottery shard. These so called "ostrakons" would then go into a big pot and were later counted. That person could be banned by popular vote. Our English term "ostracism" has its roots in this ancient Greek method of temporary banishment (frequently ten years) of a particular person (usually a citizen deemed undesirably powerful) by popular vote without a trial or specific accusation.

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