By Jac Dowling
I’ve never actually met a walrus: nor do I believe Lewis Carroll did before writing his Jabberwocky poem The Walrus And The Carpenter. As a child I felt terribly sorry for the poor little oysters and swore never to eat them – ever. Until my tonsils took to swelling up every few weeks, making it difficult to swallow. Enter Doeks, Mrs Doeks and their little black brakkie ‘All Black’. They spent every oyster season combing the rocks along Port Alfred’s East Beach: returning at night with huge dripping sacks of oysters hoisted on their backs. Doeks, bandy-legged in his rolled up grey flannels, a tweed jacket and ancient felt hat: Mrs in her matching navy hat and long coat, which was buttoned to the neck probably 24/12. My father knew them well and they were regularly to be seen sitting under a tree in our garden, shucking oysters – which then found their way to me. And so began a lifelong gastronomic affair with these bivalves, in places so different and memorable – flavours, views and experiences blending and swirling, leaving an aftertaste of pure bliss.
In our hedonistic childhood we roamed the beaches and countryside on foot and horseback, perfectly safe and untroubled. Tables of rock, exposed at low tide, held pools of sea-anemones, brilliantly coloured: their tiny tentacles waving and grabbing at little darting fish. Creepy octopus lurked under ledges, and there were walls of huge oysters clinging to the rocks. A sturdy knife took care of cracking the shells open and we gorged ourselves on the thick, slippery and sweet meat of the molluscs. No lemon juice was required, nor tabasco or Black Velvet. Just sea water. When the weather was good and the tide in our favour, we more or less lived on oysters and were tanned, slim and very healthy children.
That was then. We grew up – looked for oysters in different places. On the banks of the Knysna Lagoon, mud flats stretching out on all sides, a small clinker-built boat runs up onto the sedge, offloads boxes of oysters freshly harvested from the lagoon beds. Our shaded picnic table of rough wooden planks, sits on the very edge of the water. Avocets and stilts dip their way through the silt and seagrass, red-legged oystercatchers peck among exposed rocks. And we address a platter of Knysna oysters fit for a king. Served on crushed ice with wedges of lemon – accompanied by a chilled and beaded bottle of Chardonnay Take two dozen home with us for later. For when the sun sets over the lagoon, and birds come home to roost.
Between Mauritius’s Grande Baie and Club Med an unremarkarble small restaurant stood back from the road: an ancient and weatherbeaten rowing boat propped against the wall. On it was painted in wobbly script Le Bateau Ivre which translated into The Drunken Boat. Interesting – we thought. Worth a try. That evening we persuaded our Mini-moke along the narrow and bumpy bayside road, the air heavy and scented with woodsmoke from casuarina fires. The restaurant appeared like something out of a film set. Soft lights lit filigreed branches of tasseled tamarisks. The exterior shadowed and inviting. Luring us in. We sat beneath a canopy of banana thatch. On a wood grill nearby, lobsters steamed fragrantly. French/Creole music played softly in the background . Our oysters arrived on generous platters, nestling in a mound of silky seaweed and accompanied by crusty French bread, toasted over the coals, and a bottle of South African white. Lamplight – mellow.
My last memorable interaction with oysters was at The Raft restaurant, Walvis Bay. And probably the best ever.
Situated on a lagoon alive with birds, The Raft is an experience, with excellent food. Pelicans float under the deck, part of which is glass, so one has the feeling of being afloat yet firmly anchored – weird, especially if your table happens to be above a glass panel. The oysters, originally imported at an early stage from Chile, and matured in the lagoon, are sweet, succulent and possessing a flavour which lingers down the years. Oysters, chilled wine, pink flamingos, dolphins and a totally spectacular sunset.
Since then I’ve begun to feel like the walrus who wept bitter tears. All the local oysters are crammed into fish tanks, higgeldy piggeldy. No lovely waves washing over them and clearing their systems. Fish tanks in fish shops or over-priced restaurants. No thank you, I do not want six oysters on a plate with tabasco or balsamic – or dried out slices of lemon with a scattering of parsley to fill the spaces. My memories are far too poignant and rich.
O oysters, said the carpenter
You’ve had a pleasant run.
Shall we be trotting home again?
But answer came there none.
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one