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The Sweet Fragrance of Oysters

If you head over to Borough Market, on any given day, you will find a regular queue of customers enjoying some freshly shucked oysters from our stand. It is fantastic to see how popular oysters have become in the UK, a food that is being celebrated up and down the country. The very fact our oysters grow wild in the UK waters, grown by a family who have been doing this since the 18th century, is something to be excited about.


Yet, whilst nearly 300 years of oyster cultivation are behind us, it is nothing compared to how long humans have been eating these delicious molluscs. Indeed, the more you look into it, the more remarkable it becomes, as we find oysters intimately weaved through human history, across many different times and cultures.


The Incense Route was one of the main trade routes on the Arabian Peninsula. It used to bring incense from the deep south to the Mediterranean. Famous for the exotic spices and perfumes it carried, its legacy stretches back thousands of years.


There are songs written by the Greek poet Sappho (7th Century BCE) where she mentions exotic fragrances filling the air, such as the luxurious frankincense. This was an extremely rare and precious perfume, yet by the time of Sappho it was being imported into the Mediterranean in large quantities.


There are records of frankincense being burned by the Babylonians (located in modern day Iraq) by the tonnes during the 5th Century. It is estimated that Babylonian priests burned over 20 tonnes of frankincense every year to their supreme god, Marduk. In today’s money, that is worth over £1 billion, every single year!


Nero, emperor of the Roman world in the first century AD (54-68) is reported to have burned an entire year's worth of frankincense during the funeral of his wife, Poppaea.


The Incense Route was, then, extremely lucrative, and incredibly important for perhaps 1000 years of human history.


Whilst perfumes and spices would have been the main and most lucrative items for trade along the route, archaeological evidence has found other, more curious discoveries, helping to shed light upon ancient mysteries.


One such discovery is of oyster shells found along the route, in the Negev, a desert in Southern Israel. Obviously those oysters were not grown and cultivated there, so, upon the discovery of these oyster shells, detective work needed to be carried out to try and piece together how those shells arrived in that place. The very fact they were found on the Incense Route gave archaeologists a vital clue as to the origins of these molluscs.


At various places along the Incense Route were pit-stops, places traders could rest with their animals before continuing on their long journey. It is at these pit-stops that oyster shells were discovered, which archaeologists have determined originated from the Red Sea.


It appears that traders loved oysters, and so took them from Egypt, and ate them as they travelled along the route. What is interesting is that the oysters were not simply caught and eaten on the spot, but likely opened and kept in their shells, dried, salted, and packed, so that they could be transported great distances, and enjoyed later. There is some evidence to suggest they were even traded at these various pit-stops.


So it seems that oysters have been a food of choice for thousands of years, something people across the world have enjoyed throughout history. We are delighted to see new people today, enjoying oysters for the first time, and becoming life-long lovers of this fascinating mollusc.

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