Eating the world’s best oyster on the boat of an oysterman who doesn’t eat oysters.
The fisherman says he doesn’t eat the oysters he catches. He laughs a bit and says maybe he shouldn’t admit it, but it’s true: he can’t quite handle the texture.
An oyster’s texture is what it is: internal. The raw oyster is all innard, a food from before man had fire, before we could cook a crust onto anything. And, as the Chronicle of Higher Ed pointed out this week, humans are crazy for crispy. Nobody is crazy for quaggy.
The oysters of Denmark’s Limfjord, which are said to be among the world’s best oysters, if not the best outright, offer the additional challenge of size. The Limfjord is the northernmost edge of the world for the European flat oyster, which grows from Morocco to Denmark. And in these cold waters, Ostrea edulis grow slowly, to enormous size. By the time this fisherman has them, ready to send to Limfjord processors Vilsund Blue, they are thick medallions of flesh, nearly the size of the fisherman’s palm.
The fisherman is called Benny Andersen, but in the slurry of Danish sounds—there’s a saying, in Norway at least, that Danish isn’t a language so much as a disease—his name is pronounced Behnnuannasson. Limfjord becomes Leemfyoh, and his boat is named after his teenaged daughter Laura, which comes out as Lowa.
Benny stands in the cockpit of the Laura, in the harbor at Nykøbing on Mors Island. He’s around 50 years old, skin aged with sun and cigarette smoke, but he has a young wife. For this, he says, he eats lots of hard-boiled eggs, a kind of Jutland viagra. In addition to his daughter, Benny has a son, who does not want to be a fisherman. For five generations, Andersens have fished the Limfjord, but Benny will be the last.
“When I started in 1977, I was 14, there were no problems, you could go out and catch whatever you want, eel and sea star and herring,” he says. “Now there’s coming more and more rules you have to fish by, and it’s become a very big problem to be a fisherman today. It’s not alone in the fjord, but all over in Denmark. More and more rules.”
The sea star rules are among the more vexing. It used to be that fishermen could make money selling sea stars to the island’s pig farmers, who would feed the starfish to their hogs. Now, that’s all illegal, and if this is the first time you ever thought about the problem of pigs not being able to eat starfish, well, then, same here.
The fishermen lose out on a few kroner because they can’t sell this bycatch, but there’s a bigger problem. The sea stars now have “no enemy” as Benny puts it, and among their favorite foods are those wide, flat oysters. Each year the sea stars, spreading unchecked on the inlet floor, eat as many tons of Limfjord oysters as the entire fleet catches, says Benny.
A hundred years before Christ, a Roman merchant called Sergius Orata—named Orata after a golden fish, because in his wealth he wore gold rings on his fat fingers—developed a method of farming oysters. The practice spread north through Europe, into France, where the Bretons started using a practice called tromper I’huître (“fool the oyster”) to prevent them from opening their shells in the air when moved. But the ingenuity of farming will never replace the wildness of the species when it is in cold, clean waters. And so the 5000 to 6000 metric tons of mussel meat, in addition to all the Limfjord oysters, that Vilsund Blue harvests and processes, is all wild-caught by the 38 boats in the fjord’s fleet.
That wildness has a price. It’s not just predation, it’s the difficulty of the Limfjord itself. The inlet, which since a flood in the late 1800’s actually bisects the Jutland from coast to coast, has a lot of advantages. Less salt in the water gives the seafood a sweeter taste. On the northern tip of Europe, the waters stay cleaner and colder. But it’s also shallow water, 24 meters at its deepest point, susceptible to dangerous temperature swings. Often the summer is too hot, the water too still. In a hard winter, the fjord freezes over. Both conditions lead to hypoxia, and the oysters die. This past summer, says Benny, the fjord lost some forty percent of its fishery biomass to the heat. Uffe Appelon Petersen, an executive with Vilsund Blue, puts it this way: “the oysters are living on a razor blade here in the Limfjord.”
The industry doesn’t want to add to the pressure. Vilsund Blue sought and received Marine Stewardship Council sustainability certification for the mussel fishery two years ago. The same rating for oysters followed soon afterwards. “First in the world,” says Petersen. And recently, when fishermen noticed that the mussels caught were getting smaller, the fleet decided to impose their own limits on how much they can catch: 30 tons per week per license, instead of the 45 tons the Danish government was prepared to give them. Vilsund Blue agreed to the reduction.
Benny, he doesn’t worry. “There’s a cycle,” he says. “It goes up, goes down. We’re in the down part now, but we’ll come back.”
This equanimity that Benny has comes from a place of peace, of routine, of control. The Laura is a trim but powerful trawler, built in 2004, 12 meters from propeller to prow. Benny climbs into the cockpit each morning at 3am (for mussels) or 2am (for oysters, in the winter season). He starts each morning with a shot of Fernet Branca, the throat-catching Italian bitter liqueur, to wake up; he lines up his three pipes (“you never want to smoke a warm pipe”). He chugs out of Nykøbing harbor for the three-hour trip to the fishing grounds.
With power winches, advanced GPS mapping and a control panel that could steer the Enterprise, Benny can fish alone, with no deckhands. He watches movies on DVD on a small screen near the control panel. For an oyster fisherman on the far northern tip of Europe, he speaks outstanding English, and it seems possible that his movie habit—two each day that he fishes—must have something to do with his language skills. On the table when I meet him: a DVD of Soul Man, from 1986, starring C. Thomas Howell and Rae Dawn Chong.
It takes anywhere from three to six hours to catch his 30-ton quota and hoist it into the hold. He’s done by noon each day before heading back in. Benny’s wife makes him his lunches, which he heats in a microwave and eats at the small table with bench seating in the corner. Sandwiches, pork, those eggs, never oysters.
But Matt and I will eat oysters on the boat. Petersen has brought a bucket of them and he shucks them on the table for us. There’s lemon, too, but it won’t be needed. Because when the oyster opens up, wide and flat and clean, it carries its own flavor. You eat it and immediately there’s a flash of metal, the distinctive taste of the Limfjord oyster. The freshness is almost electric, like you just put a battery in your mouth. Then comes the sweetness of the oyster itself, and a chaser of the juice: cold, fresh and salted. It’s incredible.
The oyster makes Matt a little giddy. He asks if there’s any aquavit—who cares that Danes drink that liquor with herring, not oysters—and soon enough we’re all drinking a shot of Aalborg Taffel Akvavit, which Benny also keeps tucked away in the cabin, and watching the wind whip outside. Benny says he starts as early as he does each day because the weather is calmer in the mornings. We have met him in the late afternoon, and the wind is rising, rain is moving sideways, and all around is fjord, where water and sky seem indistinguishable.
And just then, in a moment of Akvavit epiphany, I think I know a secret reason that Benny doesn’t eat oysters. It can’t be the texture. With all that flavor, who could hold the softness of an oyster against it? No, rather, I think Benny’s real problem is this: for a fisherman, the whole trick is to maintain your identity as a creature of land even as you spend your life on the water. DVDs, pork sandwiches, pictures of family: his cabin is filled with reminders that even three hours into the middle of the fjord, we are all creatures of carpets and grass and homes and hills. It’s as if to combat the many legends and poems of fishermen—Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Ballad of the Oysterman is an appropriate example—where men wind up living their lives or afterlives beneath the waves. But to eat this oyster, the Limfjord oyster, is to give in to the water, to have what writer Eleanor Clark called a “piercing intuition of the sea and all its weeds and breezes.” To eat Ostrea edulis, as she wrote in 1964, is to eat the sea. Benny Andersen lives the sea enough as it is; he does not need to eat it as well.