'When saints do sleepy grow, let them come hither.
And hear how these two pilgrims talk together
Yea, let them learn of them in any wise
Thus to keep ope their drowsy slumbering eyes.’
From ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ by John Bunyan (1628-1688)
St James, one of the fishermen apostles, was the first apostle to be martyred in 44AD. According to tradition St James visited Spain and preached the gospel there. The story doesn’t appear until the 7th century and is entirely discredited by theologians - except in Spain! St James’ shrine at Santiago di Compostela was, and still is one of the largest shrines in Christendom, and in the middle ages pilgrim routes lead there from the whole of the European continent, including from St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.
I have a theory about Santiago and the pilgrimages there. The symbol of St James is the cockle or scallop shell and pilgrims are awarded his badge when they complete a significant part of the pilgrimage. Santiago stands at the most extreme edge of the European mainland where the sun sinks spectacularly into the sea beyond the ‘old’ world. I think it was a site of pilgrimage long before St James, and the scallop shell actually symbolises the last rays of the sun as it sinks below the horizon. Compostela incidentally means ‘field of stars’ - imagine the velvet blackness of a starlit sky over the Atlantic. Given what we now know about the movement of peoples along the Atlantic sea-bord in pre-historic times, and the use of northern Spain as a refuge during the last ice age, it’s not an impossible theory.
Anyway whatever the theory behind it, today’s food choice is relatively easy, we can go French - Coquilles St Jaques, or English - oysters. I think it was M.F.K. Fisher who once said ‘it was a brave man (or woman) that first ate an oyster’ . I've often thought it must have been a very hungry one.
Despite there being no ‘R’ in the month, oysters are traditional today and England has long been famous for its oysters. If you eat oysters on St James day it’s lucky - you'll want for nothing for the next twelve months, but let’s not bank on it.
The Romans harvested oysters in Colchester and took them back to Rome in huge nets suspended from the sides of their ships. Roman middens of oyster shells are not uncommon. We think of oysters as an expensive delicacy and so they are these days, but the Georgians and Victorians ate them by the barrel load. Dr Johnson fed Hodge - ‘his very fine cat indeed’ on oysters every day, and Mrs Raffald in her ‘Experienced English Housekeeper’ published in 1769 gives a recipe for fried oysters, which starts ‘Take a quarter of a hundred of large oysters...’
I’m a purist about oysters, I like them ‘au naturel’ - a plate of cracked ice, a little pepper, a little lemon juice, maybe a dash of Tabasco. But that’s not cooking is it? - just ‘assemblage’. However the first time I ate an oyster and before I developed my raw oyster habit, I had it in a Bloody Mary. So - here’s a great drink for a chilly summer evening. I don’t drink alone (much) but this has a sort of ceremony about it which I like, especially on a solitary evening before a simple supper.
Oyster Bloody Mary
Have the foresight to put the bottle of vodka in the freezer well in advance (and the glasses in the fridge) For each person take:
A double shot of good Vodka
100ml of tomato juice (I like the little cans and also 'Big Tom' - but you’ll need less seasoning if you use that.)
A few drops of Tabasco or Worcester Sauce
Black pepper and sea salt.
An oyster (or two)
A stick of crunchy celery
Ice (not too much- don't drown it)
Put a lump of ice, the vodka and the juice in the glass, add the seasoning ingredients to taste. Slide in the oyster, slide down the throat.
‘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.
From ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ by Lewis Carroll (1832-1898)
Shell pic courtesy of zooomr.com