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Trinidad’s shellfish treats
Before bake and shark, before doubles, before accra, there were oysters. At the Banwari Trace midden in south Trinidad (the oldest human habitation site in the West Indies), the first people hunter-gatherers of 6,000 BC made mangrove oysters their protein staple. The discarded shells make up a hill more than 20 feet high. Almost every Amerindian midden in Trinidad contains oyster shells, evidence that these molluscs were an essential food source.
The swamps at Cocorite and the nearby Caroni estuary meant that oysters were readily available in Port-of-Spain. At the wedding feast of Governor Lord Harris and Sarah Cummings in the 1850s, these delectable shellfish were part of the menu. The Chinese were well known for their purveying of this well-liked treat. The popularity of oysters as an entrée was so great that in 1865 Daniel Hart wrote:
“Trinidad can boast of a large supply of magnificent oysters principally on its Eastern and Southern coast, The Nariva, Mayaro, and Moruga oysters are reported the best in the colony. This does not include the oysters growing on the mangrove roots in many of the swamps of the island, and in several places on our sea-board, nor the Rock Oysters of Point Gourde, &c., &c.
The Mangrove and Rock Oysters are generally small. Those of Nariva, Mayaro, and Moruga are large, of a size averaging about 3x2 inches. In the dry season they are particularly well in flesh; there are several beds of oysters about Cocorite, but through the apathy of the people, oysters are very seldom found in our markets. A new branch of industry has recently started in San Fernando in that line; several Chinese have opened a regular oyster trade and supply their customers and others with oysters already shelled.”
The San Fernando oysters were considered to be the finest and the gathering depot was on King’s Wharf from whence the shellfish could be sent by steamer to Port-of-Spain. Dr W V Tothill, a Scottish medical man working at Usine Ste Madeline in the 1920s, wrote that it was not unusual for a cocktail party to be assembled at the Usine Club on a Sunday morning, with one hundred dozen oysters being consumed by only four men.
Fresh oysters were also on the menu for dances and even breakfast at the Paramount Hotel on Circular Road, which is now the headquarters of the OWTU.
Silam Achee was a Chinaman well known in the trade who became quite prosperous as a supplier of shellfish treats to Port-of-Spain. He developed a system whereby he employed several harvesters who took to Cocorite and Caroni every morning to gather the shellfish from the mangrove roots. They would be brought in by the sack to his premises on Prince Street, where they were immersed in clear water to purge them of impurities.
Silam Achee had regular orders from restaurants and large caterers and so would load the unopened oysters in tubs of ice for delivery. One of the odd treats that utilised oysters as a primary ingredient was oyster pie which was a popular thing during Lent when fish was in high demand.
This seems to have vanished from the local palate. What remained was opened on the spot and served up to retail customers, particularly men, who wanted to down a half dozen or so. He also engaged vendors to take up strategic positions outside the key rumshops of the city, particularly the Standard Hotel, Black Cat Bar, and Peep of Day.
Oyster vendors took many forms. The most popular was the Chinaman with his basket and blunt knife. With lightning speed, he would shuck the oysters into a dish, add a sauce of crushed yellow pepper and chadon beni, and receive a few pence. This was a popular bar snack and favoured as a ‘cutters’ by the Port-of-Spain rumshop crowd along with black pudding and souse.
The other kind was the mainly Indo Trini vendor with his wares stacked on a dirty trestle table, a pitch-oil flambeaux casting a flickering and smoky light on his features as he opened shells at two for one cent. The oysters could either be put into a glass and a cocktail of peppersauce and green seasoning added, or they could be slurped from the shell, a bit of pepper being poured in for good measure. Health ordinances now prohibit the time honoured practice of eating oysters from the shell.
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