First published in Vice [hence the swear words subbed in, apologies!]
Ribe, the small Danish town on the Jutland peninsula, is like a picturesque manifestation of all the European towns you see in films like In Bruges, Chocolat and Hot Fuzz. But for all its pretty cobbled streets and chocolate box houses, Ribe is rife with peculiarities.
There’s the dog-breeding scheme, for staters, which has the aim of creating a mutt—the ‘Dogma’ or ‘Ribehund’—without any pedigree recognised by the Danish Kennel Club. One of the preferences is that a Dogma should be shaped to neatly fit inside a bicycle basket or a rucksack and, each summer at Riberhaus Castle Hill, a ‘fashion’ show takes place to showcase the latest litters of these portable, wire-haired dogs and celebrate the success of the town’s anti-eugenics programme.
Then there’s The Black Sun, which sounds like one of the Ten Plagues of Egypt and feels a bit like it, too, when millions of starlings fill the sky at twilight. Ribe is on the migratory path from Scandinavia to South Europe and the clouds of birds are a force of nature—just ask any hawk foolish enough to target a flock. All the starlings surround the predator and poo and puke on it until its feathers are so laden down with faeces, the hawk drops out of the sky.
The starlings’ defensive techniques echo an intangible mood on the ground. Ribe was founded in the eighth century and still has fewer than ten thousand inhabitants. Despite this, the Jutland peninsula has been attacked from the moment it was founded, from the Slavic tribe, the Obodrites, in the eight century through to the German invasions in both the first and second World Wars. No wonder it feels so isolationist.
The most recent attack in Ribe wasn’t a human one, though. Oh no. In the 60s, Pacific oysters were introduced to the Wadden Sea to bolster the local population. The mudflats, now on the UNESCO World Heritage list, were traditionally home to mussel banks and native oysters—food to help sustain the 12 million birds on their migratory pit-stop.
A couple of consecutively warm summers, however, saw the Pacific Oyster population explode beyond all imagination. Suddenly, they took over. By the turn of the twentieth century the mussel beds were densely covered like some sort of permanent oysternami. There were up to 300 of the bastards per square metre. Now it’s thought that there are around 500 tons of Pacific Oysters breeding in the area, all roughly the size of an average person’s hand.
Rich pickings, you might think, for bird and human alike. Sadly not. Pacific Oysters have such thick shells, no bird can open them. Humans are the oysters’ only predators now and it’s down to visitors to the area to come and fill their boots with the things and even try to attempt to keep the population under control.
It was on a bitingly clear autumn that I hauled on a pair of waders loaned by The Wadden Sea Centre to harvest some of the Pacific monsters.
Hefty dykes protected the flat farmlands from ferocious tides and the expanse of mudflats stretched out ahead of us like a painting. “Follow me because I know where not to get stuck,” the guide said, as we started to snake across the squelchy mud, my feet barely getting any traction. I got monumentally stuck.
At armpit-height, the weight of the water pressed the layers of clothes beneath the waders tight against my body and the chill of the North Sea water penetrated the thickest sweaters I owned. Pressing on until we were about three km away from the shoreline, the mussel banks suddenly rose out of the sea, covered by the giant oysters—layer over layer, like scree.
On this remote Eden, we all delved into their rucksacks for the imminent bivalve banquet. Shit got serious. We lost our minds. Champagne corks were popped and lemons were sliced while someone in the group fired up a stove and started grating Parmesan into a pot of cream. We had only brought an oyster knife with us but that was enough.
We had to rest on our heels so the sharp oyster shells didn’t pierce the waders as we started wriggling the knife between the hinges in the oyster shells. Forcing them open revealed glistening masses of flesh, some nearly the size of fried eggs. If you were oyster-phobic, you may have passed out.
Fired up with sweet oyster meat—as any bivalve fanatic will froth at the mouth telling you, they never taste as good as when they’ve been just lifted from their natural, briny habitat—we filled our bags with as many of the Godzilla-like creatures as we could. Back on shore we were introduced to Hansel & Gretel, the Guinness Record-winning oyster who lives in a tank at the centre and named as such because oysters are hermaphrodites who change their sex depending on the water temperature. Oh, to be an oyster.Hansel & Gretel is the size of a man’s foot—almost 14 inches long, and four inches wide. He/she weighs over 1.5 kg. We talked about eating her/him, but the gullet-clogging reality of that much oyster meat was too much for even the most seasoned eater.