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Oysters at the seaside (the second round). Chips not pictured


I was given a copy of the SAS Survival Guide when I was about six or seven and, since I was always desperate for reading material, I read it repeatedly. Certain pieces of advice surface in my mind occasionally, on digging out shelters in the snow (make your sleeping area higher than the lowest point so that the cold air sinks away from you) and what offal to avoid (polar bear liver is dangerously high in vitamin A). There’s a ten-step method for testing plant edibility which is seared into my brain. Yet, on a recent day trip to the seaside, when walking past a hedgerow I picked and confidently bit on a leaf of a lords-and-ladies plant (also called arum lily) having optimistically mistaken it for something else. (Too embarrassing to say what.) This is a poisonous plant and unconfusable with anything else when the berries are out. The nasty stinging on my tongue warned me off: like being stabbed with tiny needles. Later I skinned a knee tripping over on the pebble beach while wondering if some of the nice glossy leaves growing on the foreshore were sea beets.

At lunchtime my sister and I shared a dozen native oysters, which was the main purpose of the trip: it was the last chance before the end of the season, the sweet spot when it’s sunny enough to have them outside in the best way: on an aluminium or paper plate heaped with ice, outdoors, with chips and cider. The wind blew over our plastic wine glasses so it was safer to get a pint. Tabasco and lemon to squeeze for seasoning. My sister only likes natives — “They’re what I think an oyster should be like” — and small ones at that. Rock oysters are too many mouthfuls. Even so, we had a second round of small rocks, shared with her boyfriend: 72 hours later, having returned to our separate cities, we were violently sick.

We know that oysters have been eaten in vast quantities from ancient times — the shells are found in neolithic middens in Scotland. I hope that if I had been a neolithic person I would have been appreciated for my willingness to endure bodily harm in search of something edible. I would probably have doomed the whole cave society and never be allowed outside again. While recovering I spent hours reading horror stories of people who died from eating shellfish — sometimes from the horrific vibrio bacteria family.

Ernest Hemingway warned that eating badly in the semi-wild could put one “on the pathway to nervous dyspepsia”, in a piece for the Toronto Daily Star in 1920, “Camping out” — available online, but also collected in Eating Words, the Norton anthology of food writing (W.W. Norton, £25). “It is all right if [one] is only out for the day and going home to a good meal at night.” According to Hemingway, going “into the bush” during the summer is a great and very normal way to save money and relax, and “thousands” of men do it:

A man who gets his two weeks’ salary while he is on vacation should be able to put those two weeks in fishing and camping and be able to save one week’s salary clear. He ought to be able to sleep comfortably every night, to eat well every day and to return to the city rested and in good condition.

This sounds improbable but perhaps things are different in Canada.
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