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The Amorous Oyster ~ A Primer on the World's Tastiest Bivalve

A Survivor's Guide to the King of Crustaceans

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The Amorous Oyster
A Primer on the World’s Tastiest Bivalve
© Michael Vaughan 2004

 

Backgrounder by Garvin Hoo Sang

For 18 years Michael Vaughan owned and operated Michael’s Mussels, which was considered to be one of the finest seafood retail/wholesale operations in Canada. He opened the tiny warehouse cum retail store at 172 Harbord Street in 1980, only steps from the U of T where he obtained his Ph.D. in Economics.  Michael's Mussels was the first company to launch PEI string-cultured mussels across Canada and around the world.  By 1982 Michael's Mussels was selling 10,000 pounds of mollusks a week.  The extensive oyster selection was only part of an ever-growing portfolio of specialty items. Rodney (of Rodney’s Oysters) admits that it was Michael’s Mussels who inspired him to pursue the oyster business.  Michael’s Mussels retail ads would appear every Saturday in the Globe & Mail (to see one of our Valentine’s Day ads from 1985 click here).  Customers would line up every Saturday morning to buy these freshly-caught treasures.  Having toured many of the oyster farmers on the east and west coast, Vaughan had seriously discussed the possibility of producing a World Atlas of Oysters with Hugh Johnson who shared his passion for this marvelous bivalve.  Unfortunately, the seven-day-a-week reality of running a seafood business never permitted that project to materialize.  Nevertheless,  over the years Vaughan accumulated a wealth of information, tasting notes and photographs of the folks who grew oysters.  This feature below based on one of the many articles Vaughan wrote on the subject and is presented for your pleasure.  Vaughan retired from fish mongering in 1998 and now devotes his time to food and wine education/enlightenment through the not-for-profit Food & Beverage Testing Institute of Canada. Today Toronto is blessed with several fine oyster bars each vying to bring the best, freshest oysters to their patrons.  

Perhaps more has been written about the seductive powers of oysters than any other edible. Lustful Louis XIV never devoured less than 100 at a time. Casanova, a man of more modest means, ate fifty in the raw for breakfast. Even the Oyster Institute of America was prompted into declaring: "Eat Oysters, Love Longer."

Nevertheless, as Jonathan Swift wrote, "He was a bold man that first eat an oyster." There is something strange about the looks of a raw oyster as it sits there naked in the shell just waiting to be consumed. And for many people the initial confrontation often terrifies. Grasping the shell, they close their eyes tightly, gulp back the cocktail-sauce-festooned-creature, wince and sigh for relief. The trial is over and they have passed the test.

Of course, such behavior would bring any self-respecting bivalve booster to his or her feet in disgust. Oysters should be "tasted," not lumped down one's gullet. Indeed, "gulping" is verboten. The raw oyster should be savoured and gently chewed so as to extract its full flavour. Flavourful oysters, such as the classic French Belon should be served au natural so as not to disturb its wonderful flavour. The fat, milder, creamy oysters from Maryland may, by contrast, be served with lemon and sauce since they have much less flavour and salinity of their own.

Oysters are a perfect reflection of their environment. There are many different species of oysters each with its own flavour characteristics, shell structure and coloration. Freshness and a sound environment are of paramount importance. And yet, there’s an almost total absence of knowledge when it comes to knowing where an oyster comes from, how old it is, how to open it and even how to eat it. This void that not only surrounds the consumer, but also restaurateurs and professionals who should know better.

In terms of merchandising, most establishments don’t have a clue as to what they are serving. I have seen oysters “cleaned” with tap water prior to serving on the half shell. And enormous, creamy, bland, Maryland Chesapeake Bay oysters being passed off as genuine Blue Points, which cost twice the price. While this might be excused in rural areas, it is all too prevalent in trendy, sophisticated, big city establishments. Ironically, some of the worst offenders are restaurants specializing in seafood where cost considerations take precedence over quality.

Of course, there is bound to be a degree of chauvinism. P.E.I. will feature its Malapeque a translucent, tangy, "lean" oyster that should be served, a la minute, uncooked (because it has low fat and will shrivel) and shrinks if left unattended or heated. From the northern coasts of New Brunswick comes the slightly "wilder" Caraquet oyster, while from the Bras d'Or lakes of Nova Scotia are the easy‑to‑open, mildly‑tangy, Bras d’Or.  In fact, each of these areas has many, many, small, highly seasonal growers. This makes continuity extremely difficult.  Moreover, one has to surmount the initial problem of trying to convince a good grower to send you his oysters to start with.

Back in the 1980’s a group of daring aquaculturalists tried to turn the tide by introducing fine specially‑grown oysters for the connoisseur. From Nova Scotia there is the French Belon or Flat, which might only cost a dollar at source but retails for $2.65. Unfortunately, oysters are no longer cheap and restaurants who in turn buy from distributors have to put a significant mark-up in place to account for the cost of handling the product and problems related to perishability. Belons, for instance, are very fragile and have a much shorter shelf life than say Malapeques.  They also have a very strong distinctive, somewhat metallic flavour that many novices find over-powering

Nevertheless, fine restaurants can develop a reputation for their Belon. That doesn't happen overnight. It requires a knowledgeable staff that will work with the customers to guide them to new items, which will whet their taste buds. Tastes are not static and these new items will quench the customer’s thirst for change. 

Another Canadian cultured oyster comes from the west coast and is know as the Golden Mantle. This extremely attractive oyster has a delicate, frilly lace shell that is easily shattered. Taste of the Golden Mantle is quite unique. It has a strong, salt-water flavour that I personally find very appealing. It is a fairly plump oyster (although not as translucent as the Malapeque) that is best suited for serving on the half shell. The only problem is in the opening. Force doesn't work. A thin blade should be slipped through the mouth so as to sever the muscle holding the top of the shell. Gloves are recommended since the shell is very sharp. Apparently this oyster is pretty hard to find in Toronto – the Royal Miyagi would be a good replacement.

Perhaps the best-known oyster used to be the Blue Point from the Long Island Sound area. Blue Points used to fetch from 75 cents to $1.25 US each (late 1980’s).  Unfortunately, they were grossly over fished and a moratorium was put on all harvesting.

And while there is a world of difference in terms of flavour when it comes to comparing a genuine Blue Point with its fatter, southern, warm water cousins, this is less the case when you look at growers in Rhode Island, Cape Cod and/or Connecticut. Some can emulate the Blue Point’s light beige colour and creamy texture, which is balanced by a mild saltiness and a hint of herbaceousness. This is a perfect oyster for the half shell or for cooking when the flavour does not have to be disguised or gussied up with spices.

As for the season, the late Fall is usually best when they fatten up for the winter. This winter was exceedingly mild so that these oysters (at least through January) were unusually plump and constantly available. And regarding seasonality, these oysters are available 12 months of the year. In the summer, however, the high heat tends to weaken the oyster meaning that it will usually not tolerate lengthy shipment. To overcome this problem, we pay our fishermen a premium to dig the oysters at night when it is cool and keep them iced. It may cost more per oyster, but it means better quality and freshness.

There are hundreds of other varieties of oysters. On the less‑expensive‑side are the Virginia Salt and Maryland Chesapeake Bay oysters. These oysters tend to be creamy and mild without the tang and flavour of their more northerly cousins. They are usually best for cooking when spices are used to enhance flavour. Their short shelf life is reduced dramatically in the summer, so they usually disappear, although gallons of shucked oysters are available for cooking through the entire year.

Also from the U.S. are hard-to-find Cape Cod oysters, from the famous, albeit hard-to-obtain, greenish, herbaceous‑tasting Wellfleet and Cotuit to the salty, translucent, Chatham oysters. The best of all, for my palate, used to come from a tiny grower in Waquoit – the DRC of the east coast.

Much more common today are the west coast oysters being grown in Washington and Oregon.   At one time the tiny Olympia (ostera luridis) was thought to be on the verge of extinction.  Today, it is commercially raised and at its best has an extremely tangy, pungent, metallic taste that you either love or hate.  The ones I recently tasted at the newly opened Starfish Oyster Bar & Grill ($1.25) were on the milder side, worth exploring, but not as pungent as the originals.

The somewhat larger (but still small), more satisfying Kumamoto (crassostrea sikaema), which is firm and fleshy with salty, gently herbaceous flavours, is worthy of a detour at $2.40.  Dollar or dollar, however, the larger (only 3” in length) Hood Canal (crassostrea gigas) has exciting, delicious flavours – shades of slightly salty, fresh sweet cucumber and melon.  My current favourite at $1.95.

Buying oysters is tricky because few seafood suppliers check the condition of what they are selling. Oysters in bulk are a special problem because of the great variation in size and quality. You supplier should sort, clean, grade and tap each and every oyster. The smallest oysters, "Cocktails," usually will run seven or more per pound; "Selects" six to seven, "Choice" five to six, "Deluxe" four to five; and "Super‑Deluxe" under four per pound. This count will vary with the type of oyster because different oysters have different shell weights (i.e. Blue Points are heavier than similar sized Golden Mantles or Malapeque).

More important, each oyster should be tapped to ensure it is full and alive, and then placed belly-down minimizing waste and spoilage through water seeping out of the oysters.

When you get oysters home, they should be immediately refrigerated. Optimal temperature is as close to freezing as possible, encouraging a state of dormancy. Moisture also is very important – refrigerators with dry air can suck the moisture out of the oyster and greatly reduce its shelf life. The trick here is to place a moist towel, perhaps with some pieces of ice, on top of the oysters to ensure a constant slow percolation of water. Different oysters, of course, have different life spans. In the summer when it is hot, it is perhaps safer to choose oysters from colder more northerly waters. These are likely to hold up longer.

In winter, southern oysters are fairly safe (make sure that the oysters have not been frozen during transit) and can keep up to two weeks. Malapeque up to two months if harvested at the end of November and kept under ideal conditions. Belon only one week at best and Golden Mantles just a touch longer if they are fresh from the sea and/or marine tank.

An oyster should be sold under its correct name, which usually indicates its origin. Each type of oyster has its own personality which means that it makes sense to offer a "taster's plate" consisting of an assortment of oysters so the customer can determine which is most appealing. The configuration or shape of the oyster will influence the cost but not the taste.

P.E.I. Malapeque are, for instance, shipped according to its shape and size in bulk! The lowest priced oysters are "commercial," and are long and narrow and usually difficult to open. The "standard" is a little rounder‑the length will be about 1-1/2 to two times the width. Finally, "choice" means that the length must be less than 1-1/2 times the width.

Opening an oyster is one of life's major challenges for the uninitiated. First, it is essential to open an oyster using the proper oyster knife. And I say proper oyster knife because some of the things sold as oyster knives are useless on certain types of oysters. Some shucker’s prefer a "rear" entry at the hinge (this calls for a strong, somewhat thicker, stainless steel blade). Golden Mantles, Belons, even the enormous Chesapeake Bay oysters may be opened through the mouth with a thinner, long, blade.

In Canada, the rear entry or “hinge popping” approach is the most common, especially when opening Bras d’Or or Malapeque. In this instance, the tip of the blade is inserted at the hinge between the upper and lower shells. Remembering to hold the oyster belly down to keep all the juice in the lower cup. The handle of the blade is slowly and steadily levered downwards popping the top of the shell away from the bottom. Once the seal is broken, the blade is wiped clean, reinserted and slid along the inside top shell to cut the oyster away from the top of the shell. The top shell is removed and the blade then cuts underneath the oyster making sure it is free to be swallowed. Any bits or pieces of shell are removed. Remember to keep as much as possible of the flavourful juice in the shell with the oyster.

The "mouth entry" is easier with fragile, thin shelled oysters such as the Golden Mantle and Belon. The thin blade is slipped between the upper and lower shells and cutting proceeds in the manner described above. If you are cooking oysters, you may put them in a warm oven for several minutes to make them easier to open. Another trick is to freeze the oyster, but make sure it is belly-down. When thawed, the freshly dead oyster will not offer any resistance to opening.

When it comes to eating, your nose knows. If the oyster has any off odour throw it out! If an oyster is dried out, but still smells perfectly fresh, you may shuck it for cooking. Also try to move with the seasons. In the summer cooler waters usually means fresher oysters. It is the lack of proper handling that increases spoilage and reduces shelf life. When it comes to European oysters, however, it is true that when the oysters spawn they carry the baby spat inside their own shells making them unpalatable. It makes sense to eat the oysters from the cooler more northerly waters in the summer  Malapeque have a season from April to December and the warmer water southerly oysters in the winter.

 

 

  
Food & Beverage Testing Institute of Canada
Copyright Michael Vaughan 2002
Toronto, Ontario
mbv@total.net