You never forget your first encounter with an oyster. Mine was on a childhood visit to my South African grandmother. At a little clapboard café outside Knysna, on the Garden Route, a plastic tray of shimmering pale grey and creamy white in pearlescent shells. I prodded one – there was no way I was going in.
In the 1800s, with the arrival of sophisticated farming methods, oysters became a food for all. In London, sellers would walk around flogging a couple of dozen to big households on the servants’ night off. The city’s legendary fish restaurants J Sheekey, Rules and Wheeler’s all began as oyster bars. By 1910, the British government estimated that the industry was the most important in the world. In New York the lower Hudson had 350 square miles of beds producing what was thought to be half of the planet’s output – with single specimens measuring nearly a foot across. Cheap and nutritious, they were sold on street corners along with corn and peanuts. The legend that Aphrodite was born from the sea in the shell of an oyster informed the idea of its aphrodisiac powers.
Oysters have an extraordinary capacity to filter water. Left to their own devices, they were at one point able to clean all the water in New York Harbor within days, but by 1927 the beds were closed due to pollution and overfishing. The traditional rule – to consume them only when there is an ‘R’ in the month – allows wild oysters to replenish their stocks during the summer spawning period. But due to rising water temperatures it’s now widely accepted that October, rather than September, is the beginning of the season. In the early 20th century, over-harvesting presented the possibility of extinction. However, through careful management and the introduction of the meaty rock oyster variety from Japan, which grows extremely fast year round, the global population has stabilised and is increasingly protected.
And so this mollusc has firmly established itself at the crossroads of style, sustenance and sustainability. A new generation in search of extravagant but guilt-free dining the oyster does not have a central nervous system – has emerged, sealing its reputation as a cult food for good.
You’ll probably mess up about three oysters before you get the hang of it, but it’s worth getting over the fear of shucking. Some bars tip away the briny liquid, while others think it’s key to the experience. Just follow these steps:
- Take an oyster knife and a thick cloth, folded, to protect your hand.
- Hold the knife close to the blade and give the hinge of the shell a little wiggle until you feel a slight release of pressure.
- Twist the knife to open the shell, then run it along the top to cut the muscle so you can open it.
- Wipe the knife to make sure there’s no grit on it.
- Loosen the oyster by cutting the muscle underneath.
- Suck into your mouth and chew a couple of times to release the briny flavours before swallowing. Serve au naturel, with a squeeze of lemon, a dash of tabasco or a simple mignonette of finely chopped shallots in vinegar with a pinch of salt and sugar.
The best oyster restaurants in the world
THE COMPANY SHED, ESSEX
‘An old hut just down the slipway in Colchester, with the farm a shell’s throw from where you’re sitting. Bring your own bread and wine and they will supply the rest – Maldon oysters and a half-pint of prawns.’ thecompanyshed.co
MORAN’S OYSTER COTTAGE, IRELAND
SWAN OYSTER DEPOT, SAN FRANCISCO
‘Go for the tasty Olympias – still a working-class meal and part of the local vernacular – washed down with a beer. It’s a tradition that dates back to the Gold Rush days.’ +1 415 673 1101
34 DEGREES SOUTH, SOUTH AFRICA
‘Loiter at this Knysna pub with a crisp glass of Chenin Blanc and a no-fuss, no-frills tray of oysters. From the deck you can see the beds down the road where they’re harvested. Cancel the rest of the day.’ 34south.biz
Seabird manager Alexandre Durand’s must-try drinks
DOMAINE DE LA PEPIERE
Clos des Briords 2018 Muscadet (£17.25, thegoodwineshop.co.uk)
‘As close to a perfect combination as you can get – fresh, light and crisp.’
Prologue 2018 Beaujolais (£19.75, fourthandchurch.co.uk)
‘A juicy red-fruit wine with minerality and smooth tannins that play nicely alongside the oysters. Refrigerate for 15 minutes before opening.’
Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature NV Champagne (£44.95, thewhiskyexchange.com)
‘An unmissable biodynamic vintage full of character. It shows fine bubbles and has great acidity to cut through the brine.’
THE KERNEL BREWERY
Export India Porter (£3.30, noblegreenwines.co.uk)
‘The oysters’ saltiness reduces the bitter notes of the beer and showcases its flavour, creating a mellow taste.’
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