Search for the Pearl
Its believed that OYSTERS have aphrodisiacal powers, and been classified as both peasant food and haute cuisine, but how much do you know about them?
What’s believed to have aphrodisiacal powers, and been classified as both peasant food and haute cuisine. Their relative scarcity of oysters — even though Americans eat roughly 2.5 billion oysters every year, according to the Molluscan Shellfish Institute of North America—and the cost of transporting the live seafood around the country means prices are now higher than ever. And all Oysters aren’t the same- depending on where they are raised (coastal or ocean, northern or southern hemisphere oysters can be very salty or sweet, with notes of cucumber, melon, herbs, butter, flint, or copper.
Know your oysters and their flavours There are six main varieties of edible oysters.
Belons, salty and often metallic in taste, are native to Europe but now grow in North American waters, too. Relatively rare, they command a premium at fish markets and restaurants.
Eastern oysters, (including Bluepoints, Wellfleets, and Malpaques) grow in the Atlantic seaboard from the Canadian Maritimes down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Pacific oysters, (also known as Gigas, Hama Hamas, Shoalwaters, Hog Island) are grown throughout the world. They are generally sweet, with melon, cucumber, or mineral nuances.
Rock Oysters – famous in Australia and New Zealand (Saccostrea commercialis) are most often found in Asia and are medium sized.
Kumamoto oysters originally came from Japan but are now grown along the western coast of North America. They are smaller in size and sweet, mild flavor.
Olympia oysters are native to the Pacific Northwest. Their small size, with meat often only the size of a small coin, belies their assertive flavor. It’s rare to see them outside of Canada and Northwest USA.
Farmed Versus Wild; not an issue unless the location of a wild bed makes harvesting more difficult—and therefore more expensive so you have to justify the extra cost to guests.
Size Doesn’t Matter; The size is mainly a function of species, and has no bearing on quality or taste. Where it matters is in the eating; if you wish your oysters to be one-bite (one-slurp) affairs choose smaller species. Larger species (Bluepoints) are better tackled with a knife and fork and this may not be best for your guests
The Scoop on Sauce; some say anything other than a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of mignonette (a sauce of wine, vinegar, shallots and pepper) is unnecessary and defeats the purpose of eating oysters. Cocktail sauces may be a good bridge ingredient for oyster novices.Me, I prefer them fresh from the sea, with a little salt water still in the shell and a really cold glass of Guinness… now that’s Genius.
The Raw and the Cooked; whilst most of your guests rave over the luxury of raw molluscs, it’s easy to forget that oysters are very tasty baked, fried, broiled, or stewed. When oysters are cooked, their slippery texture firms up, and the taste becomes milder.
Pourings and Pairings; While champagne is a traditional accompaniment to oysters- or Champagne and Guinness, many dry, acidic white wines work equally well. Try muscadet and chablis, as well as unoaked California chardonnay and New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Avoid reds; the tannins clash with the taste of oysters.
Quality control; The shellfish come in sizes one to three, with one being largest and most costly.
The key to a good oyster is freshness. It should smell of the seashore as the tide recedes over seaweed-covered rocks. It should be full in the shell, firm in texture, and brimming with the natural juice that is its life blood (not just sea water); every spare drop of this should be soaked up with bread. The heel of the oyster, in the deep part of the shell, should be a creamy or ivory colour. The frill should be moist and pulsating, and the oyster should always look bright. Finally, if the shell isn't firmly closed it should do so immediately when tapped.
It is extremely rare to have a "bad" oyster, as fisheries have to purify them in clean water for 48 hours. I have friends who can down several dozen in one session, but they have been eating them for years. Oysters deliver a potent hit of pure protein and minerals, so over-indulgence can be too much for the system, just as too much alcohol can – avoid drinking spirits with them.
Professionals wriggle a short, strong knife into the shell, either from the frill or the hinge. Taking care not to spill the juice, the abductor muscle is neatly cut, without damaging the oyster. If you're serving oysters at home, microwave them for a few seconds to prise the shells ajar, so a knife can be easily inserted. Serve chilled, on crushed ice.
Eating etiquette; Oyster flesh has a wondrous texture and, like any piece of meat, should be chewed. This also releases the full flavour, and the juice from the shell completes the experience. (Some insist on swallowing oysters in one; each to their own.)
They can be zipped up with lemon juice, vinegar, seasoning or Tabasco sauce. And, if you're not keen on raw shellfish, they can be lightly grilled, fried or baked in a little sauce. Or dipped in a cornflour and heartily dunked in beaten egg and fried for a wonderous Oyster omelet.