Most early civilizations enjoyed the oyster in some form or another. Shell middens (mounds used as ancient dumping grounds) have been found on every continent except Antarctica. Oysters are said to have been revered by the Roman emperors, who calculated their weight in gold and sent thousands of slaves to the shores of the English Channel to gather them. The Romans also set up one of the earliest marine farms to keep a supply of oysters handy for their grand feasts.
A Matter of Taste
Many people think that oysters are bottom feeders and, therefore, somehow unclean. This is false. Though wild oyster can be found on the ocean bottom and quite often attach themselves to rock, piers and other hard objects, they do not feed on the bottom. Instead, they’re filter feeders, which means they filter plankton and algae.
We may recall plankton from science class-microscopic organisms that drift with the tide and provide food for other creatures. Photoplankton is vegetarian and lives near the surface, while zooplankton feeds on other plankton and larvae of fish and crustaceans floating 5-10 m deep. To take advantage of both types of feed, oyster farmers keep oysters at various depths. In this way, even oysters grown in the same bay will taste different.
Oysters that have grazed in the photoplankton zone produce a more vegetal finish, sweet with hints of melon, cucumber and lettuce, while those from the zooplankton zone deliver a more steely finish, clean, light and crisp.
Another indicator of taste is the type of water oysters are grown in. Oysters need fresh water, and the percentage of salt to sweet affects the meat’s flavour and texture. Oysters grown in saltier bays will have a brighter flavour, while those grown in “brackish” water, with a high percentage of freshwater, will taste slightly salty upfront with a milder finish.
Nature’s Perfect Food
Did you know? Oysters are high in Omega-3 and low in cholesterol. They’re an excellent source of vitamins A, B, C and D and are loaded with minerals such as iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc. They’re also a good source of easily digested protein. A 120-gram serving of raw oyster meat contains 80 calories and just 2 gram of fat, perfect for health-conscious diners who are watching their figures.
Oyster farmers don’t feed or add any chemicals to their crop. Instead, they keep the oysters in an area where they can grow and be fed by Mother Nature.
Oyster farming is a sustainable resource that helps keep the environment healthy. As oysters’ snack on plankton, they help keep its growth in check. An overabundance of plankton clouds the water’s surface and prevents nourishing sunlight from reaching the aquatic wildlife below. Just think oysters as environmental heroes!
The Pleasure of Oysters
Oysters are to the French what pasta is to the Italians or what coffee is to North Americans. Blessed with more than 3,200 km of coastline, French boasts some of the finest oyster beds in the world, a claim that dates back to Roman times. It’s 3,400 oyster growers produce more oysters than any other country in the world-approximately 130,000 tons annually-and 90 per cent of those oysters are consumed by the French themselves. No wonder oysters abound in the social, cultural and culinary life of French.
In the nineteenth century, there were three oyster capitals in the world: Paris, London and New York. Although fabulous oysters are still served in New York and London, these two grand cities have lost their prestigious titles as oyster capitals. Paris has not. To this day, the city offers countless opportunities to socialize over oysters, including the classics from Cancale, Marennes Oleron and Arcachon. The coast of French also offers fantastic oyster experiences. Virtually anywhere along the country’s coastline, including the Mediterranean., delicious oysters can be found. Usually, a particular local wine is recommended by the host to properly optimize both the taste of the oyster and the merroir experience overall. And much like French wine-growing areas, oyster cultivation areas are often informally referred to by the term “cru.”
Hiroshima (Miyajima) Oyster
Hiroshima prefecture boasts the number one oyster production volume in Japan. There are around 12,000 oyster rafts floating in Hiroshima bay. Farming began between 1532-1555 in Hiroshima. Today, the area is Japan’s leading producer, accounting for as much as 60 per cent of the country’s oysters. All oysters grown in Japan are of the same family, the Pacific oyster, a native species found along the Pacific coast in Asia.
An optimum farming environment created by calm tidal currents, mineral-filled water flows from the primaeval forest of the Mt. Misen, appropriate changes in water temperatures, the right salt density, abundance of plankton, etc, makes Hiroshima oysters large, creamy and richly sweet.
In Hiroshima, oyster larvae are planted on clutches made of scallop shells hanging from oyster rafts. To cultivate strong oysters, the oyster seeds are moved to shelves in mudflats. Oysters are hung below the offshore farming rafts (10m (l) by 20m (w).
A crane about 10 meters tall is erected on a ship to pull the oysters up with a winch. Afterwards, oysters are places in cleansing machines to remove dirt and various organisms. Final, oysters are immersed in a clean, seaweed pool to purify even the inside of the oysters.
The characteristics of Miyajima oysters (within Hiroshima Prefecture) are their plump, firm milky white meat and the black folds of their mantles. Oysters are in season during winter. Reaching their peak around February, the colder it gets, the more delicious the oysters become. When winter comes, oysters become unisexual without any distinction between male or female (hermaphrodites).
Lighter drinks, such as Champagne and wines, tend to enhance the taste of oysters. Although many people insist on starting their evening with a martini – however, harder liquors seem to overpower the oyster’s flavour.
Too many people tend to spend a lot of time and money on the food, only to wash it down with low-quality wines or beers. However, of course, drink whatever makes you happy!
Here are a few recommendations to match while enjoying oysters:
Champagne – the drink of royalty has long accompanied oysters. Dry bruts and Blancs pair beautifully with oysters.
White wine – when Champagne doesn’t suit your mood or pocketbook, most oysters will pair wonderfully with a clean, crisp, dry, white wine with citrus and mineral notes. Muscadet, Sancerre, unoaked Chardonnay, Chablis, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio or a dry Riesling are my favourites. Stay away from sweet whites and buttery oaky varieties.
Red wine – yes, red wine does go with oysters, if that’s what you like to drink. For best results, choose lighter grapes such as Pinot Noir and Gamay and shy away from big, full-bodied wines – although some oyster lovers go by a big Shiraz with creamier oysters such as the C.gigas.
Sake – like wine and any other premium beverage, each sake will be different at even slightly different temperatures. The Japanese have poetic names for a range of subtly different temperatures (‘flower cold’ and ‘snow cold’ for example) but the main differences are between chilled, room temperature and warm.
This is one of the most instructive things you can do to learn about sake: try the same sake at three or four different temperatures and see how it changes.
Sake has a fifth of the acidity of wine – it’s significantly low in citric and malic acid – the ones you find in wine. Conversely though, whilst wine is low in glutamic acids (15mg per litre in red wine), sake contains a lot: 250mg glutamic acid per litre.
This glutamic acid component of sake is the key to the third big difference from wine. Amino acids – glutamic acid as well as lactic acid and succinic acid – are the agents responsible for what has been described as the fifth taste, umami. Sometimes described as ‘deliciousness’ or ‘savoury’, umami is one of the reasons why sake is so good with food.
Amino acids, especially if present in both food and drink in combination, intensify taste, creating more and more umami – enhancing taste, and making everything more delicious. Oysters too are high in amino acids (particularly succinic acid and glutamic acid) and this is why sake and oysters “do so much for each other.”
How to Relax and Enjoy the Experience:
- Whether you’re alone or with friends, there’s no better place to learn about than sit at the bar counter. It’s like sitting at the chef’s table in a fancy restaurant-you’re in the middle of all the action. The shucker will also help you choose what to drink, and he or she will design a plate of the best oysters in the house to suit your needs. Make friends with your local shucker and you won’t go wrong. It’s also a great place to meet other oyster lovers.
- Ask for a dozen, made up of different varieties, to start. Then you can choose your favourites for the next round.
- A good oyster bar shucks oysters to order, to ensure you get the freshest possible product. Sometimes this creates a backlog of orders, especially during peak hours. While you’re waiting, have a little bread or order some appetizers from the kitchen. So, be patient. No rule says you have to eat oysters first.
- Mother Nature planted the seed, a farmer grew it from eighteen months to seven years – and you want it to taste like ketchup?! I don’t think so. If you like sauce, that’s okay, but let the oyster tempt you into enjoying it naked from time to time.
- A large oyster doesn’t spend years in the water for you to cut it into small pieces. Choose a smaller oyster instead.
- Raw oyster contains microorganisms, plankton, algae and bacteria that a healthy adult can handle, but they may not sit well if you’re young, pregnant, elderly or have a weakened immune system. When in doubt, call the doctor out. I advise pregnant women to enjoy their oysters cooked until the baby is born.
- Oysters are fresh, clean, salty, sweet, briny, milk, steely, mineral, chalky or bitter, with hints of seaweed, driftwood and mushroom, among other flavours. They are not fishy! Even fresh fish shouldn’t taste fishy. To me, it’s a derogatory term that should be used only to describe poor-quality seafood.
Some Recommendations as you Travel:
872 Queen Street West, Toronto
Adam Colquhoun and John Petcoff, both excellent shuckers, started Oyster Boy as a catering company. Their cosy diner features bar-height tables so nobody misses out in action. The duo proudly features East Coast oysters along with a few choice West Coast varietals.
Union Oyster House
41 Union Street, Boston
The Union is a Mecca for oyster lovers everywhere. They shuck 2,000 to 4,000 oyster a day, sometimes more, so there’s no doubt about freshness. The Union has been shucking since 1816, which makes it North America’s oldest restaurant. Try to claim one of the teen seats in front of the shucker at the original hand-carved soapstone bar. Groups can settle into a booth where the Union’s horse stalls once stood.
Old Ebbitt Oyster Bar & Grill
675 15th Street, Washington, D.C
With its dark wood-panelled walls and leather seats, this restaurant is a haven for politicians, lawyers and banker types, but there’s room to spare for the oyster lovers of the world. Established in 1856, it was a favourite of Presidents Grant, Cleveland, Harding and Theodore Roosevelt.
Pearl Oyster Bar
18 Cornelia Street, New York
This Main-style eatery specializes in the freshest seafood, including oysters, clams and lobster.
Grand Central Oyster Bar
Grand Central Station, New York
In the oyster world, there are very few places that are as renowned as the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant, deep inside the station with its arched, tiled ceilings lovingly restored.
You can’t visit New York without stopping in at this famous oyster spot. Sit in the dining room, the sandwich counter, the oyster bar or the saloon, if you prefer, but you’ll find me at the bar, watching the shuckers deftly open the more than thirty types of oysters on the menu. Steamer pots on the bar cook up an oyster stew or a nice bowl of mussels. This is the place to feel the history of the oyster and New York all at once. Take your time.
11 Stoney Street, London
This tiny restaurant in the heart of the Borough Market was opened in 2002 by Ben Wright and Robin Hancock, owners of the Duchy of Cornwall Oyster Farm.
This relaxing seafood pit stop is the ideal place to enjoy a fantastic seafood and oyster selection, all sourced from around the British Isles, Ireland and France. Pair with a crisp bottle of wine or choose from the wide selection of ales. The small dining room is made up of a long oyster bar and high tables, and in the summer sit outside on a barrel to people watch and take in the bustling market atmosphere.
Huguette, Bistro de la Mer
81 Rue de Seine, Paris
Situated in the heart of Paris’ Saint-Germain neighbourhood, Huguette serves up delightfully fresh seafood in a low key atmosphere. Huguette is the extensive selection – and not just in oysters. The seafood selection varies from sea urchin, prawns, sea snails to octopus to steamed black mussels and lobster.
20 Rue Singer, 75016 Paris
Langousta serves the finest fresh seafood places in Paris. Langousta Passy is an oyster bar located just block from the Eiffel tower in the lively Passy area. The no-frills interior is minimalist chic, centered around fresh oysters and seafood delights on display. Langousta offers a great selection of not only oysters but nearly any kind of seafood you can imagine.
Opium, La Cabana
44 Rue Dauphine, Paris
This causal minimalist-chic style oyster bar is a true hidden gem when it comes to eating excellent oysters in Paris. Italian vibes emanate from the kitchen, and seafood-centric menu incorporates plenty of influences from France’s sunnier neighbour.
Indulge in their impressive selection of oysters (including Utah Beach and Pousse en Claire types) matched perfectly with a glass of crisp white. The wine pairing is exceptional here and elevates the experience without adding too much to the price tag.
Kamefuku (Hatchobori / Izakaya)
2F, Shintenchi Leisure Bldg, 1-9, Shintenchi, Naka-Ku, Hiroshima
A popular izakaya located right next to Shintenchi Park Park, offer exceptional local seafood from the Seto Inland Sea, specializing in the local high-quality brand oyster in Kurahashi-Jima that is regarded as the highest quality within Hiroshima prefecture. The local oyster is large and juicy, mild and milky. The local preferred the oyster grilled, but I recommend to try them naturally. Other speciality is the seasonal dish like Ike Sazae Zukuri, which is horned turban sea snail, served sashimi style from life. The practice is controversial owing to concerns about the animal’s suffering, as it is still alive when served.
They have a great selection of sake, with a primary focus on Hiroshima Prefecture sakes.