How To Enjoy Oysters With Wine – Ode to the Oyster
How to Enjoy Oysters With Wine
Ode to the Oyster: Part 1
The right food with the right booze is at the heart of good dining. Paul Howard pays tribute to a famous acquired dining indulgence…
In Victorian days oysters were the food of the poor. They were an abundant and cheap source of protein, especially valuable when meat was an expensive treat. Nowadays, oysters are an expensive delicacy, mostly because of over-fishing and marine pollution. Hence, many have never experienced the delight of a simple platter of fresh oysters.
Like so many foods, oysters are an acquired taste. The thought of eating them raw remains deeply repellent to some, though if you enjoy seafood there is little difficulty in getting to grips with them. Jonathan Swift once remarked “he was a bold man that first ate an oyster”, but the slithery beauty of a fresh oyster has a unique taste that is most definitely worth acquiring! Many will choose oysters over any other item on the menu. I’m one.
Oysters are at their best and most plentiful during the traditional British season, from September to April. The old adage was that oysters should not be eaten during months without the letter “R”. This is partly because those warmer months are when the oysters breed and they also taste better when the sea is colder. Years ago, there would also have been a high risk of spoilage on warm days. However, oysters are now available to us all year thanks to farming, imports and refrigerated distribution.
“Take on the flavour of their sea conditions”
Oysters are also good for you. As well as being rich in protein, they also low in fat and calories. They contain significant amounts of zinc, calcium, iron, iodine, copper, magnesium and selenium. Legendary properties are also attributed: it is believed by some that oysters are the Viagra of the sea. Whether they are an aphrodisiac is moot, though of course you could have fun finding out. Oysters themselves can and do change gender several times during their lives!
The size, shape and flavour of oysters vary considerably. There are two main species available in Britain, the smaller and flatter Native, slow growing and brownish in colour. They are pricier but have a more intense and superior taste to the Pacific, or rock oyster – these have a scrunchy shell, greyish colour and are milder tasting. Pacifics grow quickly and are more plentiful and so are cheaper.
Provenance is a big influence on flavour too – oysters are creatures that inhabit estuaries and coastal shelves, filtering their food from seawater, which varies in salinity, nutrients and temperature. As well as the difference in intensity of flavour between the species, oysters take on the flavours of their local sea conditions.
“Soft and fleshy but cool and crisp”
The best from British waters are said to be from Colchester (Essex), Whitstable (Kent) and Helford (Cornwall). However, other good sources are available in small quantities, including English oysters from Lindisfarne, Welsh from Pembrokeshire and Scottish from Loch Fyne and Cumbrae.
A good restaurant, fishmonger or market often has several types on offer – select a few of each, it’s easy to taste the differences between them. All should smell of nothing but fresh briny sea air. Some are almost sweet and creamy, others have salty or mineral flavours, while some taste nutty. Their texture is soft and fleshy but cool, crisp and clean.
The classic way to serve oysters is au naturel – served raw in their half shell on ice. A simple squeeze of lemon is all that’s required, with perhaps some rye bread. however, adding a stronger flavour can spice things up nicely too, so try adding a few drops of Tabasco or fresh Horseradish. The French way is the classic Mignonette, finely chopped shallots macerated in red wine vinegar. Allow for six per person as a starter, a dozen is suitable for a main course or for the avaricious. Oysters should never be swallowed whole – chewing brings out the taste!
There are splendid recipes for cooking oysters too, particularly suitable for large examples. Oyster Rockefeller, Steak and Oyster pie and Oyster stew are all well known. My favourite is a Welsh tradition; grilled oyster with melted Caerphilly cheese served in the shell with Lava bread.
“Bury them in ice”
Like any seafood, raw oysters are safe to eat by most people and they have been treated before sale – just be scrupulous about their freshness and follow these simple tips. Those with allergies to shellfish or the immune-suppressed should avoid oysters.
Oysters should be stored at a low temperature and smell briny-fresh. Their shells should be clean, tightly closed and unbroken, showing they are still alive. A good fishmonger or quality fish market is your best bet unless you are lucky enough to live near the coast and buy them straight off the boat. Buy them on the day of consumption if you can.
Unopened oysters are alive and can be kept in the fridge, covered in a damp towel, for a couple of days – keep a check on them and discard any that are open. Never store them in an airtight container or in fresh water, as this will kill them. They can be frozen, though those are best cooked after unfreezing.
A live oyster always has a tightly closed shell. Tap any oysters that are open – a live oyster will close up and is safe to eat. Oysters which are open and do not close are dead, throw those out. Ten minutes before opening, bury the oysters in ice in the freezer if you can – it will make shucking them easier. Now take the oyster and scrub it under running water. Hold it so that the curved bottom shell is downward, with the flat lid shell uppermost.
“Avoid shucking hell”
Wear gloves, otherwise you risk painful scrapes from the razor sharp shells. Failing that, use an old towel. Aficionados will buy a specialist oyster mitt and oyster knife – worth the investment to avoid shucking hell. Use a short knife or a screwdriver with a short blade. Insert it into the seam between the two halves of the shell as close to the hinge as possible and then push downwards. Once the knife is well inside, twist it through 90 degrees, this will break the muscle that holds the oyster shell shut. Work the knife along the opening until the top shell can be twisted off. Try to keep the bottom shell level so none of the liquor spills and remove any shards of shell. Practice makes perfect. Arrange them on a bed of ice and you’re done!
Ode to the Oyster Part 2: The best wines to drink with oysters.