Every year we celebrate my girlfriend Liane’s birthday with her. Her birthday is in July so we are lucky enough to have a fun event at the lake. It’s always a beautiful evening of food and wine, celebrating a beautiful soul. Earlier this year, Liane took a holiday to Nova Scotia and enjoyed seafood and beer in a pretty fabulous sounding restaurant on a pier called The Half Shell. This adventure provided the nudge toward a birthday dinner theme for this year: Oysters!
I was slow to come to raw oysters. Throughout my childhood, my dad kept cans of smoked oysters in the cupboard. I was always repulsed by the look of them and slightly put off by the texture of them but I could not resist their salty oiliness. I would eat them on crackers with a little crumble of blue cheese. And then when I was 12, I had an oyster po’boy at a roadside shack along the Gulf of Mexico, somewhere between New Orleans and on route to Florida. I can still remember the big white roll slathered in mayo, crispy cold shreds of iceberg lettuce and the crunch of the breadcrumb coating on the oysters, followed by the surprise of the warm creaminess of the hot oysters. It was incredible. I’ve never had another po’boy that meets up to that experience.
So, canned oysters and hot, breaded oysters were okay by me but raw oysters? Um, nope. Then about 10 years ago, Alex and I visited an oyster restaurant in Toronto called Starfish and I felt the time had come to really take the plunge, quit nibbling around the edges. The incredibly knowledgeable owner/head shucker hooked us up with oysters from all over the place: ….. There were delicate little oyster, meaty, creamy oysters, and mammoth I-think-not-Alex-can-have-those oysters. They were served with lemons and horseradish, and hot sauce, and champagne mignonettes. The owner walked us through pairing up and taught us the history and harvesting practices of most of them. He shucked them quickly and deftly with shuckers he designed and had made for himself. It was a beautiful evening and I left a raw oyster convert.
A couple of years later, we took a fun weekend to New York and one of the great highlights was a place called Maison Premiere in Brooklyn. It was ah-mazing. The whole place was done up to look like a New Orleans bar from the turn of the last century, with big, slow moving fans, rickety little tables and peeling wallpaper. Our trays of oysters came on tin plates with shaved ice and we drank cocktails and slurped the oysters all back while listening to live brass band. That was a pretty incredible experience and I truly believe experiences enhance and filter our food experiences.
Possibly my favourite oyster experience came a few years ago in Nova Scotia. Alex and I, along with Adam Connelly from Segovia, attended the Chefs’ Congress run by Chef Michael Statdlander (a dream of mine is to bring this conference to Winnipeg but that is blog for another day…) We were set up in a field next to the Bay of Fundy and during the day, we attended workshops held under open-sided white tents. At the mid-morning break, instead of the usual stale muffins and coffee, Chef Michael Smith set up a giant old wooden cutting board piled with buckets of oysters on ice and shuckers standing upright, having been stabbed into the board. We walked up, grabbed an oyster, shucked it yourself and slurped it back. Followed by a shot of PEI vodka for anyone interested. It was the best conference I’ve ever attended and those were the freshest oysters I’ve ever tasted, having been plucked from the waters the day before. It was a magical experience.
When Liane said she wanted oysters for her birthday, we were happy to make that happen. Alex sourced 2 kinds of oysters, malpeques and village bays. He then set about making mignonettes to highlight certain qualities in the oysters (I’ll let him talk about that and share some of the recipes). On the night of the party, we had chilled bottles of bubbly which goes great with oysters. Prosecco, Cava and, of course, Champagne all pair beautifully and cover a wide range of price points. Prosecco (Italy) and Cava (Spain) are both at the lower end of the spectrum, with many lovely bottles available for under $20. As for Champagne, the range is vast. My favourite is Veuve Cliquot and it is about $80-100 a bottle at the MLCC right now.
One of the really cool things that happened at Liane’s birthday party was the spontaneous shucking class Alex led. There were a few people at the event who had never shucked and so he taught them. It’s a great skill to have and once you get going, not too hard to pull off. Our eldest daughter learned how to shuck when she was 15 and got pretty fast at it, turning out plates of dozens of oysters at our old restaurant. There is this sweet spot, and when find it with the shucker, it gives to most satisfying pop and then the whole oyster opens up. You have to scrape under the oyster and do a quick once-over for shell bits, then pop it on the ice tray and grab another one. I highly recommend a shucking party, it’s a good time for everyone.
There is a huge variety of oyster types, but the all come from one of 5 edible oyster species. They usually get their names from where they are from, Malpeque, Raspberry Point, Chesapeake Bay etc…. Sometimes they are given cute names that describe their appearance. Lucky limes are called that because of the green colour of their shells. The wide range of flavours come from the characteristics of the water where they were harvested. In general, the colder the water the cleaner the flavour and the smaller the meat. Oysters harvested in warmer waters tend to have a more pronounced “fishy” taste and tend to be larger. I had some Chesapeake Bay oysters in Baltimore that were as large as my fist. Its fun to try a variety of types and enjoy the nuanced tastes.
Oysters once harvested have long shelf life. If you ever have chance to look at old cookbooks from the prairies, you will see lots of recipes that contain oysters. This is because they were one of the few types of seafood that could be shipped this far inland before the advent of refrigerated transportation. When buying oysters, make sure they are fully closed and feel heavy for their size. They should smell like the sea, not like a dead fish lying on the beach.
To shuck an oyster you need an oyster knife. This is a short blunt knife. Although you can buy fancy ones like the Henckell’s or even Paddy’s own design, I am partial to the simple wood handled ones available for about 7 bucks at Gimli Fish Market. You can even do like a lot of the old maritimers do and use a stubby slot screwdriver. You will also need a tea towel, folded 3 times, this is used to hold the oyster and protect your fingers.
To shuck and oyster
f the oysters feel dirty or gritty, rinse under cold water, use a brush if needed. Take a look at the oyster. There will be a flat side and a rounded side. You will also notice that the shell comes to a point. Place the oyster on the counter or cutting board with the flat side up and the point facing you oyster knife hand. Using the towel, hold the oyster in place. Do not press down too hard. With your other hand, hold the oyster knife, keep your fingers on the inside of the little guard to protect your fingers from the jagged shells. Gently work the tip of the oyster knife between the shells were it comes to a point. Don’t try to force it, just wiggle it gently. You will feel when you have the knife in properly, it feels like a little pop. Once the blade is in place, turn it, like you are turning a key to open a door. Do not pry it open, just twist the blade. When the shells come apart, run the blade along the top shell, keeping the blade flat against the shell. This will cut the muscle away from the shell. Then run the end of the blade along the inside of the bottom shell to release the meat from the shell. Try not to tear the meat and try to keep as much liquid in the shell as possible. The “liquor” keeps the oyster juicy and tasty. Check the oyster to make sure there are no little fragments of shell on the meat. If the oyster meat is dry or if it smells overly fishy, discard the oyster.
To eat the oyster, just tip the shell into your mouth and slurp it back. For novice oyster eaters, just swallow the oyster whole like you are doing a tequila shot. Once you have learnt to love the taste of oysters, give the meat a little chew before swallowing it to get more of a flavour experience. I like oysters completely unadorned, but they are also good with a squeeze of lemon or lime, a couple drops of hot sauce or some freshly grated horseradish. Traditionally, oysters are served with a mignonette, which really just mean something small. The most traditional mignonette is just finely diced shallots with red wine vinegar. I like to play around with other versions. Here are a few to try:
Cucumber Mint Mignonette
1/2 cup finely diced cucumber
1 tbsp chopped mint
1 oz gin
squeeze of lime
Balsamic Tomato Mignonette
peel and seed a roma tomato, finely dice the flesh
1 tbsp finely chopped basil
1 tbsp finely choppep parsley
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
Radish, Orange, Jalepeno Mignoette
2 radishes, finely diced
1 jalepeno, seeded and finely diced
1 tbsp grated orange zest
1 tbsp orange juice
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
Sesame Ginger Mignonette
1 tbsp grated ginger
1 tbsp black sesame seeds
1 tbsp finely chopped green onion
1 tsp white sugar
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/4 cup sesame oil