It must have been a brave soul who first cracked open a bivalve mollusk and thought to themselves, “This looks like the kind of thing we oughta just skip cooking and pop in our mouths…”.
By to whomever that brave soul was, allow me to offer the heartiest of virtual handshakes and congratulations, for from that moment of questionable judgment (but awesome intuition) we have since enjoyed this delicate luxury. While there are many different varieties of oysters out there, today we’re going to focus only on those handful bound for human consumption.
There is a certain mystery and mystique around oysters; in part, I believe, because like other shellfish the parts we eat are largely concealed from view. Perhaps as well because the best known method of consumption seems somehow different from other forms of fish and seafood, in that they are consumed raw, largely untreated and directly from their shells.
But when we consider the proliferation of raw fish amongst various cuisines around the globe – like sushi or ceviche – is that idea of consuming uncooked fish and seafood really all that uncommon, or worse yet distasteful? Evidence suggests that consuming a variety of sea-born goodies safely has far more to do with how fresh they are as they arrive on our plates, than it does with the internal temperature they achieve by cooking.
Part of the appeal of eating beautiful fresh oysters “on the half-shell” is likely to preserve the delicate and light flavours of this protein. Much like beef or game, extended cooking actually makes the end product more robustly flavoured, often forgoing delicious delicacy.
When looking at different varieties of oysters, there are a handful of factors that impact the manner in which they form, including the depth, temperature and movement of the water, not to mention varying sizes and shapes of shells found in different parts; shells which are impact by these factors as well as the available minerals and nutrients in the water and on the sea floor habitat.
Generally speaking, smaller oysters tend to offer milder, sweeter flavours when served on the half-shell, versus more briny, salty, ocean-influenced flavours found in the larger varieties. Both can be delicious, and in this sense, preference is really just a matter of taste.
Now when it comes to serving oysters on the half-shell, they are classically presented either all on their own, or perhaps with a small dosing of mignonette, or a simple dressing classically featuring vinegar, black pepper and shallots. Increasingly, you’ll find more adventurous examples, but like usual, I suppose I am a bit of a sucker for the classics.
And speaking of classics, when it comes to oysters on the half-shell, I have a few favourite tipples, none of which are likely to shock or surprise you. My shortlist of recommend drinks with these delicate, delicious oysters including good Champagne (I mean how can you expect me not to drink bubbly when I sell stuff like this?) or one of my two favourite white spirits – gin or vodka. I know gin is a bit overpowering for these little gems, but it still makes me (and my palate) happy.
Also on this front, I would be remised in not mention one of the great white wine pairings to serve alongside oysters “non cuit”; a wine every bit as delicate and subtle as the oysters themselves called Muscadet de Sevre & Maine sur lie. If that seems like a mouthful, you can also call for this one by the name of the grape is made from, Melon de Bourgogne. Grown in France’s Loire Valley, these whites offer up perfect saline minerality to partner alongside your favourite oysters.
For many years, we’ve heard an adage maintain that oysters shouldn’t be consumed in months which don’t contain the letter “R” (May, June, July & August), and this theory seems to have straddled the line between food safety rule and urban legend. I must admit, it took a bit of research for me to get absolutely nowhere on this!
It would seem that there are a couple of contributing factors to this notion: (i) in yesteryear, when refrigeration wasn’t as readily available as it is today, there were valid concerns about eating raw oysters that had not been kept at proper temperature during the spring/summer months, and perhaps more importantly (ii) oysters breed and reproduce over this approximate window thus creating less desirable flavours in the oysters themselves.
All of this lead me to wonder recipes featuring cooked oysters were a response to this notion that there are times of the year where (a) it was unsafe to eat these little guys raw, and (ii) times of the year where masking some unpleasant flavours with things like bacon, shallots, herbs and cheese (in cooked dishes) was an advantage.
Regardless of where you stand on this, in the final analysis we today have access to a broad and delicious collection of oyster recipes that take us “beyond the half-shell”. Here are 8 of our favourite recieps – and the wines we’d pair them.