‘He was a bold man, that first ate an oyster’ once quipped our own Jonathan Swift. As a child, I was prone to boldness, both in my temperament and willingness to try unusual foods, ‘for future reference’ my dad would say. This led me to tasting a vast array of outlandish ingredients from frog’s legs to escargot, the majority of new tastes delighted me, bar one. An aversion to oysters was developed from first slippery slurp, and this endured, until very recently.
They say if you don’t enjoy life you can’t enjoy an oyster. In the name of becoming a fully fledged bon vivant, through extensive research (read:eating) oysters have become my new little obsession, just in time for Oyster month. This love affair was obviously meant to be. However, I know and understand why this fondness is not shared by all, with so many of us still reeling from a bad first shuck. If disdain for this decadent treat comes from fear of the unknown and knowledge is indeed power, read on for some pearls of wisdom for Oyster Month to get you psyched and raring to get your shuck on.
The Sex Mineral:
1. Oysters are unique little creatures which strangely can and do change genders – so one could say they are biologically hermaphrodite but they are also considered to be the food of Aphrodite. All ‘shuck and suck’ double entrendres aside, the colossal content of the mineral zinc found in oysters mean that whispers about their aphrodisiac credentials have some credibility. Zinc is known as ‘the sex mineral’ as it is vital for testosterone production in both genders, which is the hormone that revs up the libido. This explains the popularity of oysters on Valentine’s Day menus, but why confine your shot of zinc to one month of the year?
The French Connection:
2. Did you know that the Rolls Royce of oysters – Gillardeau – are plucked from Irish shores before being trucked to bathe in French ‘claire’ or fattening pools? This allows them to be marketed worldwide as French produce, but it certainly says a great deal about the world class quality of the beautiful bivalves born of our waters. Guillardeau oysters are so prestigious they are now being laser-engraved with a ‘G’ motif to denote their authenticity and prevent counterfeit trade.
G Marks the Spot:
3. In September for oyster aficionados here in Ireland ‘G’ marks the spot of what the ultimate celebration of Irish oysters in all their glory. Kicking off with the Clarenbridge Oyster Festival on September 9th-11th, the month of the oyster continues with the spectacular Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival. The most widely internationally recognised Irish festival after St Patrick’s Day and the world’s longest running oyster festival takes place in the last week of September and is celebrating 62 years in 2016. Highlights of the festival include shucking competitions such as the Oyster ‘Olympics’ or World Oyster Opening Championship and an equally fast-paced oyster eating competition.
The Grand Old Dame Loves an Oyster:
4. But all the fun is not confined to the West, don’t forget that the Shelbourne hosts the highlight of its culinary calendar – The Shelbourne Oyster Festival this month too. With an oyster-centric tasting menu designed by the talented Garry Hughes and matched with the perfect complementary wine by Sommelier Niesa Doddy, here you can sample the vast variety of Irish oysters from Carlingford to Clarenbridge. For a more laid-back introduction to the oyster, No.27 Bar offers a fantastic selection of hot oysters, including the most luxurious combination to ever grace a half-shell – Oysters Shelbourne – which are layered with Liscannor crab, lobster, hollandaise sauce and gruyere. Warning: this will convert even the most ardent of oyster avoiders.
Summer – To Shuck or Not to Shuck?:
5. Irish oysters are world-renowned and the complexity of flavour in oysters from different parts of the country is a result of the quality of our seawater as well as its temperature. Ireland produces some of the world’s finest native oysters, which are the subject of the caveat to avoid oysters in months without an ‘R’ in the name. During these months, warmer sea temperatures encourage reproduction and spawning oysters are not in their prime for eating, as the meat can become milky and thin. Galway is considered the home of the native or European Flat-Shell Oyster, which flourishes in September.
An Oyster for All Seasons:
6. For year round oyster enjoyment, Ireland is gaining a reputation for Gigas oyster quality. Gigas or Pacific oysters here in Ireland are tended to or cultivated and are available in the Summer months as the waters are not warm enough to encourage reproduction in this species. Well known Gigas producers include Harty Oysters of Dungarvan, who are representing Ireland on the world stage having recently been chosen by Bord Bia to represent the Irish Oyster sector on its Trade Mission to Beijing and Shanghai. The Irish Sea, says Joe Harty, is one of the best places in Europe to cultivate oysters as a result of the North Atlantic Drift and moderate temperature and the nutty, almost almond-like flavour of Dungarvan oysters is set to continue to captivate, with expansion to the US planned.
Milking the Mouthfeel:
7. There is so much more to the act of eating an oyster than a flick to the back of the throat, as every oyster Sommelier will tell you. That’s right – there are dedicated experts in pursuit oyster perfection, evaluating the nose, body, finish and texture. To truly detect the complex, terroir dependent flavour notes of each varietal, 2-3 chews are called for. The subtle intricacies of the oyster meat flavour notes need to linger on the palate and gulping one back quickly will never reveal these. Some notes to look out for are metallic (tin, copper, even stainless steel!), pecan, walnut or almond-like nuttiness, cucumber or melon undertones and mushroom-like earthiness.
NB – The golden rule of oyster-tasting is that the initial tsunami of briney liquid is not a by-product and to discard it is considered sacrilege. Sommeliers and oyster fans relish, imbibe and refer to this as liquor, it is the filtered seawater in which the oyster lives and is packed with flavour.
8. Oysters used to be the preserve of the less fortunate, plentiful and free, a quick shot of nutrition and protein when times were tight and food scarce. This guise of old explains the use of oysters in steak and kidney pie, as the former was a cheap way of bulking up a dish with a scant amount of beef on hand. Across the Atlantic, it is said that in the 1700’s the streets of New York were speckled with oysters shells as they were so widely available and consumed with such lack of ceremony!
Matches Made in Heaven:
9. To guild the lily of oyster-eating, the accompaniment of choice is of course Champagne, effervescence bringing out the mineral flavour notes of the oyster. However, there are some classic pairings that can really elevate the of oyster experience – a richly textured and structured Chablis will bring out the oyster’s meaty mouth feel while Muscadet’s supreme leanness and minerality complements the salinity of the oyster perfectly. For a traditionally Irish pairing, match your oysters with Guinness, the silky, almost chocolatey notes of which will play seductively with the bracing freshness of the oyster.
A Literary Love Affair:
10. Hemingway, Swift, Lewis Carroll, all told tales of the tantalizing bivalve, with no other food stuff capturing the literary imagination of so many wordsmiths throughout history. If the existence of myriad odes to oysters isn’t enough to convince you of their delectable nature, consider the oft-touted phrase ‘you are what you eat’ in the aspiration that you too may one day live luxuriously like a majestic oyster:
They stay in bed all day and night. They never work or take exercise, are stupendous drinkers, and wait for their meals to come to them.”
– Hector Bolitho ‘The Glorious Oyster’
Growing up with the name Darina, I was constantly asked if I could cook like my namesake. With that (and greed) as the ultimate motivators, I quickly realised that home-baked goods make excellent bribes and an obsession was born! With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law I undertook a PhD, but a preference for cookbooks to textbooks persisted. As a (self-confessed!) demon in the kitchen, I am the only person to have contested both Masterchef and the Great Irish Bake off, which fuelled my desire to set my focus on food in a serious way. Working with The Taste allows me to satiate this craving and marries my food fascination with my love of writing and ranting. Follow me as I share my food adventures and hopefully inspire others to indulge their passion for cooking and food in the process!