‘He was a bold man, that first ate an oyster’ once quipped our own Jonathan Swift.
They say if you don’t enjoy life you can’t enjoy an oyster. For many – they have a real love affair for the Irish oyster. 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 about the Oyster 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.
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 in September, the month of the oyster continues with the spectacular Galway International Oyster and Seafood Festival.
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 too.
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.
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. The Irish Sea, is one of the best places in Europe to cultivate oysters as a result of the North Atlantic Drift and moderate temperature.
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.
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!
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.
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’