As M.F.K. Fisher once observed: “Pearls are not good to eat.” Oysters, however, are. And, while some still consider them an extravagance, as luxuries go, they’re a pretty accessible one (and preferable, no?). With 6-12 as the average serving, they may be indulged in at home for little more than the standard take out item, and with far more pleasure.
Often more intimidating are the issues pertaining to their selection and consumption: where to buy them, how to choose them, and how to eat them – or open them, for that matter. To answer these questions, I sought out three time Canadian oyster shucking champion John Bil, a consultant and *part-time shucker at Joe Beef: home (according to the blogosphere) of the city’s best oysters. Bil graciously led me through a two-part tutorial on the art of selecting and eating these toothsome treasures.
Part one took place over a twenty minute telephone conversation, during which I pried the mollusk master with questions, the most pertinent of which: How do you pick a good oyster? Bil advised the following:
1. Get to know your fish monger and be prepared for dialogue. As with any merchant, you can improve your purchase by providing him with information, for example, the names or regions of oysters that you’ve liked, basic preferences (salty? creamy? sweet?), and so on. Letting him know will help him guide you to new favourites. Once you’ve found a monger you like, stick with him (merchants are more attentive to repeat customers). For oysters, Bil recommends La Mer (a poissonnerie); I like Noref as an all round seller.
2. Keep in mind the month that you’re buying in: each oyster and region has its best season. As a brief guide: P.E.I. oysters are available twelve months of the year, but like all northern oysters, are strongest in summer (at their height of flavour, development, and resiliency). Conversely, West coast oysters are apt to “suck” this time (they’ll be saltier and rubbery). From mid-February to April, the Maritimes hit a low period while, simultaneously, those from the U.S. hit their peak season.
3. Pay attention to the harvest and shipping dates. The latter should not exceed the former by more than a certain period of time. Specifically: three weeks for the East Coast, two weeks for the U.S., and one week to ten days for the West Coast. Most boxes are marked with this information; if you’re buying individually, be sure to ask the seller.
3. Pick up the oyster. It should be heavy: a sign of a tight seal and sea water, which indicates that it’s still alive. Next, give it a whiff. At most, it should smell like the sea: sulfur equals trouble.
4. Open the oyster. It should be full in the shell, its meat to the edge. Also, the flesh should be opaque. If translucent, it means the oyster was undernourished during its development (which isn’t harmful, it just means it won’t be as tasty or pleasing in texture).
NB: If you buy a case of forty, and the first ten are dry, stop and take the box back; it’s a safe bet the rest will be the same. Anything dark or fetid should quickly make the same trip.
5. If you’re new to oysters, try these (they’re some of Bil’s favourites, and are widely available):
Olympico (the only West coast native), and Shigoku (U.S. West coast)
Stellar Bay (B.C.)
Raspberry Point, Colville Bay (P.E.I.)
Beau Soleil (N.B.)
* Bil spends 2-3 months of the year in town, and the rest in his native P.E.I., where he owns and operates the seasonal restaurant Ship to Shore (ranked by En Route magazine as one of the ten best new restaurants in Canada).
Photo: Matthew Pennington
Next, Part Two: Making the trip to the monger.