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FEATURE

Consider the Oyster

Patrick McMurray

Consider the Oyster | Patrick McMurray

Photos and illustration courtesy 
Patrick McMurray

PATRICK McMURRAY launched into the Toronto culinary scene 17 years ago with the phenomenally successful Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill. Currently the owner/proprietor of the Céilí Cottage, where he and his team provide their loyal following of patrons with some of the freshest seafood and Irish cuisine available in Toronto, his establishment was recently voted the best gastropub in that city. After breaking the Guinness world record for most oysters shucked in a minute—and then shattering his own record this year on Gordon Ramsays FWord Live, shucking 39 oysters per minute—McMurray has a devoted online following among the international oyster community with his “Shucker Paddy” brand of oyster knives and gear. He has a new oyster book coming out later this year.

So many oysters, so little time... So where to begin? When the neophyte oyster lover sits at the bar, the choices can be overwhelming, even more so than choosing a wine. Always ask the shucker what he or she recommends, then set a parameter, if you have one. East only, West, anything goes. I suggest starting with a dozen oysters: six types, with two of each, so that you can pick your favourites and then have more of what you like.

If you are fortunate enough to find an oyster bar that offers all five species, you can have a “flight” of oysters as a tasting. Ask the shucker to arrange the oysters in ascending order of flavour, beginning with the delicate Olympia and ending with the metallic tang of European Flat. And please, no sauce or lemon to obscure the true flavour of the ocean.

Like terroir in the wine world, the merroir (or sense of place in the ocean) of the oyster will denote the specific flavour within that family. Salty, sweet, freshwater, earthy notes, all will change from place to place. That’s what makes the oyster so exciting as a food. There is nothing quite as complex in its simplicity as an oyster, and it can take you back to the sea in one quick sip. Close your eyes, open your mind, and I’ll take you there.

There is nothing quite as complex in its simplicity as an oyster, and it can take you back to the sea in one quick sip. Close your eyes, open your mind, and I’ll take you there.

Judging the Taste of Oysters

There are three elements to the taste of an oyster—salinity, texture, and pure taste. All are influenced by the waters from which the oyster comes. Local waters each have their own characteristics, and these change from day to day and from season to season, depending on the temperature and the amount of rainfall (which alters the supply of freshwater).

The salinity of an oyster should be neither so high that it makes the oyster sharply salty, nor so low that it makes it insipid. The texture should be firm, not milky or stringy.

As for the taste… That’s a much harder thing to describe. I like the phrase John Neild suggests: le goût de la mer (the taste of the sea). It’s a simple description, and one that an oyster lover will immediately understand. ... Now let’s look at the oysters themselves.

There are five species that we regularly shuck in North America: Crassostrea virginica, Crassostrea gigas, Crassostrea sikaema, Ostrea edulis, and Ostrea lurida (recently renamed Ostrea conchaphila). Within those species are myriad different oysters that can be enjoyed at oyster bars wherever you go.  

There are three elements to the taste of an oyster—salinity, texture, and pure taste. All are influenced by the waters from which the oyster comes.

Patrick’s Tasting Wheel

Oyster tasting is a lot like wine tasting. I recommend that you chew your oyster a little bit, and aerate (take in a little air through the mouth) to allow the flavours to cross the palate and develop fully. I’ve been describing oysters like wine for years now, and people are amazed when I tell them what the oyster they are about to enjoy is going to taste like, and when.

As with everything from nature, flavours will change throughout the season and according to location. So go forth, young oyster connoisseur, and open your palate to the bounty of the sea. Just don’t top your oyster with sauce first!

 

Excerpted with permission from Consider the Oyster: A Shucker’s Field Guide by Patrick McMurray (ISBN 978-1-9281-3702-3). Available from all better booksellers and from Brunswick Books in Toronto, Canada. Copyright © Black Walnut Media 2018. 

PATRICK McMURRAY launched into the Toronto culinary scene 17 years ago with the phenomenally successful Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill. Currently the owner/proprietor of the Céilí Cottage, where he and his team provide their loyal following of patrons with some of the freshest seafood and Irish cuisine available in Toronto, his establishment was recently voted the best gastropub in that city. After breaking the Guinness world record for most oysters shucked in a minute—and then shattering his own record this year on Gordon Ramsays FWord Live, shucking 39 oysters per minute—McMurray has a devoted online following among the international oyster community with his “Shucker Paddy” brand of oyster knives and gear. He has a new oyster book coming out later this year.

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