The popularity of oysters is evident in raw bars and restaurant menus across our country. Five species are commercially farmed in North America. Because the waters in which oysters grow imbue them with characteristics of the location, oysters are traditionally named for the bay, town or region from which they come. Names such as Aspy Bay, Raspberry Point and Small Gorge Inlet make it easy to remember your favourites.
Generally, Atlantic oysters have rough, thick shells with a tinge of green from their seaweed environment, which gives them a salty, briny and vegetative (often described as cucumber) flavour and aroma. Pacific oysters grow in a more sandy environment. Their cleaner, white to black shells hold oysters that are sweet and creamy with a slightly metallic (or mineral) flavour.
The "R" rule
It was said that oysters should be eaten only in months with the letter "R" (September through April). The reason that oysters are best during fall and winter is because they are spawning during summer and their texture changes from firm to milky and the flavour from sweet to bitter.
But with new varieties (such as West Coast Kumamoto oysters, which spawn in September and October and so are best in the summer), good oysters are available all year long. For Canadians, a better rule of thumb may be to enjoy East Coast oysters from October to Valentine's Day and West Coast oysters from mid-February to October.
Choosing and using
• Choosing: Eat live oysters as fresh as possible. Buy clean-smelling (like the sea), choice-grade oysters with closed shells from a reputable fishmonger with high turnover.
• Storing: Refrigerate live oysters upside down on a baking sheet covered by a damp towel for up to one week. If your fishmonger has seaweed, place it over the oysters to retain moisture and keep flavours fresh and lively.
• Cleaning: Just before shucking, scrub oysters with a stiff brush.
• Shucking: Using a folded towel, hold oyster flat side up and insert oyster knife (never a sharp knife) into the small opening near the hinge; twist to open. Once the hinge gives, slide the knife along the bottom shell to sever the muscle. Remove the top shell and pick out any grit or pieces of broken shell. Wipe the knife between oysters.
Page 1 of 2 -- Learn more about oyster varieties, plus find eight Tested Till Perfect oyster recipes on page 2
On the half shell
Raw oysters served on the bottom shell are called "on the half shell." The subtle flavours of the meat and juice are best appreciated raw (just slurp back the oyster and juices right from the shell), though minimal additions (a dab of horseradish, squeeze of lemon or dash of hot sauce) are also delicious.
To keep shells stable and prevent tasty juices from spilling out when serving, nestle freshly shucked raw oysters on the half shell into crushed ice on a serving platter, or into coarse salt on a baking sheet or pie plate if to be baked, broiled or steamed.
Species and varieties
• Eastern (Crassostrea virginica): These native Atlantic oysters have uneven oval shells and a crisp, briny flavour. They thrive along the East Coast from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Popular varieties include Malpeques and Raspberry Point (Prince Edward Island), Caraquets and St. Simons (New Brunswick), Glace Bay, Aspy Bay and Bras d'or Lakes (Nova Scotia)
• European Flat (Ostrea edulis): Raised by growers on both coasts, these round, flat-shelled oysters have a meaty, minerally (and sometimes metallic) flavour and are superb raw. Popular varieties include Belon.
• Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea): Brought to the West Coast from Japan in the late 1940s to replace declining Olympia oysters, these are small, deep-cupped delicacies with a distinctive frilly shell and delicate, almost buttery meat.
• Olympia (Ostrea lurida): These slow-growing native oysters are rarely seen outside the Northwest. They have a strong flavour and crisp texture and, at the size of a quarter, are good for beginners.
• Pacific or Japanese (Crassostrea gigas): Also brought from Japan, these are now the predominant oysters of the West Coast and are easily distinguished by their fluted shells and mild, metallic or mineral flavour. Small ones are best enjoyed raw; large ones are great for steaming. Popular varieties include Stellar Bay, Effingham Bay and Gorge Inlet (British Columbia).
Some recipes to try:
Fried Oysters with Cream Sauce
Baked Oysters and Wild Mushroom Cups
Oysters on the Half Shell
Smoky Oyster Chowder
Oyster Bisque with Spinach Chiffonade
Harrises' Oyster Stew
Beef and Oyster Mushroom in Oyster Sauce
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