If you don't know the difference between wild and cultivated, or whether to chew or swallow, don't fear. By the end of this you'll be an oyster connoisseur!
Poet Jonathan Swift once said, "He was a bold man that first ate an oyster". I consider him a genius and, if he was still around today, I'd certainly send a complimentary dozen oysters his way to thank him for introducing the world to this moorish mollusc.
Described as 'salty', 'sweet', creamy' and 'buttery', oysters date back thousands of years with the belief that the Ancient Greeks were the first to farm these little delicacies. According to literature, Romans then cottoned on and began importing them from England, placing them in salt water pools, and fattening them up by feeding them wine and pastries. Roman emperor Vitelius is said to have consumed one thousand oysters in one sitting, while philanthropist Seneca supposedly ate a thousand a week. 18th Century's Abraham Lincoln used to throw parties at his home where nothing but oysters were served, while Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova claimed eating 50 oysters for breakfast a day sealed the deal in him bedding 122 women.
Yes, oysters are considered an aphrodisiac - rich in rare amino acids that trigger increased levels of sex hormones - but amore isn't the only thing they're good for. Oysters are loaded with calcium, needed not only for strong bones, but to aid in blood clotting, activate enzymes to help with digestion, help carry nerve impulses and are high in vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and copper. They're also the perfect dish if you're watching your waist. A low energy food, a dozen raw oysters have only 460 kilojoules - a great excuse to tuck in.
While dining on oysters among oyster aficionados, be forewarned - the much debated topic of cultivated versus wild will likely come up. People generally agree that cultivated oysters are milder in flavour than their wild counterparts, but as with all acquired tastes, this decision is best left to the palate. Already confused? Let me explain.....The Crassaostrea Gigas or Pacific Oyster as it's known, reaches 'sexual maturity' in one year...gosh, imagine it grew to 80 years...79 years of fun! Anyway, back to facts. There are edible and non-edible oysters. The non-edible ones tend to be the Pearl oysters, although all oyster species can produce pearls.
All oysters start out as male and release 'sperm' to fertilise eggs, and then change to female later on. So it’s both sexes at some point. No wonder it’s an aphrodisiac! It knows exactly what both sides need! The cultivation of oysters is done on floating rafts to which bags are attached. The oysters are placed in the bags and grown out over the period of a year. They are taken from the bags on a regular basis to de-foul them, as millions of organisms grow on the shell, including kelp. If this is not done then the water flow is restricted and the oyster can die. Keep in mind that it’s a filter animal and relies on good water flow for survival; the supply of plankton which it filters from the sea water. South Africa imports spats from the United Kingdom to grow out in the bays of Knysna, Saldanha, Port Elizabeth, Walvisbay and Luderitz. They're kept in cool waters to prevent their oysters from spawning. As a result, our oysters remain consistently delicious all year round.
Oysters come in a variety of sizes. Whether you like yours big or small is a personal thing, but the oyster should always look plump in their shell. The aroma should be super-fresh, instantly transporting you to the sea. Despite what some may claim, there is no particular 'oyster etiquette' that one needs observe. I like mine served in a half shell, on a bed of ice with a choice of lemon wedges, black pepper and Tabasco sauce. Some prefer their oysters 'naked' but, again, that just depends on your preference. Take the cocktail fork that accompanies the oyster, detach it by wriggling it a little from side to side (to separate the adductor muscle from the shell) and then send it down the hatchet like a shooter - either swallowing it whole or chewing it once or twice first to get the full flavour - together with the oyster 'liquor' (the natural juice inside the oyster that keeps it alive once it’s out of the water).
There is nothing worse than slurping back one of these beauties only to gulp shell shards along with it. Opening oysters require a skilful hand and fortunately Ocean Basket's expert oyster shuckers are well trained in this department. Using a shucking knife, with a short and thick blade, they're able to ensure a clean cut and this means no nasty surprises during your oyster dining experience.
So now that you know all the secrets of this eye candy you can enjoy your oyster dining experience with confidence, knowing you've earned your spot to sit among oyster connoisseurs. The seat next to me is open!