Tales about Oysters, Opening and Eating
Thursday, 6th December, 2007 - David Farmer
At the Vic Market today the pine mushies were $55 per kg, over the road - free. Note the slippery jack also (lots of these about actually but pines were the focus for today - you can only eat so many)
The Galway International Oyster Festival is in its 53rd year. It's sponsored by Guinness so they hope you wash down oysters with the famous stout. The oyster opening championship which was won by the Swede, Hasse Johannesson who shucked 30 oysters in 2 minutes and 41 seconds. In 1988 an Australian, John Wild won with a time of 2 minutes and 56 seconds.
Reading the Irish news about oysters made me long for the oysters of the south coast of N.S.W. The estuaries of the Clyde and Tuross rivers are famous for their farmed oysters. These are the Sydney rock oyster (Saccostrea glomerate) which of course can also be found well north of Sydney. I have gathered and purchased oysters from the Tuross estuary for several decades and my favourite location was an abandoned oyster lease that had been over looked by others. I used to cart them off by the sugar bag full. I also found several concrete posts right opposite the boat hire places which had been the foundations for a pipe that crossed the estuary and these were bountiful for a few years with many oysters up to ten plus years old. I also harvested a few octopuses that called these posts home. The Sydney rock is as its name suggests an oyster that in the wild attaches itself to the rocky foreshore.
There is another oyster now very scarce around the Australian coast that you can find in the deeper water at Tuross if you work hard enough. These are the native oysters (Ostrea angasi) that are not attached and live in the mud and sand. They were once harvested by the ton around Australia but are now extinct in many areas. The other commercial oyster in Tasmania and South Australia is the introduced Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) which has become very popular. I ordered ten dozen from Cowell, the home for commercial growers in South Australia, last Xmas and found them excellent though I prefer the Sydney rock. Still fresh is best and anything from the sea that you can purchase live is simply a treat so I do not quibble over the oyster species.
Colonial Times and the End of Good Times
In the colonial days when oysters were abundant they were a staple for poorer people and there was a large trade in moving oysters around the country and well inland. Oyster bars flourished in Kalgoorlie and the oysters had been sent as deck cargo from Queensland and New South Wales. Here's a quote from Blainey*, "Oysters were not a food for the wealthy or those arranging a celebration. For decades, oyster eating continued to be more popular among working people. When on a spree, they ate them almost as if they were grains of rice... In many country towns fresh oysters were swallowed with speed when bags arrived by train from the distant coast. In the small Riverina town of Narrandera around 1890, two oyster bars competed for business. In the cities, oyster saloons and bars were numerous, and in 1888 the main streets of Melbourne held at least sixty oyster saloons. If today the city were to have the same proportion of oyster bars to people, it would need about 500 oyster bars."
With all this enjoyment of oysters the inevitable happened. Again the quote is from Blainey, "Tasmania's native mud oysters passed through the same sequence of boom and slump. Maybe twenty-two million were dredged in a bumper year of the 1870's. Quickly the annual catch declined, and in 1882 only one oyster was dredged for every fifty that had been caught in the prosperous years. By then the scallop, whose flesh was larger than that of the oyster, was being fished in huge numbers. A favoured dish of the poorer part of Tasmanian society its annual catch rose and fell until eventually it, too, became scarce."
As a boy I used to go with father to harvest native oysters from the Carlton River (east of Hobart), no doubt the last surviving pocket. As for scallops in the 1950's they developed a new dredge that increased the scallop harvest by a huge amount and to help sell the oversupply we were encouraged as schoolkids to buy scallop pies for lunch and one of the varieties was a curried scallop pie. Can you believe this in a time when a fancy Sydney restaurant will sell you four on the plate for $50.00?
My experience is that most folk find it too damn hard to open oysters plus they are worried about food poisoning and buy them already opened. Just remember that most of these will be washed and while still very good the edge of salty sea flavour has been washed away although one of my science friends used to delight in reminding me that the brine around the freshly opened oyster was their urine. There are several ways to open an oyster. The professionals as you can observe at the Sydney fish markets use a long blunt blade. They hold the hinge end of the oyster and chop sharply the opposing edge breaking a small hole in both shells at the lip. In the one continuous movement the blade is inserted into the hole, the muscle is cut and the oyster is open. If you do this for a living this is the correct method as it is four times faster than opening from the hinge end. This method is not recommended as we amateurs end up stabbing a finger or hand.
Most places where you buy oysters and fish tackle shops sell an opener which is designed for opening the shell from the hinge end. The hand is protected by a guard separating the handle from the short blade. As is often the case the cheapest openers are the best as these have a blade that is concave. Fancy openers with wooden handles that you will find in kitchen ware shops are not as good, as the ones I have seen do not have the concave blade. Hold the oyster in a gloved hand and locate the hinge end of the oyster with the blade. Push strongly at the hinge, wiggle and lift it a bit and when the top shell eases slide the blade in and around the lower shell to slice the holding muscle.
Another way is to place the bag of oysters in the freezer. They do not like this and will slowly open. Get them out before they die and flick the shells apart with a strong blunt blade. Even a short time weakens their muscle power.
I'm a purist with oysters and enjoy them best with the brine in the shell. Each to their own so also serve them with lemon and fresh pepper, perhaps bread, and I like the French idea of a bowl of mature vinegar, apple cider or champagne vinegars are good, containing finely chopped shallots. The later can be a bit strong so I prefer red onion these days.
What to Drink
A Japanese visitor at the Galway International Oyster Festival commented that they always drank sake with oysters but found the Guinness combination excellent. Perhaps you should try Pimm's as it was invented by London oyster bar owner James Pimm in 1823. The first Pimm's was gin based (now called No.1) and it must have appealed as they went on to open a chain of Pimm's Oyster Houses from 1887.
Traditionally though oysters go with white wine. Sitting on the French coast at La Rochelle sipping the acidic local brew seems like heaven. Further north the Muscadet is not much better but it gives us a clue that oysters go best with lighter wines, unoaked and whites without overt, ripe aromas. Delicacy and a touch of flintiness are those that appeal which means wines from high altitudes or cool southern latitudes. After all Reuters reported from Galway:
"Oysters are the taste of the ocean and they are very pure and natural," said Canadian chef and author Patrick McMurray, a past world oyster opening champion. "It has an elemental property which just gives pure happiness to everyone."
Match a wine with that if you can?
Oyster-from Montparnasse to Greenwell Point, Nicolette Stasko (Harper Collins, 2000). A fabulous read with 293 pages about oysters. Strongly recommended.
Black Kettle and Full Moon-Daily Life in a Vanished Australia, Geoffrey Blainey (Penguin, 2003). Quotes were taken from pages 303-306.