Get Shucking!



Tis’ the season to be jolly, eat turkey, Brussels sprouts, mince pies, and shuck a few oysters. Oysters are one of those great celebration ingredients. In season during any month that has an ‘R’ in it, September to April, oysters spend the Summer fattening up their plump little selves for their long Winter’s hibernation making them sweeter and crisper than at any other point in the year during the chilly winter months. In many countries around the world such as France and Spain, oysters feature prominently in celebrations for Christmas and New Year’s and between 50% and 70% of all oysters eaten are shucked and slurped up between these two holidays.

The Olivar market in Palma has been in a period of transition over the last few years
as the old style, classic market stalls are slowly giving way to a more diverse offering with Sushi stands and oyster bars opening up. Just last Saturday one of the new stands was packed with people enjoying a glass of champagne or cava with a dozen or so freshly opened oysters. I think this is a really welcome innovation as it gives people another reason to visit the markets. It all seems very decadent now to be eating expensive oysters and swigging champagne and it made me think about the oyster’s humble beginnings. 

A saltwater bivalve with a sea-salty flavour and a succulent texture, oysters were once the food of the poor and were mainly used to bulk out dishes such as pies, soups and stews. They were even fed to the inmates of London’s prisons! Believe it or not, through much of human history, oysters have been a very common foodstuff, bountiful in supply and easy to catch. Around the world, archaeologists have found piles of “household garbage” dating back thousands of years before the pyramids were built, which contain mounds of oyster shells.

In the Roman Empire, oyster farming developed as a technology in Italy and France, utilizing a complex system of channels and locks to control the sea tide. From there it spread across Europe, and became particularly popular in the British Isles. Colchester, briefly the capital of Roman Britain and has held an annual Oyster Feast since the 14th century. Ancient Greeks used to serve oysters as an incentive to drink and many cultures still consider oysters to be an aphrodisiac. Supplies decreased into the 20th century and now this shellfish is highly prized. Aficionados insist that they’re best eaten raw, perhaps with freshly ground black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice or a drop of Tabasco sauce. However they can be steamed, grilled or poached too, and they make excellent canapés.
Oysters can be battered into tempura, simmered into a sauce to serve with robust flavours such as beef or pork or even cooked with cream and fresh herbs such as sorrel.

The flavour and texture of their sweet tender flesh depends on type and the waters in which they are reared. The French claim theirs are the best (but then again…. they would!) Belons are from the river finistère while the Bretons and Isigny are from northern France. The English make similar claims with their Colchester’s and whitstables , the irish with their Galway Bay’s and the Dutch and Belgians with their seelands and Ostends.

Shucking oysters takes a little practice, but if you keep at it, you'll be able to open a dozen oysters at home without too much trouble at all.

Wrap a teatowel over one hand and use it to hold the cleaned oyster firmly. Lay it flat on a board and using an oyster shucking knife in the other hand, place the tip of the oyster knife at the base of the hinge, moving the knife in a rhythmical rocking motion from side to side, push the knife into the hinge until you have some leverage. Twist the knife using a little pressure, lever the knife upwards, or twist it to open the hinge.
Having removed the top lid, use the blade of the oyster knife to snip the adductor muscle on the bottom shell to release the oyster. If you want, you can turn the oyster over to have its "belly" facing up.
Try to keep as much of the oyster's natural liquor in the shell as possible - it's delicious and is one of the things that makes a freshly shucked oyster taste so good. Only use oysters that are tightly shut in their shells or which close when tapped. Any oysters that stay open are dead and should be thrown away. Once you have your oysters opened, it’s a nice idea to serve them with two or three different dressings.

POMEGRANATE, TOMATO, CHILI & LIME DRESSING

2 tbsp pomegranate seeds
1 tomato, de-seeded & diced
½ red chili, finely chopped
1tbsp olive oil
Juice of one lime
1 tsp chopped mint
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


SHALLOT OYSTER DRESSING

2 shallots, finely chopped
4 tbsp red wine vinegar
1tbsp olive oil
1tsp finely chopped chives
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Stir together the vinegar in a small bowl with the chopped shallots, chives, olive oil and season, to taste, with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

BLOODY MARY OYSTER DRESSING

150ml thick tomato juice
1tsp horseradish, finely grated
1 tbsp dry sherry
1 tsp celery salt
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
A few drops Tabasco sauce

For the Bloody Mary dressing, place all the ingredients in another
small bowl and stir well to combine.

To serve, place the small bowls of dressing into the centre of a
platter of crushed ice, and arrange the shucked oysters around the
side. Garnish with lemon wedges, and extra Tabasco sauce


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