Oysters have long been valued, dating back to Roman times for their fleshy, bright and saline meat. They evolved from being a basic food for the less fortunate to a coveted delicacy among urban elites. Modern farming has made them widely accessible again. However, native oysters of Western Europe (Ostrea edulis) experienced a significant epizootic in the early 20th century. Since this event, the rock oyster (Crassostrea gigas), indigenous to the Pacific coast of Asia, has become the market leader. Western European native oysters are known for their flat and round shells, being smaller and shallower than rock oysters. In contrast, the shell of rock oysters is irregular and oval, resembling a rock. The latter’s rapid growth and larger size have made them more commercially appealing, further solidifying their market dominance.
Depending on the area the oysters are cultivated, they tend to develop different flavour profiles, showing terroir. In Western France, particularly between the estuaries of the Gironde and the Charante rivers, oysters undergo a special affinage process before harvest in ‘claires’ – nutrient-rich estuary waters. These waters are home to various plankton species, which impart a spectrum of flavours and distinct colours to the oysters, ranging from grey to blue and green. Popular farming areas are those under the appellation ‘Fine de Claire’ in Marennes-Oléron, Gillardeau, Arcachon or those from Utah Beach in Normandy.
In the UK, we have been purchasing oysters from Richard Haward, which can be found in Borough Market in London and online. Haward practices sustainable, environmentally friendly oyster farming. They cultivate both native and rock oysters, as well as clams. The native oysters are available to purchase in the season between September and April while the rock oysters can be found all year round.
Richard Haward’s oysters’ tasting notes
- Native oysters: the meat has a delicate, almost creamy, texture and a very intense flavour which stays for a long time in your mouth. More mineral and savoury (resembling seaweed) than rock oysters and packed with umami. The native oysters take much longer time to grow than the rock oysters, and since the process is very slow, the native oysters tend to develop richer and more complex flavour. Best when eaten raw.
- Rock oysters: the meat is softer compared to the firmer texture of native oysters, the saline flavoured is more pronounced but the overall taste is milder. We think that they show themselves in their best when cooked (see recipe below).
How to eat oysters
Oysters present a unique flavour, often likened to cucurbits. They have a very refreshing and mineral taste that can be worth accentuating with other ingredients too. Initially, we recommend enjoying them raw, just as they are, to appreciate their quality and their terroir identity. But if you would like a more creative serving idea, we have adapted a recipe from Joan Roca – raw native oysters with Cava foam and thinly chopped apples and pineapple. Another great option is to grill them on the stove tops or a barbecue as they do in Hiroshima or at Etxebarri.
Oysters: Three WaysCourse: Main, StarterCuisine: French, ModernDifficulty: Easy
- Recipe 1
Cava, as much as desired
0.4% solution of xantham gum in Cava
Small handful of pineapple and apple brunoise
- Recipe 2
- Recipe 1
- Place the Cava and xantham gum in a tall container, and using the immersion blender mix the ingredients until the liquid thickens.
- Transfer the mixture into a siphon and load one charge of CO2. Keep the siphon in the fridge until serving.
- Recipe 2
- In order to cook the rock oysters, you will need a gas stove and wire rack to place on the top of the gas burner.
- Shuck the rock oysters and cook them on a direct flame until the oyster loses its translucency (about 2-3min).