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R is for Reconsider the Oyster

by Kate Zimmerman

I’ll never forget the first time I was offered a raw oyster. Just as the pearly orb was sliding toward the eager horizon of my gullet, the “friend” who had encouraged me to try one thought it helpful to say, “You realize that’s still alive, right?”

Although his claim was actually untrue – raw oysters are technically dead after they’re released from their bottom shell – that was that. Some 25 years later I was still shuddering at the thought when, at Vancouver’s soigné restaurant C, I was again offered a raw oyster. This time, though, it was poised at the tip of a plunger full of champagne. The idea was to depress the plunger onto your tongue, release the bubbly while biting on the oyster, and ingest these luxuries simultaneously. Even the most pitifully phobic had to be seduced by such decadence; the classic combination proved divine.

Most Calgarians don’t seem to need such esoteric incentives. The market for raw oysters is definitely growing here, according to Meta4 Foods’ Eric Giesbrecht, who imports an average of 3,000 weekly from P.E.I. and New Brunswick for 15 restaurants, including Big Fish and Catch in Calgary and Crazyweed Kitchen in Canmore. Raw oysters have become a “standard appetizer offering” at local restaurants, he says, crediting the hunger for them to Chef Michael Noble and Catch.

Before that seafood restaurant came on the scene in 2002, according to Giesbrecht, nobody was bringing “boutique-type oysters” – meaning those from small farms that market directly to the consumer – into Calgary. Enthusiasm for them now rides the momentum created by the “know your food” movement, which connects the food you eat with an individual producer and a particular place (oysters, for example, are usually named for the location of their farms). Giesbrecht points out that eating a raw oyster is one of the most “unmediated” culinary experiences available to a consumer.

Shawn Chesney is a brisk conduit to that experience. A few years ago he took a dishwashing job at Toronto’s Oyster Boy. By the time he left, he was the owner’s right-hand man, teaching classes on the tastiest branch of the family Ostreidae. When Chesney moved west, he started shucking in Vancouver’s trendy Yaletown, at Rodney’s Oyster Bar.

He’s one of just 10 professionals in the city who can properly handle this bivalve mollusk, according to his “crew chief,” Graham Egerton. Chalk that up to experience – on a busy day, Chesney will crack open a thousand.

“I love oysters,” he says unnecessarily over the lunchtime clatter of calcified shells rattling out of crates, and metal pie plates heaped with freshly shucked beauties being slapped down for customers primed to slurp. “They’re really fascinating little creatures.”

As his tiny knife jimmies gnarled shells to expose their opalescent depths, Chesney keeps up a steady patter on the topic, noting that raw oysters are so packed with goodness that three a day are the equivalent of a multivitamin. Zinc and the good kind of cholesterol are two of the attributes he claims for oysters. Still, surely it’s the unlocking of mysteries that Chesney enjoys. Some of these beasts look pretty grisly whole, crusted with forbidding green barnacles and as closely clamped as a Mother Superior. What a power trip it must be to cradle such a thing in his palm, insert the magic key and – bam! – unearth the glistening, erotic treasure within.

Calgary’s Giesbrecht has his theories about why a raw oyster is regarded as an aphrodisiac, beyond its resemblance to a particular female body part.

“Watch any oyster virgin have a go at their first oyster and then look at their eyes when they discover how wrong they were about what they’d previously anticipated,” he says via e-mail. “At first expecting something slimy and weird and totally unknown, they discover just how insanely silky the oyster’s texture is, the sweetness and slightly yielding nature of the little white adductor muscle chewed through like a tiny scallop, the inner nectars and liquor of the once living creature now sliding with a cool touch down the chin, the brightness of the brine (washing) over their mouths and crossing over into the meridians of subtle energy extending out from their limbs.”

According to Giesbrecht, that first couple of oysters imbues the newbie with energy and confidence, and “there ain’t nothing sexier” than that.

If you don’t like the first raw oyster you try, you can always choose another variety. A decent oyster bar always has a dozen or more on offer, no matter the season. Good news: The old adage that you should only eat oysters in months that end in “r” is defunct. It derives from the days before modern refrigeration, when oysters were stored and sold from trucks for a week at a time.

Today’s oyster farmers keep the supply fresh and at its prime, which doesn’t include oysters that are spawning. An individual oyster’s flavour is determined by the temperature and salinity of the water around it; the methods by which it was raised – finished in intertidal pools? Grown way down deep in rebar cages? – and whether it lived higher up in the water, dining on phytoplankton, or lower down, feasting on plankton. Giesbrecht says West Coast oysters’ “merroir” includes their rocky undersea terrain, which gives their flesh a more mineral quality than that of East Coast oysters.

Pacific oysters enjoy warmer waters than Atlantic oysters, and don’t go into hibernation mode, as their eastern cousins must, Chesney explains. As a result, Eastern oysters grow more slowly. While oysters from more temperate climes grow big enough to eat within a year, the same size oysters from colder ones can take half a decade. Over the course of that time, Atlantic oysters develop a more complex taste and firmer bodies.

There are five species of oyster, says Chesney. The Easterners raised in Maine share a heritage with the French “Belon” and are sometimes called “European flats” because of their flat tops. The Virginica is the one most closely associated with our Atlantic coast and includes such popular choices as the Malpeque. North America’s West Coast has only one native oyster species, the Olympia, which Chesney describes as salty, briny and “not very nice.” The coveted Fanny Bays farmed in B.C. belong to the Pacific or Gigas species, originally found on the Pacific coast of Asia. The smallest and easiest to manage are the Kumamotos, originally cultivated in Japan.

Egerton’s favourite oyster is the Effingham from Effingham Inlet, in Vancouver Island’s Barclay Sound. “The thing I like about it is that it’s not tiny, it’s not massive, but it has a really big cup side, which means that all of the moisture – we call it the oyster liquor – stays in there, so it doesn’t dry out. It’s a little bit less creamy than the Kumamoto or the Kusshi. It has a briny, bright, acidic, crisp, multi-layered flavour. Everybody that I recommend them to, they’re their favourite oysters, as well.”

Chesney, too, likes a Vancouver Island oyster – the Stellar Bay. The outer edge of its shell is so brittle it will break in your fingers, he says. After it’s raised in a floating tray just below the ocean’s surface, however, it’s “tumbled” in large cylinders. This smoothes the shell and retards the growth of the mantle, the outer lip of the oyster, so it goes into “recovery mode.” The inner muscle
then grows deeper, producing a clean-
flavoured oyster that’s “almost unnaturally plump and meaty and crisp.”

Giesbrecht, needless to say, is an East Coast oyster enthusiast. He favours bivalves from Colville Bay, where a freshwater river flows into the ocean and dilutes its salinity, resulting in a sweeter, firmer-fleshed treat with a bright green shell.

No matter which raw oyster you choose to eat, don’t bombard it with toppings, Chesney advises. “A fresh oyster should have a nice, natural flavour.” Add a bit of lemon – then, if you like, a pinch of freshly grated horseradish.

“The differences in oysters are so subtle that if you drown the flavour with anything, whether it’s a strong drink or the wrong kind of sauce, you won’t taste the oyster itself.”

Only a fool would want that. ✤

We prairie folks love to feast on oysters, shipped in from east and west. Get your oyster fix here Calgary Oyster Man, Eric Giesbrecht, says these places “do oysters justice”:..

Big Fish Oyster Bar & Lounge
Monday night 2 for 1 oysters by the dozen

Blink Restaurant & Bar
frequently features oyster specials

Bonterra Trattoria

Catch Restaurant & Oyster Bar
consistently the largest selection

CharCut Roast House


The Embarcadero Wine & Oyster Bar
daily featured oysters are $1.25 each

Raw Bar at Hotel Arts

River Café

Vero Bistro Moderne
1 dozen east coast oysters free with the purchase of any bottle of wine every Wednesday

Kate Zimmerman only writes in months that contain vowels.