There are two main kinds of oyster that you see on plates in Europe: the native oyster and the Pacific oyster. Price wise, the native is much more expensive, as it’s not really farmed: it’s a wild oyster, harder to grow and more susceptible to disease. It was over-fished from 1850 onwards, so it’s a bit of a rarity. We took over the Duchy of Cornwall’s oyster farm a couple of years ago, and we’re working hard at replenishing that fishery with natives. Essentially, Pacific oysters are much easier and cheaper to produce. They take about three years to grow, compared to five for the native.
Eating your first oyster Oysters from different areas taste very different, like wine, so look for an oyster that’s not too big, perhaps a rock oyster, Maldon or a Spéciales de Claire very sweet, clean and nutty. A native has a much stronger, more robust flavour, so it’ll stand up to stronger wines and beers. With Pacific or rock oysters, the mineral flavours are more subtle. If you’re getting oysters from a good source, that they’re going to be fresh goes without saying. When you look at the oyster, it should be plump in the shell, should have its liquor (the water inside the oyster) a sign of a healthy oyster and it should smell oceanic.
Sauce? A true connoisseur might eat the oyster with nothing on it. My personal advice is a few drops of lemon, tops. The Americans love them, God forbid, with ketchup or pepper. A lot of people relish their oysters with Tabasco, but instead try shallot vinegar, which is red-wine vinegar with chopped shallots. Today, you see people pouring vinegar and Tabasco over their oysters but don’t do it! Just use a couple of drops. Cooked oysters are lovely. Pop them under the grill with a bit of Parmesan and Champagne, or stick them on the barbecue. My personal view is that you should never cook native oysters, however: they’re so rare, it’s positively sacrilegious. This little thing’s taken three or five years to grow, so to just swallow it is madness. Chew it, and enjoy that initial briny hit. A lot of the make-up of an oyster is the mineral content from the area they grow in.
When to eat them There is the view that we should only eat oysters when there’s an R in the month and, indeed, you won’t find natives from May to the end of August, but you can eat Pacific oysters all year round. When the water temperature starts getting warmer, they do start to reproduce, so they get a bit milky around July or August. Some English people aren’t keen on that. Scottish oysters are another option Scottish waters stay pretty cold even in the summer months. Opening oysters at home If you’re unsure, just put them in the micro-wave for 10 seconds, and the lid will pop open. This might be pooh-poohed by the connoisseur, but it’s good to have options. It’s really a question of using a good oyster knife. I find the ones with the big guards to be more of a hindrance, and a simple oyster knife, held properly, will be safer. Wrap the oyster up in a tea towel so that if you slip, you hit the towel, not your hand. Open them at the hinge (the pointed bit). Put the knife between the lid and the bottom bit, twist it and click the hinge. It’s not about brute force, it’s about technique.
Storing oysters When you buy oysters, take a cool box or get them home quickly. They don’t want to be in a warm environment because they’ll start to open and lose their liquor. Never put them in fresh water. Keep them in the fridge and store them flat, not on their side, wrapped in a wet tea towel. Eat the oysters within two or three days, and avoid them if they’re gaping, haven’t got their liquor, or don’t smell fresh. We’re very stringent about water quality, as there are different grades. People should always check when they go on holiday if they can pick shellfish, and find out what the local water quality is.
Recommended British oysters The Duchy of Cornwall—Frenchman’s Creek • Wild Colchester Rocks • West Mersea natives • Carlingford Lough • Maldon Rocks • Lindisfarne
Robin Hancock runs Wright Brothers, an oyster restaurant and London’s leading oyster wholesaler (020–7403 9559; www.wrightbros.eu.com).