An introduction to oysters

How things change. Oysters are nowadays viewed as a luxurious treat but in Victorian times the opposite was true – in Charles Dickens’ debut novel, The Pickwick Papers, published in 1836, the cockney Sam Weller says: “Poverty and oysters always seem to go together.”

Besides their albeit recent association with decadence, oysters have long been regarded as an aphrodisiac. The high levels of zinc they contain are said to increase testosterone levels and one study found that bivalves, such as oysters and mussels, are rich in amino acids which cause increased levels of sex hormones.

Whatever the truth of the matter, there can be no doubt that a platter of crushed ice topped by a dozen shucked oysters and a few wedges of lemon, accompanied by a chilled bottle of chablis or champagne, is more likely to perk you up than not.

For those new to the eating of oysters, there are a few points to consider. Once you’ve absorbed these, however, you’ll be ready to embark on a journey of passion with few rivals in the culinary realm.

When to eat oysters

Traditional wisdom holds that you should only eat oysters when there’s an “r” in the month, which is broadly true. Depending on where you live, the oyster breeding season starts in May/June and ends in August, during which their flesh becomes milky with a creamy texture that’s not to everyone’s liking.

Our Atlantic oysters are harvested off the north-west coast of Scotland, where the breeding season tends to start in June, so from then until September we let them get on with their natural cycle. But there’s nothing to stop you enjoying them now.

Why you should eat oysters

There are two simple reasons – taste and nutrition.

The flavour of oysters is best described as sweet, rich and clean – all they need to grow is unpolluted, often brackish shallow water. Oyster farming has almost no environmental impact, and the end product is consequently (and consistently) pure.    

Besides the aforementioned high levels of zinc – around 50 times more than found in chicken – oysters are packed with vitamin B12 (key to smooth function of the brain and nervous system), copper, iron and iodine. They’re very low in fat and calories too, and high in protein.

How to eat oysters

Before you can bless your senses with the flavour and texture of oysters you need to learn how to open them, and for that job you will need a shucking knife (optional extra equipment includes a thick leather glove). There are lots of online videos where you can see how it’s done.

Thereafter it’s a question of whether you like them raw – drizzled with lemon juice and/or Tabasco and perhaps dusted with a little white pepper – or cooked.

In the UK almost all oysters are eaten raw, but not everyone appreciates raw shellfish (we know of one French woman who foolishly ate a bad one when nine months’ pregnant, thus bringing her daughter into the world slightly before nature intended). Have a look at the recipes at the foot of this article for ideas on how to cook oysters.

What to drink with oysters

If money is no object then high-end champagne is a no-brainer – the contrast of the smooth oyster flesh and lively bubbles is irresistible.

Oysters are often described as tasting minerally, and are perfectly complemented by wines with a similar cleanliness of flavour and mouthfeel, chablis being the number-one choice. If your budget won’t stretch that far then try muscadet, picpoul de pinet, pinot grigio or albariño.

If you’re up for a more adventurous (and less costly) match, give Guinness a go. It’s at the opposite end of the textural spectrum from champagne – smooth as opposed to fizzy – but visually and in terms of feel, the black stuff goes surprisingly well with oysters.

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