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The world oyster-shucking champion shares tips on how to enjoy this elegant shellfish
The annual Osoyoos Oyster Festival takes place each spring with four days of fun oyster-based parties, galas, tastings and competitions in Canada’s desert accompanied by plenty of pours from local wineries and cider houses.
This year the hot ticket was the fantastic oysters and whisky seminar with a deliciously briny and sweet appearance from guest oyster the New Zealand Bluff, which has only made it to North America once before—all thanks to oyster wrangler Jon Crofts of Codfathers Seafood Market in Kelowna.
The other special guest, who shucked like a trooper all weekend, was Patrick McMurray, a.k.a. Shucker Paddy the World Champion Oyster Shucker, who holds the Guinness World Record for the most oysters shucked in 1 minute, a staggering 38.
We sat down with Paddy for Oysters 101: the essential dos and don’ts.
“The most important thing about shucking is to control your oyster; if it wiggles around it will initiate an injury. My advice is to shuck on a tabletop, with a three-point contact to the oyster: cloth, table and knife—this keeps the oyster from rocking around. Here’s a step-by-step guide to shucking an oyster:
“Bread is wonderful as a vessel for sauce: load it up, dip it in stuff, enjoy it! But if you want to experience an oyster the way that Mother Nature grew them, skip the sauce.
“Bring the oyster shell up to your lips, slide the oyster in and chew it up with a couple of bites. I don’t see any point in just knocking it back and swallowing, you can’t taste that, that’s what you do with a pill. To enjoy food, you must chew it and taste it—if you can’t taste it, there’s no use having it.
“People are scared of the taste of oysters but there’s no slime at all, there’s no viscosity in an oyster, what you first taste is seawater and then meatiness. So chew, and then aerate a little, which oxygenates the palate, just as you do when you’re tasting wine. Then swallow and enjoy.”
“There’s an old myth that if you drink oysters with whisky, they’ll turn to stone in your stomach. In all my years as a shucker, I’ve never seen anyone fall over from a stony stomach! This comes from the prohibition era, when alcohol was a no-no… different times and all that. Whisky actually works well with oysters; different whiskies have different flavours, just like oysters. The way I conceive of it is that whisky and oysters actually share the same environment in many places in Scotland. Distillers and oyster growers share the ocean and it influences the flavours of each.”
“There’s a picture of Dom Pérignon in the book, ‘The English, the French and the Oyster.’ People are shucking oysters and then there’s this cork popping with all the young guns watching it go through the air. [Champagne] is a softer alcohol to have with oysters and it’s a famous pairing.
“Although wine doesn’t share a water environment with oysters, of course they still go together. I prefer a lighter wine with oysters: Chablis, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadet, something citrusy. However, red wines can pair well too: try a Gamay or light Pinot Noir. Blue Point oysters have a terrific butteriness and I think they match with oaky Chardonnay, but the most important thing is how and when are you eating the oysters? Is it Monday and we’re having champagne and oysters? Great! Go ahead and have them with whatever makes you happy.”
“If people are worried about eating raw oysters, try them cooked or smoked. The other day I cooked oysters in a wood-burning oven; they were poached underneath and crispy on top and they’d picked up some of that smokiness—they were fantastic—concentrates the salt, so delish! It makes sense sometimes to cook an oyster… after your first 24 oysters on the half shell, you might want to change things up.
“In China, oyster omelette is a popular street food. They put oysters, scallions and sauce in and then you roll it up and off you go down the street! Ancient peoples from all over the world cooked oysters—look at the oyster middens—roasting up oysters in a fire was an easy way of cooking them. No shell required!”
“The oyster is nature’s perfect fast food. If you were lost on an island, you could eat oysters and survive. Even if you didn’t have a knife, you could crack it open with a rock and then work on your technique so you could shuck perfectly with a flint by the end!
“They’re high in protein and low in fat, they have the highest amount of zinc that you can get in any natural food source, which helps boost the immune system, and also releases testosterone in the body which is where the aphrodisiac quality comes from. Add to that Vitamin C, sea minerals, it’s the perfect food!”
“Oysters benefit the environment more than they take away from it. It’s very low-energy input into growing an oyster: you need sunshine, fresh water, saltwater and the algae that’s common in that area. The oysters will filter that out and pick what they want to eat from it; they grow big and fat just from filtering out the algae. If they don’t do that, then the water goes stagnant, as sunlight won’t reach through and no vegetation will grow. Compared to the energy required to raise fish, chicken, pork and beef, shellfish is the best.”
“I read a few papers on this, and in the vegan world, oysters would be a good option as a protein source for vegans as its life cycle is so dependent on weather that it’s close to a vegetable. It’s still technically an animal but it has no higher brainstem, it doesn’t move and it filter feeds and that’s it. There are some vegans who consider oyster as a good protein source… I understand vegans, they don’t want to do anything to animals, but vegetables have a high impact on the environment, so maybe an oyster is better with a lower carbon impact.”
“In the same way that wine has ‘terroir’ and the environment where it’s grown will create its flavour, there’s also the idea that shellfish have ‘merroir’ and the water where they grow influences their flavour too.
“All five species of oyster available in North America have different flavour ranges, depending on time of year and even time of month. It’s best when you can try different varieties of the same species side by side. You can taste the difference that location and water structure makes.
“There are five growing regions in PEI alone which will show different flavours and that’s an island that will fit into Lake Ontario! Small distances in growing regions make a huge difference in taste. It all depends on what comes from the land, and how the water from the land seasons your oyster. Again, if you’re just dropping sauce all over it, you’ll miss those differences.
“In Western Canada, we tend to have flavours that range from classic sweet cream, melon and cucumber, the melon tends to be more like the white rind, or it can go into cantaloupe flavour or be more vegetal like lettuce or a sweet Boston Bibb. That all just comes from the algae in the area that the oyster filtered.”