Oyster love

Author: Frank Moorhouse
Photography: Antonia Pesenti

Remember when we began pairing cities and towns throughout the world as a way of spreading international goodwill? - Sydney twinned with Guangzhou, Melbourne with St Petersburg and so on.

I have begun to think that it is important for us as humans to know the behaviour and nature of at least one species other than our own - we should twin with another species.

A year or so back I decided to pair with the oyster. I'd eaten so many during my life and they'd given me such fine pleasure, I felt that I had become something like an oyster. I hope I have. I like swimming, I like taking in the sun, and I like to close the lid on my life for a time and just have time out - as oysters do. Oh, and they change sex every so often just for fun. I like that too.

I make goodwill visits to oyster leases, we exchange postcards about the weather and they tell me which restaurants' menus they are hoping to make it to this year and who is likely to win the national oyster competition, who's been sick. And of course we exchange fashion tips at the sex change time of the year.

Smart-talking about the oyster
These days we can all smart-talk about wine, we have become connoisseurs - we talk about balance, tannin, apricot under-taste and so on. Yet we are sometimes at a loss for words to describe the flavours of the oyster. It's time we became connoisseurs of oysters.

The words which come up in oyster reviews and in conversation are sweetness, meatiness, metallic, salinity and iodine. I would add to the list something I call the reed flavour, which I fantasise is the flavour of the sea or river reeds growing near the oysters. I have no science to support this.

As for sweetness, I can see no sugars as such in the chemical composition of the oyster, and what we detect as sweetness in the rock oyster and also in the Pacific is the glycogen of the oyster's protein - its flesh, which is high in glycogen, especially when in top condition. Without getting too technical, glycogen is the flesh equivalent of starch - glucose.

We sometimes describe oysters as having a metallic taste. Ernest Hemingway in a reference to eating oysters in A Moveable Feast talks of a "coppery" flavour, and yes, minute traces of copper can be found in oysters but also iodine, zinc, calcium, magnesium, iron, and phosphorus (all good for us). I suspect Hemingway was tasting the combination of these minerals in his French fines de claires but was probably picking up on the iodine (and anyhow, Hemingway - does copper really have a taste?).

Eating - or not - the muscle of the oyster
A patronne of my mine in Paris - Monique Delamotte - once reprimanded me for not eating the oyster muscle inside the shell, the adductor muscle (this was not her only reprimand of my table practices over the years). When the oysters are served, she says, they should not have been detached from their muscle. The cutting of the oyster free from the muscle is diner's work, she says. The edge of the fork can be used to cut the oyster free from the muscle. The oyster muscle is of a digestible texture with a very mild taste but regardless of Monique Delamotte, I consider the eating of it an optional extra.

Carnality, sensuality, lubricity
Of course the oyster happily lends itself to happy sensual association but readers of Gourmet Traveller need no tutoring on this.

Six years ago, a team of American and Italian researchers analysed bivalve molluscs - a group of shellfish which includes oysters - and found they were rich in rare amino acids which trigger, ever so slightly, the levels of our sex hormones, both male and female.

"I am amazed," said George Fisher, a professor of chemistry at Barry University in Miami, who led the research team. "For centuries, folklore has said that eating raw molluscs - oysters in particular - stimulates the libido but there has really been no scientific evidence as to why, and if, this occurs. We now know that these molluscs are very mild aphrodisiacs for men and women."

Size and name?
Oysters are marketed by size as well as species. The largest Pacific oysters, "Jumbo" size, measure at least 100mm in the length of their top shell; the largest Sydney rocks, "Gourmet" size, at least 80mm. The size does not alter the taste but some of us feel bigger is best.

There is an emerging practice among oyster growers of naming oyster "varieties" which until now were simply labelled according to their locality - Clyde River, Bermagui, Clarence River, and so on.

In Batemans Bay, oyster grower Steve Feletti has branded the various oysters he grows in different parts of the Clyde River which flows into that bay. Recently at No 35 restaurant at the Melbourne Sofitel I was served a mixed plate of his angasi, Clair de Lune Bouton, Moonlight en Surface and Label Rouge - all from the Clyde River at Batemans Bay.

I see from my tasting notes that over the years I have eaten oysters from 35 Australian localities - 37 if we include the New Zealand Bluff and Kenepuru Sound oysters (this list does not include the new fancy names).

Eating oysters with a fork, a spoon?
As readers of Gourmet Traveller will have read in the December 2010 issue, I have changed my position about which table implement to use when eating an oyster.

In 18th-century oyster eating practice, the eater held the oyster shell near the mouth and sucked or scooped the oyster into the mouth, at the same time imbibing the oyster's juice.

On my last oyster lease expedition my friend Rohan and I took our oysters back to the motel, opened them with our knives, then found that we had no forks and instead ate them with a motel room teaspoon.

We discovered that using a small spoon allows the oysters to be cleanly removed from the shell without being damaged by the fork. I know it sounds rather untraditional but the spoon delivers the oyster to the mouth cleanly and with some of the oyster liquid.

Subsequently, I experimented with spoons and settled on a wooden Japanese spoon a little larger than a teaspoon. Rohan, however, gave me an elegant, longer-handled, pewter spoon from Artesia Pewter in Tasmania designed in the 1980s by John Bright which he believes is perfect for oyster eating.

Because of the pewter spoon gift I am inclined to believe that oysters should be served on a pewter plate. These plates are pictured in the paintings by Joris van Son (1623-1667). Van Son liked painting oysters among other things of the table. Pewter, of course, themes with the greys and whites and blacks of the oyster itself.

On the plate, the yellow lemon peel gives a single, bright contrast to the greys and creams of the oyster and its shells and the grey of the pewter, although my oyster-eating companion Virginia argues that the yellow of the lemon rind is too bright against the colour range of greys and whites and she prefers the quieter yellow of the lemon flesh and turns the rind under. She would. Perhaps she should talk with Monique Delamotte about that.

The shells - honouring the oyster
I find that one of the pleasures of oyster eating is the tactile experience of inspecting the remarkable oyster shell. I marvel that a microscopic spat can in four years create for itself a limestone residence of such impressive size and finish.

The outer layer is an armoured fortress and inside is an inner living space lined with a smooth, pearl-like surface - a perfect swimming pool in which the oyster lounges. The oyster is able to raise the sunroof of the shell when it needs to and to close it very tight.

When examining the shell, look for the shape of the dragon's claw with its ribbed fingers; or shells dimpled with tiny barnacle shacks. (Two other creatures that commonly build on oysters - sea worms and sponges - can be seen if you look closely, although you might need a magnifying glass to see the honeycomb-like sponges; but, of course, most diligent oyster eaters carry a strong magnifying glass or a jeweller's loupe. These creatures have nothing to do with the oysters or with each other, they just live there harmlessly on the shell). Or feel the flexible edging of the angasi shell. Examine the hooked shell of other varieties - some oysters are grown upright from a single point which you can identify at the sharp end of the hook. On oysters grown by older methods on wooden frames you will find that the slats of the frame leave their groove on the shell. Sometimes the shells carry some of the green river moss; sometimes the tides and the sand have scrubbed the oyster almost white. And of course we always enjoy touching the nacre - the astonishing pearly lining of the shell.

Finally - call me eccentric - before sending the finished plate away I like to arrange the shells face-down in a circle of tribute; at Tastevin, an excellent little restaurant in Sydney, Virginia decided she prefers to build them into celebratory mounds. I am not by inclination a spiritual person, but I fancy that how we handle the shells of the creatures we have just eaten is a way of honouring those creatures and the pleasure they've given us - their remains are not just trash. In some primal, totemic way, these creatures are part of us. Say goodbye, nicely.

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