Oysters – you love them or hate them. Either you tried your first oyster and immediately rushed to the bathroom to spit it out or swooned with delight at this new source of gastronomic pleasure. But have you ever stopped to think about oysters – not whether to order them or not but their history, culture, origins and farming?
Vincent’s lovely wife, Suzanne, mentions that the oyster was originally the poor man’s food and it seems she is right (of course! As Vincent will tell you – she’s always right!). A bit of digging around tells us that in the 19th century, the oyster had been a staple diet of the poor and eaten in great quantities. In 1860, the three oyster companies in Whitstable alone, employing more than 100 boats and over 500 people, sent 50 million tons of oysters to London. Most of them were eaten by the poorest folk. “Oysters and poverty always seem to go together,” as Pickwick’s Sam Weller remarked.
Beef and oyster pie was a classic Victorian dish – the poorer you were the more oysters you put in, meat being the ore expensive ingredient. Eventually the meat became costlier than the oyster and so it came about that the oyster became the rich man’s food.
Q: So what is an oyster?
A: A bivalve mollusc. And what’s one of them you ask? A mollusc with laterally compressed body enclosed by a shell in two hinged parts. And what’s a mollusc?
Oh never mind, let’s get back to food…
We use rock oysters here at the Retro – they are a good size, fresh and creamy in texture and we serve them in a traditional style with a touch of lemon zest. The key to serving a tasty oyster, apart from ensuring its freshness, is making full use of the oyster’s natural juices. Once the oysters are opened we remove the juice, and let it rest for a few minutes with the lemon zest before serving. Delicious.
To quote Suzanne, “love my oysters with their juice – it’s just a little bit of sea water – close your eyes and imagine yourself on the beach…”
Would we serve cooked oysters? We may be traditional is some senses but if a customer is squeamish about raw shellfish then we are happy to serve them cooked. After all eating should be a pleasure and rules are there to be broken when the diner desires!
Fascinating facts about Oysters
Pearl Oysters. You won’t find yourself swallowing a pearl in the Retro. Pearl oysters are not closely related to true oysters, being members of a distinct family, the feathered oysters (Pteriidae). But did you know that almost all shell-bearing molluscs can secrete pearls – although most are not very valuable?
A season for oysters? Tradition says you should buy oysters only in months containing the letter ‘r’. This comes from pre refrigeration days but generally you avoid the spawning months when oysters become fatty, watery, soft, and less flavourful instead of having the more desirable lean, firm texture and bright seafood flavour of those harvested in cooler, non-spawning months. Needless to say there’s a whole discussion to be had about farmed oysters but that’s another story…
Types of Oyster. There are five main species of oyster to be found namely Pacifics, Atlantics, Kumamoto (mostly cultivated in Japan), European flats and Olympia (the only oyster native to the west coast of USA).
How to eat them. As far as we are concerned you can eat them any darn way you like! Oyster flesh has a lovely texture and, like any piece of meat, should be chewed. This also releases the full flavour, and the juice from the shell completes the experience. However some people insist on swallowing oysters in one. As we say – take your pick just make sure you enjoy them!
The French Connection
France is one of the best sources of the oyster; it has been estimated that around 90 per cent of Europe’s oyster production takes place in l’Hexagone, with the coastal areas of Brittany, the southern end of the Atlantic coast, the Mediterranean and Corsica as hotspots for ostréiculture (oyster farming).
For centuries, oysters have been traditional food during the Christmas season. In France, 70 percent of oysters are eaten at Christmas and New Year, and it makes for a popular starter at the festive table.
The word “oyster” comes from Old French oistre, which in turn comes from the Latin for oyster Ostreum (or its feminine spelling ostrea).
So there you go – just a tiny tidbit of tantalising tips on oysters. But never mind the facts – just come on in and try them for yourself – best you call first to check they are on the menu. And if oysters don’t float your boat we’ve got snails and a whole host of tempting starters.