Everything you ever wanted to know about buying, shucking and slurping BC's beautiful bivalve — the sweet, salty, briny Pacific oysters of Vancouver Island.
By CINDA CHAVICH
It’s popular to speculate about who might have first pried open and slurped the sweet, briny meat of an oyster.
But here on the west coast, the evidence is ancient. Wherever you find a calm beach or a cozy cove, you’ll often also see a slash of white in the sea-eroded bank, a layer of crushed shells, tossed here by feasting indigenous families.
For like salmon, oysters (and related shellfish) were a staple food for coastal Salish people, and the many shell middens dotting our island coastlines, literally the litter of history, tell us where they lived and harvested these briny bivalves.
Fast forward to the 21st century and oysters are still a favourite food. Oyster farming in BC, mainly on the west coast Vancouver Island along the shores of Baynes Sound and the Discovery Islands further north, is a $40 million industry. We are the largest oyster-farming province in the country, producing 60% of Canada’s 26,000 tonne annual crop.
And unlike farmed salmon, farmed shellfish (like oysters and mussels) is completely sustainable and OceanWise. Oysters are not fed, they eat the wild plankton in the sea, and farming them has little or no environmental impact.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
Nearly all of our BC oysters are the Pacific type (Crassostrea gigas), the elongated, frilly oysters first introduced into our waters from Japan. Pacific oysters can take on a variety of tastes, ranging from sweet and lightly briny to watermelon or cucumber flavours. You can also find another Japanese species here, the tiny Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea), loved for it’s sweet, mild and buttery flavour.
On the opposite coast – in PEI and New Brunswick – the native American Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) is now farmed, an indigenous Atlantic type with a rounder, smoother shell. Malpeques and Bluepoints (named for the bays where they’re grown) are Atlantic oysters, known for their crisp texture and briny flavour.
The Belon (Ostrea edulis) is found in France, a flatter European oysters with a shallow, saucer-shaped cup, a meaty texture and a bold flavour.
The wild native or Olympia oyster (Ostrea lurida), still sometimes found in Washington waters, has all but disappeared here, a victim of over-fishing in the 1800s.
But oysters were once cheap and plentiful.
According to the ads and reports appearing in the earliest Victoria newspapers, it must have been a great city for miners and mollusk lovers. Rudolph’s Oyster Saloon was operating on Waddington Street in 1859. By 1861, Sooke Oysters were “constantly on hand” at the Phoenix Saloon.
“This is the first newspaper reference identifying where oysters were being harvested in British Columbia, although the oyster beds in the Gorge waterway at Tillicum Narrows had been recognized as early as 1846,” notes a recent article in the museum’s magazine, Curious.
By 1865, four other Victoria oyster saloons were advertising “the celebrated Olympia oysters in every form.”
Island oysters were exported to meet the growing demand. Records from 1910 indicate 7.7 million oysters were harvested on Vancouver Island waters, from Alert Bay and Nanaimo to Cowichan and Victoria.
Unfortunately, this oyster windfall soon ended. Overfishing led to a collapse in the wild oyster population - the “Oly” is functionally extinct here today.
Though researchers at the VIU’s Deep Bay Marine Field Station have begun efforts to reintroduce the native oyster to Baynes Sound, manager Carl Butterworth says there is “no restoration work at the moment” and BC’s only native oyster remains a “species at risk.”
Jess Taylor and Sean Roberts are experts at inserting a knife into the hinge of an oyster shell and almost instantly shucking it for your slurping pleasure. As The Wandering Mollusk, they’ve made a business of popping up at parties around town to take oysters to the people, serving up thousands of the freshest local oysters over the last three years.
“At parties, we’ll shuck 600 oysters in two hours,” says Taylor. “I’ve shucked hundreds of thousands of oysters.”
With their mobile shucking cart and deep knowledge of the briny bivalve, Taylor says The Wandering Mollusk is committed to sharing the local oyster culture.
“Sean and I want to be the champions of our local oysters,” says Taylor, “to talk about the our farmers and our merroir and celebrate it.”
Of course, freshness is paramount when it comes to oysters and that’s what these wandering shuckers deliver. With relationships with local oyster farmers, they can guarantee the oysters they serve have only been out of the water for a few days before they land on your plate.
“We get the glory but it’s the farmers who deserve our respect – it’s a tough gig, you wouldn’t believe how hard these guys work.”
When The Wandering Mollusk delivers their shucked oysters to individual events, they come with information sheets describing the type of oyster, flavour profile and source.
The named oysters are brands of specific producers and though the variety is the same, the “merroir” (where, when and how the oyster is farmed and what it’s eating) changes its shape, size and flavour. They may be grown in trays or bags near the plankton-rich surface, deep in fast water, or ‘au naturel’ on an intertidal beach.
At BCOysterGuide.com you can read more about the various types of island oysters available – like the Fanny Bay oyster, the Mac’s Beach oyster, Satori and tiny Zen from Hollie Wood Oysters on Denman Island, or the Black Pearls and Beach Angels from the eight families that form the Out Landish Shellfish Guild around Quadra and Cortes.
Many producers use tumbling machines to knock off the thin edges of the shells and encourage the oysters to form deeper cups as they grow. It makes for oysters that are easier to shuck (without annoying bits of shell in your oyster) and lots of oyster liquor to slurp.
Oysters grown where there’s more kelp and sea plants can have a fresh, cucumber flavour while those grown in colder, deeper water tend to be briny and crisp. You might detect a minerality, even a touch of melon. Some have a buttery texture but you don’t want an oyster that tastes soft or looks milky (that’s an indication they’re in their spawning phase and though perfectly safe, not great eating). Oysters generally spawn in warmer months, which is why winter is prime oyster season.
At The Wandering Mollusk, Taylor says he favours briny, sea-tumbled beach culture oysters, like Evening Cove from Salt Spring Island, “an oyster lover’s oyster.” Tray oysters tend to be sweeter, he says, adding the small, mild Kusshi from Stellar Bay Shellfish in Deep Bay is a good “gateway oyster” to try.
SELL, SHUCK, SERVE
The Wandering Mollusk will shuck a plate of oysters for your party for pick up (just an hour before you need them) and you may find them shucking at pop-up Sunday events at The Livet. Or you can belly up to other oyster bars in the city and order a platter of pre-shucked bivalves - think 10 Acres Kitchen, Steamship Grill, or Ferris’ Upstairs Seafood + Oyster Bar, where the oysters come raw on the half shell, house-smoked or cooked up in various ways, from crispy breaded oysters to oysters fried in butter and garlic, or baked with a wide range of toppings.
But you can also enjoy fresh oysters at home.
First, find a solid source – a local fishmonger like Finest at Sea or Oak Bay Seafood is a good place to start. At the latter, they also smoke local oysters in their own smokehouse and the take-out kitchen offers tasty plates of crispy fried oysters and chips, or oyster chowder to go.
When buying live oysters, you can ask to see the label that each grower must affix to every shipment, which lets you know exactly when and where the oysters were harvested. Make sure they are fresh and tightly shut, with no fishy smell.
It’s always fun to shuck and serve a selection, so you can appreciate the different oyster growing regions and what goes into creating each unique oyster. Freshly shucked, naked or with a drop of lemon juice or red wine mignonette, is the traditional way to enjoy raw oysters. A crisp white wine or bubbly makes the perfect sipper.
If you’re concerned about contamination, serve your oysters cooked. Heating them to 90 C for 90 seconds will kill most food-borne illnesses though PSP is not killed by cooking.
Oysters can live a week out of water. Don’t store them on ice (they will die in fresh water). Rather, place a damp cloth in a pan, arrange the oysters in a single layer (deep cup down to preserve the juices), cover with a damp cloth and refrigerate at 1-4˚C. Once shucked, serve oysters on a bed of ice and eat within two hours of shucking.
SAFE TO EAT?
It used to be said it was best to eat raw oysters during months with an “R” – September to May – when the waters are coldest, and the weather still chilly for harvesting and transportation. Though refrigeration and modern farming methods mean oysters are now harvested and available year round, changes to the climate are affecting water temperatures and causing concern for farmers.
Oysters are filter feeders and take in whatever’s in the water – last year’s outbreak of norovirus which sickened 400 people and shuttered several BC farms for months, likely came from raw sewage dumped into local waters, and spread through the region. The BC Centre for Disease Control never pinpointed the exact source of the outbreak, but the virus was spread by ocean tides and currents from BC to US farms in Puget Sound.
In an article in the British Columbia Medical Journal, researchers concluded that a wet fall and unusually cold winter may have allowed the virus to survive in coastal waters. The fact that the outbreak occurred between November and March, also negates the old adage about eating oysters in cooler months.
And there are also increasing worries that warming waters can host diseases like e. coli, Red Tide (paralytic shellfish poisoning) and Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a naturally-occurring bacterium that can affect raw oysters.
So is it safe to consume oysters?
There is always a risk associated with consuming raw fish and shellfish. But Darlene Winterburn, executive director of the BC Shellfish Growers Association (BCSGA) says farmers are cooperating with government and regulators to prevent future problems.
All commercial oysters go through federally-inspected processing plants before they get to market, which makes them safer than self-harvested shellfish, she says.
HOW TO OPEN AN OYSTER
1. Get a good shucking knife – one with a solid handle and thick blade, and a pair of heavy gloves to protect your hands.
2. Scrub oysters before shucking, if necessary, to remove sand or mud.
3. Set the oyster on a clean towel, on a flat surface, with the deeper, cupped side down. Fold the towel over the oyster to partially cover it, and hold it on the board.
4. Place the point of the knife into the hinge between the top and bottom shell (at the pointed end of the oyster).
5. Twist the blade and pry the oyster open, sliding the blade inside, along the top shell, to release the meat.
6. Separate the top shell from the bottom, then cut the abductor muscle on the bottom shell
7. Set the shucked oysters on a layer of crushed ice or rock salt to keep them upright, taking care not to lose any of the juicy liquor in the shell.
This food feature originally appeared in EAT magazine