I was amazed when I started to look at ingredients for N. I hadn’t really thought about it much before. It was then that I realized there are very few ingredients that start with the letter N. There are lots of products such as Nacho, Nutella (Oh how I wish it was an ingredient), Nougat to name a few. But the ingredient list was rather sparse. In fact I could only find Nutmeg, Nettles, Nectarine and Nori. I realized that I didn’t really love any of these ingredients. I couldn’t really wax lyrical on any of them. I also ruled out Nibbed Almonds, Nuts (too generalized) and New Potatoes (Not really a proper N in my opinion). So what should I do? Nashi pear appeared in my search, but I’ve probably only ever used this twice so can’t really shout about how amazing it is! So I’m left with a culinary conundrum. No ingredient to go with the letter of the alphabet. I figured this wouldn’t happen until X.
I was going to then look for a cooking technique beginning with N. And nothing struck out at me. So I decided, with a heavy heart, that I would move onto O. Why not? There is an absolute abundance of great ingredients beginning with O. Oranges, Oxtail, Oregano and Oats. But I know for a fact that my favorite O is Oyster. This, like my most of my previous ingredients, wasn’t always a favourite. I had a bad experience with a fried oyster in my teens – and I learned (the hard way) that certain types of restaurant that include oysters on their menu, should be avoided! Fast forward a few years and I was given the opportunity to try again. My apprehension was audible. However, I sucked it up; chugged it down and have never looked back.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to spend 6 months in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand. There was a plethora of fresh seafood available. The restaurant I worked in regularly got shipments of fresh oysters from a local boat. We would serve them raw as well as in the cooked dish ‘Oyster Kilpatrick’. The location was blessed with cleaner than average waters and as yet, nothing can replicate the freshness of these oysters and the flavour of the sea that came along with them.
Oysters can be found everywhere in the world and in years gone by, they were much more readily available. However, they are now considered very much a luxury item. In Victorian times, the Oyster was considered a poor man’s foo. It was also at this point that Britain used to have a thriving Oyster industry. However, cold weather, overfishing, pollution and a parasite have made it a shadow of its former self. Currently, the 2 types of Oyster that are grown / grow in British waters are the Native Oyster as well as the Pacific Rock Oyster. The latter was introduced to boost stocks and also is available to eat year round. The former is not as easy to farm but can be easily managed offshore.
The difference between the 2 varieties is more than just the taste and texture. Native Oysters take twice as long as the Rock Oyster to grow. They take about 5 years from spawning to be ready for us to consume. They are also a protected species in certain months of the year. The Native will spawn between the months of May and August. At this point they are not allowed to be taken from their beds. It is only at the start of the months containing “R” that they can be consumed. There was myth in Victorian times that Oysters were not good in the summer months. This was probably more related to the fact that there would have been poor storage back then.
Being a fresh seafood, oysters don’t have a particularly long shelf life. So, if you are choosing to use them in your own kitchen, try and find them as close to the source as possible. Buying them from a reputable fish supplier is also a good idea. So how do you know if an oyster is fresh or not? A fresh oyster will be shut closed. If you find an oyster shell that is open, tap it. If it doesn’t slam shut then it’s not fresh. It will be dead and have already started going off. If the shell is closed, then a good way to tell is by knocking the shell together. Once living things die, they begin to lose moisture. An oyster that has died will slowly start losing moisture and will leave a gap in the shell. A hollow noise will indicate a high likelihood that the oyster is already dead. The moisture will also affect the weight. A full plump oyster will feel heavy in the hand.
After opening the oyster, you should also be able to tell whether it is fresh or not. A fresh oyster will have a light salty smell. A bad oyster will have a strong fishy / sea smell. Of course, with many things – you can never be 100% sure. There is a small possibility that, even though it appears to be fresh, there may be bacteria living in the oyster that could make you ill. There is a train of thought that all oyster meat should be cooked above a certain temperature. This would kill all the bacteria. However, you should not avoid having fresh oysters because of this. You can break your leg by falling out of bed, but you still go to sleep there. You can severely reduce the likelihood of getting ill by always buying ‘fresh in the shell’ oysters from as close to the source as you can.
Here in Dorset we are lucky enough to get fresh oysters, which is definitely one of the great advantages of living in a county with such an expansive shoreline. I considered leaving you with a recipe, but I know that oysters are best served raw and straight from the shell. So if you have never tried one, go out and find them and be prepared to enjoy a unique culinary experience.
This has been a lot more factual than normal. There is also a lack of pictures which will be rectified in next weeks P blog. Summer is slowly drawing to a close and Autumn is knocking on the door. P has a few great ingredients that can be eaten properly in the Autumn. I look forward to sharing it with you.
Have a really good week