Fortunately for oyster lovers the numerous health benefits are an added bonus.
I was a late bloomer: I didn’t try my first oyster — raw or otherwise — until a friend introduced me to them six years ago. He enticed me to a popular Toronto restaurant with a promise of fresh lobster, yet I left with a newly acquired hankering for this mollusk. I remember hesitantly trying that first one at his urging, sans sauce or horseradish: sweet, briny, with a mild fruity finish — I can taste it still. It was a Kusshi from Vancouver Island. You could say it was love at first slurp.
Since then, I’ve found myself following a slew of Instagram accounts dedicated to oyster farming. (That’s right, I double-tap every time an oyster pops up on my feed and I don’t care who knows it.) My oyster obsession isn’t rare, however. After reading everything I could get my hands on about the history of the mollusk, I discovered the art of shucking dates back thousands of years. In 2015, researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands discovered a shell dating back 500,000 years with drawings scratched onto it.
“Perhaps our fondness for oysters is ingrained in our DNA — an evolutionary throwback to our basic needs of water, salt and protein,” suggests Patrick McMurray, the proprietor of Toronto restaurant The Ceili Cottage, in his book, The Oyster Companion: A Field Guide.
McMurray, who signs off emails with “Shuckingly yours,” is also the Guinness World Records title-holder for shucking with a record-breaking 39 oysters in one minute — that equates to approximately 1.5 seconds per shell.
At Ceili Cottage, I opt for a prime spot at the bar so I can witness McMurray in his element and get a first-hand glimpse of how a champion actually shucks an oyster.
Sliding the knife into the shell of a fist-sized Malpeque from Prince Edward Island, McMurray twists and effortlessly pops the oyster open with the slightest flick of the wrist, revealing the plump meat within. It has a mouth-watering effect on me. McMurray places the oyster on its half shell between my fingers. “A fresh oyster tastes of the ocean,” he says. “It should smell fantastic — like seaweed, earth and something very happy.” I nod and bring the tip of the shell to my lips before tossing it back. It tastes exactly as he’d described: pure happiness.
“The merroir [an oyster’s taste] is a snapshot of the bay — and day — it was harvested on,” McMurray tells me, as he plucks another shell from a bed of ice.
“No other food that I have experienced can give you such a reference to the place that it comes from. No other food is so perfect and complex in its singularity.” For example, he adds, “Kelly oysters from Galway taste of the air in the west of Ireland — the Cliffs of Moher, wet stone and the seaweed of Doolin Bay.”
Fortunately for oyster lovers — and soon-to-be converts — the numerous health benefits are an added bonus.
There are purportedly more than 200 species of oysters in the world, yet only a select number are cultivated for food. Those that we do enjoy with a pinch of horseradish or a dash of lemon zest are low in fat and high in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12 and the minerals iron, selenium and zinc. Oysters are, in fact, our best source of zinc — one mineral we don’t want to skimp on since it’s essential to immune health and function, helping us fight infection and disease.