Oyster season is upon us. The “ber” months (September to December) are a time of post spring-reproduction fattening and moderate water temperatures. So now is the time for ye oyster fans and oyster virgins to try the legendary and vaguely sexualized foodstuffs in their prime!
The recent film Shuckers follows Tim Rozon (co-owner of Garde Manger in Montreal) and Daniel Notkin (Montreal’s oyster guru and Canadian shucking record holder) as they delve into the rabbit-hole of professional oyster shucking competitions.
James Baran (Chef de Cuisine at Garde Manger) took his vacation to travel with Tim and Daniel Notkin during the filming and was kind enough to answer some of my questions about the strange world of oysters.
Oyster’s ain’t new. They are in fact around 265,000,000 years old and have been cultivated through aquaculture since the holy Roman Empire. With the advent of trawling and industrial methods in the 1930s came overproduction and consequently, habitat destruction. Stocks were decimated and the need for aquaculture resurged, transforming oysters from working-class fuel to upper-class fun.
Modern oyster farms operate with levels of expertise approaching that of wine, cheese, or chocolate producers. What becomes very apparent when listening to an oyster expert speak for any length of time is that oysters are not homogenous.
There is an oyster for every mood and occasion with its composition dictated by the subtleties of its growing conditions – everything from water salinity, plankton availability, and the tides make each oyster unique even within species or a single batch.
Oysters in nature are also very, very important. In many of their ecosystems they take on the role of the primary algae and phytoplankton filtration system. This prevents dangerous algae levels from developing and blocking sunlight to sea plants, which would in turn destroy small fish habitat which would in turn destroy the food source for bigger fish.
While they are an incredibly important part of estuary ecosystems, their numbers are being threatened by climate change. Rising PH levels and water temperatures are increasing rates of disease and decreasing the calcification of shells which prevent fertilized eggs from “catching” and maturing into “spat” (baby oysters).
Over the past ten years a scarcity has developed due to the difficulties surrounding modern production with producers unable and refusing to sell inferior product.
Newfoundland does not naturally have the conditions required to foster oyster beds thanks to our rocky shores and very salty waters. PEI, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia however are renowned for their oysters – Malpeques, Raspberry Points, and Lucky Limes included.
Often, these are flown in by the case. This all means that in order to enjoy premium quality oysters, Newfoundlanders must go to great lengths. The quality of oysters can deteriorate over the course of one week – especially without proper refrigeration over storage and transport.
So, if you want good oysters, go eat some! Higher demand yields a stronger supply, a stronger distribution chain, less waste, and better margins for sellers – read: cheaper and fresher oysters! Which is good, because oyster cultivation is a sustainable and healthy food that can be produced close to home.
Hurry up before the “Brrrrr” months have us locked inside eating nought but stew.