There is an R in the month…so, hurrah, we’re in oyster season again and will be until the end of April 2024.
I love, love, love oysters, but didn’t always. I’d never even seen an oyster until I came to Ballymaloe in the late sixties and even then, I was very reluctant to taste. Everyone else around me seemed to be super excited about these strange looking molluscs so I decided I’d better pick up the courage to try them…then the dilemma, should I chew or just swallow?
I didn’t much like the first one or even the second. The oyster aficionados urged me to keep on trying. ‘You’ve got to eat five or six before you’ll start to relish them’ and how right they were. Suddenly I loved the delicious briny flavour and the slithery texture and now I will gleefully tuck into a dozen or more when I’m fortunate enough to have the opportunity.
Last year in the US, I went along to the Billion Oyster Project fundraiser (www.billionoysterproject.org) in the Navy Boatyard in Brooklyn. This is a New York City based not for profit initiative dreamed up by Murray Fisher, Pete Malinowski and friends from Fishers Island to re-populate New York harbour with a billion oysters by 2035. I tasted over 20 different oysters out of the 40 plus from all around the American coast. Many were very good, but I can now confidently say that there’s nothing to beat the flavour of Irish oysters, only the little Olympia oysters from the west coast around Puget Sound come close and believe me I’ve tried a few oysters in my day.
All over the world, there are oyster restoration projects underway for several very good reasons. Oysters are bivalves, filter feeders that clean the water which encourages marine plant life and allows sea life to recover. They also grow in clumps, which create a barrier to protect against coastal erosion – win, win all the way.
During the past few decades, the native Irish oyster almost became extinct, archaeologists have found oyster middens in Cork Harbour that date back to Neolithic times.
For centuries, oysters were overfished, a cheap source of highly nutritious coastal food, loaded with zinc, calcium, selenium as well as Vitamin A and Vitamin B12. At one stage, labourers could not be fed oysters too frequently similar to wild salmon when it was cheap and plentiful before overfishing decimated the stocks.
Rossmore Oysters in Cork Harbour developed a methodology for breeding oysters in saltwater beds on the edge of the estuary. The stocks are now gradually recovering, so there is growing optimism that the native Irish oyster, famed the world over for its unique, briny flavour, and superb texture may be saved from virtual extinction.
Once again native Irish oysters are being featured on top restaurant menus in London, Paris, Berlin….
Recently an Oyster Opening Championship was held at Bentley’s in London. The Irish ‘natives’ got a rapturous response from both chefs’ and oyster lovers.
The champion oyster opener from Bentley’s went on to win the world championships at the famous Galway Oyster Festival in September.
The flat native Irish oysters take four years to reach maturity and for my taste are best enjoyed au nature with maybe a drop of freshly squeezed lemon juice.
The more accessible gigas oysters in their beautiful curvaceous shells, mature faster in 18 months to 2 years. They too are delicious unadorned but also take well to tangy toppings and are delicious cooked in a variety of ways.
Who remembers with nostalgia, Declan Ryan’s delicious oysters with cucumber and beurre blanc from the Arbutus Lodge menu in the 1980s. Ballymaloe House still do oysters in champagne sauce occasionally (see my Examiner Column 11th February 2023), another exquisite oyster classic.
I also loved the smoked oysters that Joe Savage and The Smokin Soul Grill team shared at the Grub Circus during the recent Altogether Now Festival at Curraghmore in County Waterford. They had super grills and barbecue gear, but one could try smoking some in a tin box over a gas jet in your own kitchen. You’ll be surprised, even astonished at how irresistible they taste.
Cooked or smoked oysters are a delicious introduction to oysters if you don’t quite relish the idea of eating them unadorned and then there’s also oyster stew and crispy deep fried oysters. Here is the recipe for oyster stew given to me in 1986 by the lovely Marion Cunningham and several of my other favourite oyster recipes.
But most of all seek out the native Irish oysters, you may find some in the English Market in Cork City and give thanks that they have been saved from extinction.
How to Open an Oyster
You will need an oyster knife.
It’s wise to protect your hand with a folded tea towel when opening
oysters. Wrap the tea towel round your hand, then lay the deep shell on
the tea towel with the wide end pointing inwards. Grip the oyster
firmly in your protected hand while you insert the tip of the knife into the
hinge, twist to lever the two shells apart; you’ll need to exert quite a lot of
pressure, so it’s foolhardy not to protect your hand well. Then,
slide the blade of the knife under the top shell to detach the oyster from the shell.
Discard the top shell, then loosen the oyster from the deep shell, flip over to
reveal the plump side, don’t lose the precious briny juice.
Hot Oysters with Beurre Blanc and a Fine Julienne of Cucumber
A marriage made in heaven…
16 rock or Japanese Oysters – we source our oysters from Rossmore Oysters in Cork Harbour, www.oysters.co.uk
Beurre Blanc Sauce
3 tbsp white wine
3 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tbsp finely chopped shallots
pinch of ground white pepper
175g butter, unsalted
1 tbsp cream
salt and freshly ground white pepper
lemon juice, to taste
rock salt or seaweed
First make the beurre blanc.
Put the first four ingredients into a stainless steel saucepan, bring to the boil and reduce to about 2 tablespoons. Add a generous tablespoon of cream and boil again until the cream begins to thicken. Remove the saucepan from the heat, whisk in the butter in little pieces, put the saucepan back on a low heat, if necessary, the sauce should be just warm enough to absorb the butter. Strain out the shallots. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, add a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice to taste. Keep beurre blanc aside in a warm bain-marie until needed.
Peel the cucumber and cut into approximately 3cm blocks, cut into very fine julienne. Use only the firm outside part of the cucumber, not the part with seeds which is soft.
Scrub the oysters well. Just before serving, put into a hot oven 250°C/Gas Mark 9 until they start to open. Using an oyster knife, remove and discard the top shell, place a little cucumber julienne on top of each oyster and coat with a spoonful of beurre blanc.
Place on warm serving plates sitting in a bed of rock salt or seaweed.
Dervilla Whelan’s Native Oysters with Cucumber Water, Tomato Water or Rosé Mignonette
Dervilla O’Flynn, Head Chef at Ballymaloe House kindly shared her recipe with me.
We have access to beautiful oysters all year round in Ireland. The Native oysters are now available, we are using Rossmore Oyster Farm in Cork and Kelly’s in Galway on our menu.
Native and Gigas oysters are delicious served simply with lemon but if you want to add another element you can try one of these sauces.
Use sparingly so that you are just enhancing the oyster not masking its zingy, fresh taste
Oysters must always be firmly closed and alive before you open and eat them.
½ cucumber, not peeled
1 teaspoon Rosé Vinegar
¼- ½ juice of 1 lime
Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Blend all the ingredients together with a blender. Strain through fine muslin for a clean bright green water and chill.
You can finely dice a little bit more cucumber and add it to the water if you want the texture of cucumber as well.
We sometimes freeze the water and scratch with a fork for a cucumber granita which is gorgeous served on an oyster too.
Nap each opened oyster with a teaspoon of cucumber water and enjoy.
This is Rory O’Connell’s recipe for tomato water which is sublime.
500g very ripe tomatoes
7 basil leaves
½ tsp caster sugar
½ level tsp Maldon sea salt
pinch of cracked black pepper
Cut the tomatoes into coarse pieces and place in a large bowl. Tear up the basil leaves and add in with the sugar, salt and pepper. Use a handheld blender to pulse chop the ingredients to a rough and coarse purée. Do not over blend as you will end up with a cloudy water that will spoil the appearance of the dish. Place the mixture in a large square of muslin, tie securely and hang over a bowl to allow the water to drip from the mixture. This can be done overnight if time allows.
When ready to serve, taste the tomato water and adjust the seasoning accordingly.
Nap each opened oyster with a teaspoon of tomato water and enjoy.
I gently heat these ingredients to take the raw edge off the sauce.
6 tbsp good quality rosé vinegar
1 banana shallot, finely diced
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
Put all three ingredients in a small saucepan.
Turn on the lowest heat and stand beside it while it gently warms up. As soon as it starts to get warm, turn it off and let it cool completely.
Keep in the fridge until needed. It will keep for a few weeks.
Nap each opened oyster with a half teaspoon of
the Rosé Mignonette and enjoy.
Oysters with Namjim and Crispy Onions
An addictive combination. We use the Gigas oysters for this dish.
4 shallots or small onions, sliced
namjim (see recipe)
extra virgin olive oil
24 Gigas oysters
fresh seaweed, if available
sprigs of fresh coriander
Peel and slice the shallots or onions thinly. Spread out on kitchen paper to dry.
Meanwhile, make the najmim as per the instructions and keep in a glass jam jar.
Heat about 2.5cm of oil in a frying pan, then fry the onions until crisp and golden. Drain on kitchen paper.
Lay a few sprigs of seaweed on each plate, if available. Open the
oysters and nestle 3 or 4 on top of the seaweed. Spoon a generous half teaspoon of namjim on top of each oyster and top with some crispy onions and a sprig of fresh coriander. Divine!
Rory O’Connell’s version of this easy Thai dressing from his cookbook Master It is great with seafood, especially crab, and is also good with grilled beef, hot or cold. We like to combine it with grilled fish and a handful of mixed greens per person. The choice of chilli is yours, but in Thailand, several very hot bird’s eye chillies would be called for, making for a very hot result. I normally use a mild chilli so as not to rule out any of my guests enjoying it. If you know your audience well and they like it hot, then a bird’s eye chilli would be the ticket.
2 garlic cloves, peeled
4 tbsp fresh coriander, chopped
1 green chilli, deseeded and chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
3 tbsp lime juice
2 tbsp palm sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce (nam pla)
Place the garlic, coriander and a pinch of sea salt in a pestle and mortar and pound until well crushed. Add the chopped chilli and continue to pound. Add the chopped shallots, lime juice, palm sugar and fish sauce and mix. Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary.
Open the oysters and drain off the salty brine. Arrange on a fine wire rack. Alternatively, put the oysters into a very hot oven at 230°C/Gas Mark 8 for 4-5 minutes or until they pop open. Remove the semi-cooked oysters from the shells. Arrange on the wire rack. Raw oysters should be cold smoked for an hour or so. Semi-cooked oysters should be ready in 35-45 minutes.
Serve on a salad or with hot buttered toast.
Oyster Stew with Hot Buttered Toast
This oyster stew recipe was given to me by one of my favourite American cooks Marion Cunningham, who serves it to friends and family on Christmas Eve around the kitchen table.
28 shelled oysters (400g approx. after shelling) with their liquor reserved – we source our oysters from Rossmore Oysters in Cork Harbour, www.oysters.co.uk
salt and freshly ground black pepper
lots of hot buttered toast
Heat the milk and cream in a saucepan, but don’t let it boil. Add the oysters and their strained liquor. Simmer just until the edges of the oysters curl a little. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add the butter and serve very hot with lots of hot buttered toast.