FOOD & DRINK: SHELL SHUCK

It was a brave man who first ate an oyster, Dr Johnson once observed. And judging by the trouble we have getting into them, a very skilful one at that. Michael Bateman learns some of the tricks of the shuckers' trade at Britain's Oyster Opening Championships
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The Independent Culture
IN BRITAIN, WE will cheerfully order oysters in restaurants but when it comes to eating them at home, precious few of us bother. Is this because we can't actually get into them? The French, who manage to out-eat us by 20 oysters to one, can take home oysters that have been partly opened, the locking hinge severed. Then, when they are ready, they only have to detach the muscle from the shells. Try asking them to do this on the fish counter of your local supermarket and you may get an old-fashioned blank stare (although surely your fishmonger should be able to oblige).

The best way of opening an oyster is not generally taught (nor generally known), but a chance to explore the skill was provided recently at the Tabasco Oyster Opening Championships, held in the Bibendum Oyster Bar in west London. Nine contestants put their skills to the test, opening 30 oysters each against the clock. They came from such restaurants as Bibendum itself, where they open 3,000 oysters each week, Green's Oyster Bar, Wiltons, Le Pont de la Tour and from beyond London - The Lighthouse in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.

It was a brave man who first ate an oyster, said Dr Samuel Johnson. And a damn skilful one. Archaeologists have found shell deposits from oysters eaten 8,000 years ago and more. Did they smash them on the rocks? Use flint knives?

The modern oyster knife sold in the UK is short with a stubby blade, rounded at the end, and not very sharp. Difficult to master, the amateur would be doing well to open an oyster in three to five minutes. The alternative is a tool, little more than a pair of pliers, which can simply smash the tapering, weaker end of the shell or rock oysters (although not the more robust native oysters).

In Bibendum's oyster bar, these highly professional shuckers are using French blades, it turns out, knives which are sharper and more pointed than the British version. They are quite deadly, in fact, and this may not be a demonstration suitable for Blue Peter. Do not try this at home. And if anyone from MAFF or the EC had been present, surely eight of the nine contestants would have been disqualified. For only one of the shuckers had equipped himself with a government-approved metal gauntlet, required by law these days in all butchers' shops and abattoirs.

The first three competitors are called forward and have to open 30 oysters each and ring a bell when they have finished. The judges then take them away for scrutiny, with extra marks for presentation, penalties for faulty work: a gritty oyster with broken shell, four points. An oyster which is cut or torn, four points. Blood on an oyster, 10 points. The shuckers adopt various strategies. Some have blue plastic tape wrapped around their fingers. Others wear little rubberised "gloves" on their thumbs or fingers. Some hold the oyster in a protective cloth. Only one wears the approved chain-mail glove.

The most sensible (and safest) method seems to be to hold the oyster down firmly on the table, pushing in the knife downwards at a 60 deg- ree angle. The least safe way seems to have been adopted by the man who is waving knife and shell around in front of his face, a stream of blood spouting from his arm.

The eventual winner is the musically named Sam Tamsanguan of Wiltons, who powers his way through in three minutes and 44.5 seconds, thus averaging 30 seconds per oyster. He went forward to the World Oyster Opening Champ- ionship, which comes to its climax today at the 44th Galway Oyster Festival, and celebrates the start of the new oyster season. The loser, it's a relief to record, still has most of his fingers intact.

Examining Sam's technique, you see the oyster held in a vice-like grip, the deeper shell underneath. The blade is thrust into the aperture at the base of the two shells and Sam gives it a firm sideways twist. Then the base can be levered just far enough apart to insert the blade so he can sever the muscle attached to the top shell, which can now be lifted off.

At this stage, the frilly oyster looks a little ragged, sitting in a shallow pool of its own juices. Now the shucker slides his blade underneath it to detach the muscle from the lower shell. He flips it over to present the soft, smooth underbelly, flicking away tiny fragments of shell.

Gingerly, I try it myself, a cloth wrapped over my left hand. Within about a minute I have done the deed. This may not be the stuff that champions are made of, but it is a start.

By chance, this event coincides with the publication of a new book, Entertaining on Ice by Tessa Hayward (Kyle Cathie, pounds 19.99) which includes a recipe that calls for 72 oysters. Since the inexperienced oyster- shucker will usually take from three to five minutes to open each one, they might well need to set aside three to six hours for the job. Shucks. The alternative, says Ms Hayward, is to freeze them. She often buys six dozen oysters (for a party of six or eight diners), wraps them in double plastic bags the moment she gets home, and sticks them into the freezer. To serve, defrost them in a dish or on a tray, flat side up, in the fridge for seven to eight hours. You want them to be wholly defrosted, she says, but you mustn't keep them too long before eating.

"To finish," she says, "use an oyster knife or sturdy kitchen knife to open the shells. This shouldn't be too much of a struggle, as freezing will have relaxed the clamping hinge. "

Purists, it has to be admitted, believe freezing destroys the essential character of an oyster. Though this may not matter so much if you are using them for cooking (see recipes below).

Eat them just as they are, or with wedges of lemon, or French fashion with shallot vinegar, or American fashion with cayenne or Tabasco. And serve with buttered brown bread.

The oysters used in the shucking contest were so-called natives (ostrea edulis), which accord to the rule of an R in the month. When they are spawning, the eggs, invisible to the naked eye, produce a milky liquid which is so bitter as to be unpalatable. But the R in the month rule is hardly relevant today, for we eat very few natives, those sweet, fat beauties which breed naturally in our cold waters, growing very slowly. They have been superseded by the faster-growing Pacific oysters, otherwise known as rock oysters (crassostrea gigas). These immigrants are bred in nurseries or warmed ponds before they can be transferred to our comparatively chilly seas. Rock oysters comprise more than 95 per cent of the market. Which taste best? Most people think natives do (they can cost three times as much, too) but flavour may also depend on where they grow and what they feed on.

Bibendum had also thoughtfully arranged a comparative tasting of both natives and rock oysters from all points of the compass - Donegal in Southern Ireland, Loch Fyne in Scotland, from the Menai Straits in Wales, and in England from the River Exe in the south- west, and from West Mersea near Colchester, where the Romans first developed our oyster industry.

Our growers claim our bivalves to be far superior to the French. Oysters are graded from the very large 00, 0 and 1, through to 2, 3 and 4, the smallest. In Britain we wouldn't dream of serving a 4, but the French do. The French have seriously exhausted the nutrition along their shores, say British oyster farmers, while ours thrive on the splendid waters around ours. Maybe.

Johnny Noble points to his own oysters, grown in Loch Fyne, the longest loch in the UK. The feeding habits of the oyster, he points out, are prodigious. In the search for food, they filter so much seawater that, were they the size of humans, it would be the equivalent of downing five municipal swimming pools a day.

Claims for the purity of the waters in Donegal and in the Menai Straits are often made, but perversely none for that of West Mersea, where the water is opaque with the alluvial gunge built up over the millennia - lovely grub for oysters.

Our tasting was inconclusive. Even in batches of a dozen from each oysterage there were variations. The fattest and biggest were often sweet and slightly nutty. Most were briny, though those from Menai less so. Most oysters had that slightly minerally taste which makes you feel they must be doing you good. If eaten in a restaurant, oysters can cost from pounds 1 to pounds 1.70 each; in supermarkets you may pay around 60p each. But if you were planning an oysterfest, you couldn't do better then get them by mail-order from Menai Oysters. The basic price is pounds 14 for a dozen, postage and package paid, delivered to your door the next day. The price drops to pounds 18 for two dozen and so on. A hundred oysters cost pounds 37. Call Menai Oyster on 01248 430878.

True lovers of oysters will want to eat them as they are in their natural state, to get their full, briny, mineral kick. But that doesn't mean they are not also delicious cooked. These recipes come from Johnny Noble's Loch Fyne Oyster Restaurants (who also does mail-order: 01499 600264), with the Anton Mosimann recipe taken from Loyd Grossman's excellent The 125 Best Recipes Ever, published by Michael Joseph at pounds 20.

OYSTER CHOWDER

18 oysters

30g/1oz butter

150g/5oz diced potato

250ml/12pt water

250ml/12pt milk

50g/2oz chopped onion

100g/4oz chopped celery

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

freshly ground black pepper, and salt to taste

Drain the oysters and reserve the liquor. Melt the butter and saute the onion and celery until they are tender. Add potatoes, oyster liquor and water and simmer, covered, until the potato is tender but firm. Add the milk (already warmed), oysters, parsley, salt and pepper. Heat thoroughly, stirring until the oysters are plump. Serve immediately.

ANGELS ON HORSEBACK

Take three oysters per person. Roll each oyster in bacon and fasten with wooden cocktail sticks. Grill for five to six minutes under a hot grill. Serve on hot buttered toast.

OYSTERS GRATINeES

Cook a clove of garlic, crushed with salt, for a minute or two in butter. Add four tablespoons of breadcrumbs, salt and pepper, and brown slight-ly. Drain oysters and put them in a shallow oven-proof dish. Cover with breadcrumbs. Cut two rashers of bacon in strips and lay on top. Put in a hot oven until bacon is crisp. Serve very hot.

OYSTERS MORNAY

Remove oysters from the shell and poach gently for two to three minutes in white wine and a little water. Place them in the cupped half of the shell on a baking tray and cover each with a spoonful of Sauce Mornay. Grill for two to three minutes. Serve immediately.

OYSTERS ROCKEFELLER

Open the oysters, keeping each one in the lower, cupped half of the shell. If they are very full of juice, tip about half of it out. Mix together some medium-fine fresh chopped leaf spinach (a handful will do for 12 oysters) and two or three sprigs of finely chopped parsley. Cover the oysters well with this mixture. Place on a baking dish, taking care that the shells stay upright. Bake in a hot oven for four to five minutes, taking care not to overcook. They should be thoroughly hot, but both spinach and oysters should retain their texture.

OYSTERS GRATINeES a LA CReME

Open the oysters and detach from their shells. Put a dessertspoon of cream in each, dust with grated Parmesan, sprinkle with melted butter, then place under a hot grill for three to four minutes.

ANTON MOSIMANN'S SEAFOOD IN BASIL SAUCE

4 large scallops in their shells

8 scampi, removed from their shells

150g/5oz each of salmon and turbot, cut into 15g/12oz pieces

4 oysters in their shells

20g/34oz each of carrot, leek and celery cut into thin strips

20g/34oz butter

175ml/6fl oz each of fish stock and dry white wine

450ml/34 pint double cream

40ml/112fl oz Noilly Prat

12 basil leaves, cut into strips

65g/212oz butter, to finish

salt, freshly ground pepper, cayenne to taste

Open the scallops with a small, strong knife and place on a hotplate for a few minutes to open completely. Remove the scallops and roe with a soup spoon, then carefully separate scallops from the roe and wash thoroughly. Cut the scallops in half and lay on a cloth to dry. Season the scampi, salmon and turbot. Open the oysters, take out the flesh (keep the oysters in their own water). Sweat the carrot, leek and celery in the butter. Add the turbot and scampi and continue to sweat. Add the salmon and scallops. Add the fish stock and white wine, bring to the boil and allow to simmer for two minutes. Remove the seafood and vegetables and keep warm. Reduce the stock, add the cream and Noilly Prat and allow to reduce a little. Return the seafood and vegetables to the sauce. Add the raw oysters and their water and the basil to the sauce. Monte with butter, and season with salt, pepper and cayenne to taste. Arrange in small porcelain cocottes and serve immediately.

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