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Oysters: best ever guide

Bobby Groves, resident shucker at Marylebone's Chiltern Firehouse shares his top advice on buying, preparing and eating oysters

There are three main types of oyster that we consume: Rock, Native and Atlantic. Rock oysters are greyish in colour, pointy and jagged with a deep cup allowing for a plump oyster. The Atlantic oyster looks similar but has rounded edges with a slight crescent curve to the top shell, and lighter colouring. Native oysters are flatter and rounder, like discs, usually with a brown shell. Their taste, in all varieties, is dependent on the waters/environment where the oyster is raised.

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February is a great time to eat oysters. Try the highly prized Native oyster, which is available from September through to April, unlike Rock oysters, which you can get all year round. I come from Essex, where the Natives from the east coast estuaries are sometimes called Essex Gold. They’re succulent, brackish and meaty.

Oyster fisheries are highly sustainable. Oysters are farmed, fished, or hand-picked. Once used, their shells are returned to the beaches (known as cultch) that oyster spawn attach to to grow.Oysters are also filter feeders and help to clean the waters.

Buying oysters can be very simple. Oysters are alive when sold, so make sure the shell is tightly shut, so it’s fresh. Knock two oysters together to ensure they both sound solid: if you hear a hollow sound, one of them is dead. Make sure the oyster is either on ice or is being stored at 4C and check the batch date of the oysters. Rock oysters can last up to 10 days out of water and Natives about six or seven. Ideally you’d be buying them at no more than three days old. 

Oysters must be kept at 4C and put cup-side down/flat-side up to retain their juices. Place a wet tea towel or seaweed on top of the oysters to keep them cool and happy.

To swerve a bad oyster, smell it. It should smell fresh, salty and like you’re at the water’s edge. If it smells horrible (like a bad egg), bin it! If there is lots of mud inside, bin it. If the oyster is dry and there is no liquid inside, bin it. Lastly, trust your instincts: if you don’t think you want to eat it, don’t.

Oysters may not look so appetising, but they’re one of nature’s superfoods and have been eaten for as long as mankind has been around. They’re low in calories, full of nutrients (protein, zinc, omega 3 and vitamins) and give an injection of vitality. 

You shouldn’t eat too many while drinking spirits, though. The oyster muscle will be hardened by the alcohol in the stomach and, as a result, become difficult
to digest. This is why many people are ill after eating oysters and getting drunk: the body rejects too much protein.

Always chew your oyster. Hollywood films have popularised the idea of necking oysters and champagne, but it’s such a shame to miss out on the flavour of one of nature’s greatest gifts.

chilternfirehouse.com


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