Oysters for the holidays

Recently, I listened to my favourite food radio show Bien Dans Son Assiette (Plug: it’s worth learning French just for this program, Monday – Friday, 8pm AST) dedicate a whole hour of prime time to the oyster. What an idea!

David McMillan, one of the owners of Montreal’s popular Joe Beef restaurant, talked oyster quality, name dropped many brands, and shucked oysters.

The show got me thinking.

We have quality oysters in Halifax, just not a wide variety of them. Most are local. Really local. Maybe too local. In this case, the 100 mile stance isn’t worth it. We sit on the doorstep of greatness – we have to include more New Bruswick and PEI oysters on our menus.

Rowan Jacobsen wrote a must-read book (if you are into oysters) called Geography of Oysters. Aside from being nearly comprehensive, he lists a dozen oysters to acquaint yourself with. Three of them are close to Halifax: Beausoleil (NB), Colville Bay (PEI) and Glidden Point (Maine).

Question: why don’t I often see many of those oyster brands here? Before I continue my complaint, let me tell you what we do have and where you can get them.

1. Now is the time to eat oysters

There are four main months for oysters. July, August, September and December, according to Nick Budreski, owner of CanEsp, a high end distributor of Nova Scotian seafood. His father grows delicious Black Point oysters in Pictou County, Nova Scotia.

December is the best time of year he says. Oysters are fat and juicy, busy building up stores to get through a long winter night.

“Because the water gets so cold around here, they will not be breathing or feeding. It will be reduced, almost in a comatose state, for probably about 3-4 months in March and April. They are preparing to go into hibernation. If you were looking to maximize the length of time you would have oyster out of the water, in a cooler, then now would be the time.”

What are you waiting for? Go forth and eat.

2. Retail sources for the season

On the radio program I mentioned, they interviewed a fishmonger at Quebec City’s Old Port Farmer’s Market. He sold up to seven varieties at any one time, including Caraquets, Beausoleil, La St Simon and Colville Bay (called the best oysters in the world, by Jacobsen).

Our Farmer’s Market sells one variety, ShanDaph. The big guys in Bedford aren’t adventurous, either. It is ridiculous that our big seafood shops only carry one or two varieties. However, small fry Peter Boudreau at Mike’s Fish Shop will order in outside varieties for you – just not on short notice, like three days before Christmas.

[To be honest, it might be good marketing, if not business, to run a mini oyster bar at the market on Saturday mornings, educating and introducing people to new oysters. It’s salesmanship wot moves ’em. I volunteer to shuck eat lots of oysters. But I digress…]

  • Mike’s Fish Shop: ShanDaph oysters, a Northumberland Strait oyster from Big Island
  • Clearwater: Malpeques.
  • Pete’s Frootique: Black Points, from Pictou.
  • Fisherman’s Market: Malpeque and North Harbour, Cape Breton.
  • Bill the Lamb Guy in the old market sells wild Tatamagouche oysters, but their season ended December 10th.

3. Restaurant selections for the season

  • Fid alternates between Raspberry Points (PEI) and Eel Lakes from Yarmouth County. Right now he has Raspberry Points.
  • Five Fisherman oyster bar sells Eel Lake, Caribou and Atlantic Choice now.
  • Press Gang: oyster bar sells Beausoleil, Black Point, Sober Island (from Sheet Harbour)
  • Ryan Duffy’s: Black Point
  • Salty’s: Beausoleil and Wallace Rose (from Caribou Island, Pictou Co.)
  • LATE ADDITION: Brooklyn Warehouse: Barnstables from Massachusetts

4. What I’d like to see more of

A list, based on oysters that either I’ve eaten before, or ones I read about via Jaconbsen’s book. And I’m not even counting West Coast oysters.

  • PEI: Pickle Point, Colville Bay, Bedeque Bay, Canada Cup, Summerside
  • NB: La St Simon, Caraquets, Lamèque, New Brunswick Flat, Northumberland
  • Maine: Glidden Point [Getting Maine oysters over the border is a hassle, because oysters are live and that means extra paperwork. Still, it’s not that much work.]

5. Storing oysters

  • Keep them in the fridge
  • Don’t leave in plastic: they are live animals and need air, even if they exist in a comatose state
  • Keep their seals moist: Put them in a large bowl and cover with a wet cloth. Rewet the cloth every couple days.
  • Do not store on ice.They will wake up and start sucking up the ice water. This shortens their lifespan and makes them lose their briny taste. [McMillan says that if you see a fishmonger storing their oysters on ice, don’t buy from them.] 
  • Serve them on ice, to keep ‘em cold and quiet.

5.1. Over a month in the fridge

McMillan says oysters will last one month easily if you follow the proper storage. This is another reason why our fishmongers and restaurants ought to bring in more oysters. Unlike fish, they last and stay fresh a long time.

“When the guy from Joe Beef says one month, that’s actually something that is not abnormal,” says Budreski. “We have seen them last as long as three months in a cooler. So long as the seals are properly moistened, then they can last for that long.”

6. What to drink with oysters

“Champagne and oysters are a pretty good thing,” says Dennis Johnston of Fid. He likes a sparkler, like the L’acadie vineyard brut sparking wine.

I’d have to agree with the L’acadie choice, and there’s no shortage of other local drinks to choose from. Tideview cider works. So would a Gaspereau wines muscat. Then there’s beer. Guinness is traditional, but you could do Montreal’s McAuslan’s Oatmeal Stout, or Garrison’s Martello Stout.

7. To resume my complaint about our oyster culture

Okay: here is my complaint and my wish for Christmas. I want more oysters in this city!

Occasionally, we see more varieties at the 5 Fisherman or The Press Gang. But people in Montreal get all sorts all the time; so do Torontonians and big city consumers across North America.

We are in the midst of oyster gold here, so why be oyster poor?

“It has to do, sort of, with the dining culture down here,” says Dennis Johnston of Fid. “Being Nova Scotian and having a restaurant down here, for over 11 years now, it’s not in the culture to go out on a regular basis as it is in larger urban centres. So right there that limits you. When people go out, they look for comfort foods, like steak and mash.”

That’s not a complaint. He’s stating a reality.

Yes, there’s a long history of Canadians-New Englanders of all economic classes eating oysters. I am sure we fit in somewhere, but that’s another story. The past. Pre-1970’s, no one ate shellfish much at all in Nova Scotia, says Johnston. Industry and farming brought it back.

Oyster respect is different in France, where oysters and the Christmas season go hand-in-hand with homards.

“If you show up at a party with a box of those oysters in France, people go apeshit for that! I went to France for Christmas one time with my in-laws. We came back with 3 cases of Belons and everybody sits down with some champagne and hoes down for a pre-lunch lunch.”

So we have a cultural hurdle to get over.

The other hurdle is expense. A buddy of mine once worked at Rodney’s Oyster House in Toronto. That was a memorable year. I spent a lot of time eating oysters on his staff discount. I also heard amazing tales of excess: Bay Street brokers overdrinking, overeating, overstimulated, going hog-wild while half-naked.

Let’s face it: Oysters, like lobsters, are expensive. A truly great oyster bar in Halifax won’t likely happen without enough people on expense accounts to support it. Still, given the proximity and lifespan of these shellfish, it would be nice to see more of the great oysters appearing in shops and on menus.

I’ll add a deluxe oyster shack bar to my ever-growing wish list of stuff I want to see in Halifax along with a bar that specializes in American and Canadian microbeer and a magically appearing taco truck.

However, oyster fans can go apeshit for oysters here, too, even if restaurants don’t offer a wide variety. Buy retail. Buy with friends. Because boxes ranges from 70-100 oysters, go in on some. Then eat them at home to your heart’s content.

Buy a box for New Year’s and watch your party degenerate into an 18th century tale of gluttony, libido and decadence.

8. Coda: On Eastern oysters (Crassostrea Virginica)

“The Eastern is the Riesling of oysters. From the wrong place, it can be simple, one-dimensional, almost flavourless, but when grown in great waters, it can achieve a brilliant sublelty and refinement, a transparency of sea and minerals that some consider unsurpassed,” writes Jacobsen.

This one variety grows naturally all along the Eastern North American seaboard.

Oysters are not big business in Nova Scotia. We are the weakest of the other maritime provinces. Nova Scotia accounts only 4% of national oyster production, versus 20+% in NB and over 30+% in PEI. British Columbia is the biggest overall producer in Canada.

“What interesting is the microclimate. The algae, the salinity of the water is what changes the flavour of each oyster,” says Dennis Johnston.

“I was talking to some guys down Penobscot way. They grow their oyster wild and actually move them at varying times down the Penobscot River towards the ocean, to slowly increase the salinity as the oysters grow, to ripen them.”

So many secret tricks to this business. So many foragers, growers and distributors who guard their pearls of wisdom!