Merroir is to oysters what terroir is to wine: it is the humus and natural environment which makes each product unique. There are 200 types of oysters but they all share a taste of umami and a brackishness that is more or less pronounced.
France is THE place for oyster farming, but it is also practiced on the Atlantic coasts of Canada and Argentina, as well as in California, Japan and Australia.
The oysters we eat belong to the family of Ostreidae, and are farmed in shallow waters, usually in colonies called beds, or rocks. Every oyster has a size and nuance of flavour depending on where it comes from.
In France, at Belon, Brest and Cancale, concave oysters come from Marennes and Oléron, while the finest oysters of all come from the region of Pitou Charente, where they are transferred from their oyster beds in the sea to clayey basins known as ‘claires’. Fine de Claire oysters, for example, with their strong curved shell, have a crisp iodised flavour with a plant-like aftertaste. The Fine de Bretagne is a classic with its layered shell and robust flavour. The Pousse en Claire oyster has a subtle taste that is round, sweet, mineral and long-lasting with a firm crisp flesh. Simple and delicate.
The Irish Ostra Regal oysters spend their first 24 months in the waters of Northern Ireland where they feed on phytoplankton. Then they are transferred to Southern Ireland for another 12 months at the mouth of the river Slaney, until sufficiently mature. The shell of this oyster resembles a drop of water and the mollusk itself is sweet, creamy and mineral-tasting.
How oysters are harvested
As described above, many of the oysters we eat are farmed. This method involves placing minuscule oysters, called oyster seeds, in large, basket-like structures called 'floats' in brackish water. As they grow, they are moved into different floats or beds until, after about 18 months, they are ready to be harvested.
But oysters can also be harvested from the wild. In shallow beds, oystermen use rakes to find suitable oysters. Others dredge the bed to collect many oysters in a basket, then sort them, returning those not yet ready for harvest.
Oyster harvesting and oyster habitats have spawned creativity: in different parts of the world, people have developed amphibious, shallow draft vehicles with both propellers and wheels to better traverse the changing tidal flats in search of oysters.
Let’s find out how to enjoy oysters at their best, both with other foods and wine.
Mignonette sauce. With the famous mignonette sauce invented by the French. Finely chop a shallot and leave it to marinate in red wine vinegar. Toast a few slices of bread and spread them with a good quality unsalted butter. Now, take an oyster, dress it with some of the mignonette sauce and enjoy.
Caviar. The most sumptuous of pairings. Enjoy them just as they are.
Kiwi. Belon oysters with kiwi à la julienne. This marriage works because both foods share 40% of the molecules responsible for their aroma, which chemists call trimethylamine.
Passion Fruit. For the same reason as above.
Mushrooms. These two types of umami from the earth and sea augment the intensity of their reciprocal flavours when they come together.
Watermelon. The notes of cucumber perceivable in watermelon contrast with the brackish taste of oysters and enhance the juicy sweetness of the fruit in contrast with the seafood.
Top chef pairings
Chef Heston Blumenthal, backed up by an excellent knowledge of chemistry, has created a most interesting dish: an oyster served on a horseradish mayonnaise, with passion fruit jelly and splinters of caramel seasoned with Indian long pepper.
The 2-Michelin starred chef Hélène Darroze has created a recipe for her London restaurant, Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, this Oyster tartare is her signature dish, Oyster caviar, cocoa bean velouté. It is served in a Martini glass and decorated with a silver leaf.
Chef René Redzepi of Noma loves this ingredient and one of his most spectacular dishes is Steamed wild oyster and broccoli stems: an oyster entirely covered in little broccoli leaves and edible petals.
Chef Anthony Genovese of Il Pagliaccio in Rome has paired oysters with burrata and lychee granita.
Davide Oldani has signed the 'destructured' oyster: on one hand, the oyster shell rests on a crumble of almond and dehydrated lemon granita and holds a ball of yogurt where part of the mollusk lies; the rest of the oyster is presented in a bowl after being cooked at a low temperature with peas, in three different consistencies.
Classic pairings. With a glass of well chilled Sancerre or a glass of Muscadet, the oyster’s most classical and traditional companion: its brackish minerality, fresh and slightly citrusy, which is often quite similar to that of the mollusk itself, adapt well to this ingredient.
Try also to pair oysters with a glass of Chablis: there is a lot of sense in this pairing, because the soil on which Chablis is produced is largely made up of marine fossils, of which oyster shells form a significant part.
Unusual pairings. One of the unusual but tasty ways to pair oysters is in a drink called Oyster Martini cocktail. It is made with a shaken Vodka Martini served in an elegant Martini glass, to which an oyster is added.
Otherwise, you can try the pairing with a glass of Moscato d'Asti. This is one of the most successful 'sugary' pairings. Serve this wine cold, otherwise it will be the perfect recipe for a disaster.
Wrong pairings. The pairing with champagne, which would appear to be a classic, in actual fact could give way to unpleasant metallic and brackish hints, owing to the encounter between the sapidity of oysters and the acidic notes of champagne, between the zinc content of oysters and the acidity and carbon dioxide of the bubbles.
Full recipes with oysters
Beyond its virtues of taste and texture, oysters can also do wonders for your body. They are high in multiple micronutrients, like vitamins D and B12, zinc, and iron. They are also rich in complete proteins and omega-3 acids.