Fresh oysters are a very special taste experience. Seafood is the beginning of many an exquisite celebration, where precious moments are shared with family and friends. With each bite you enjoy a taste of the salty ocean, paired with the scent of a wild and romantic summer day. At the same time, probably no gesture in eating delicacies symbolises more luxury than sampling raw oysters, which is why they are often served at upmarket parties or meetings with important business partners. Here, too, the senses are always focused on the aroma of the delicacy and keep every guest happy. Everything you need to know about the popular mussel species, you will learn in this article!
Oysters have been around for 250 million years
Traditionally, the animals are “harvested” by oyster collectors or caught in deeper water with trawls or recovered by divers. A distinction is made between Pacific and European oysters, although specimens from Asia were first settled in the Netherlands in 1883. Meanwhile both species exist in Europe, where the most important supplier is France, followed by Ireland, the Netherlands, Scotland and England. Due to overfishing and environmental pollution, the natural stock has long since declined sharply and has even disappeared in many places. As a result, there are only a few traditional oyster fisheries left – most of them in North America. Today, 96 per cent of all oysters worldwide are farmed in aquacultures, around 80 per cent of which come from China. The molluscs are packed in large-mesh bags and then placed on steel tables in the sea where they can reproduce. Alternatively, there is longline farming, in which ropes are suspended from rafts deep into the water, on which the oysters grow.
The history of the oyster
Oysters have been around for 250 million years and the first specimens were eaten by Red Sea people about 125,000 years ago – sometimes raw, but often grilled over an open fire. In ancient Greece they were highly valued as a delicacy. Aphrodite, “born from the foam of the sea”, is associated with the oyster as the goddess of love, which led to the myth of its aphrodisiac effect. Even in ancient Rome, seafood was an essential element at any feast, imported snow-cooled from Britain and Gaul and sometimes consumed to excess – sometimes even by Gaius Julius Caesar. The Roman emperor Vitellius is said to have devoured 1,000 oysters at an orgy in around 40 AD. There are similar reports of oyster feasts from the Middle Ages. Henry IV, for example, devoured 400 oysters, which he allegedly ate as an appetiser before a multi-course meal.
The consumption of the popular edible mussel reached its peak in the decades before the First World War. However, when several cases of oyster poisoning occurred in the course of the 20th century, demand fell drastically. It was not until 1993 that the EU issued a regulation on oyster hygiene, which slowly restored the delicacy’s good image. Yet millions of Europeans have never eaten oysters.
The secrets of the oyster
There are both flat and domed oysters. They consist of a soft body, which is protected from predators by a thick, hard shell. There are, however, snail species that are able to bore open the firm shell in order to feed on the inside. Crustaceans and starfish as well as gulls also occasionally hunt oysters. The gills are the largest organ of the mussel in terms of surface area, through which they filter around 240 litres of seawater per day. They feed on the plankton and nutrients left behind. Oysters are bisexual, the female specimens flush their eggs into the water in summer, where they are fertilised by the sperm of the male. The European oyster, which also spawns in cooler waters, often fertilises within the shell. The hatched larvae usually anchor and grow after about three weeks. The Pacific oyster can reach a size of about 30 cm, a weight of up to two kilos and an age of 30 years, while the European oysters remain much smaller. Some species of seafood also produce pearls, which are formed from the mother-of-pearl layer inside the shell. This coats penetrating substances to render them harmless, creating a ball, layer by layer – the pearl. However, this process is extremely rare in edible oysters.
Oysters – varieties, purchase and prices
On the German market, the European oyster is sold under names such as “Pied de cheval” (France), “Imperials” and “Zeeland” (Netherlands), “Colchester (England) or “Galway” (Ireland), while the specimens from the Pacific Ocean bear names such as “Fine de claire” or “Fine de Bretagne” (France), “Sylter Royal” (Germany) or “Loch Fyne” (Scotland). Gourmets are particularly enthusiastic about the French “Bélon” with its strong nutty taste. The American oyster with the name “Bluepoint” from Connecticut is also very popular. The Gillardeau oysters bred in France are among the best of their kind worldwide. These are now even being counterfeited, which is why the manufacturers engrave the shell of their products by hand. Each mussel tastes different, depending on the region of origin and its food: from intensely mineral and salty to mildly sweet and fine. When cultivated, the aroma can also be intensified by a longer stay in the clarifier. In the past, oysters were only eaten in the autumn and winter months, but today you can buy and enjoy seafood all year round. Due to the enormous supply, various varieties are relatively inexpensive in Asia compared to Europe, but there are also big price differences here in Germany. On average, the domestic market charges between one and three euros per piece – depending on the origin and the supplier.
Oysters are considered healthy and good for ensuring a slim figure. They are almost fat-free and therefore low in calories, contain many proteins, minerals, trace elements and vitamins. Iron and vitamin D in particular are considered to be particularly beneficial to health. Due to the rather high zinc content, eating seafood is also said to strengthen the immune system. The delicacy is opened no more than one hour before consumption with a specially designed cutting device. Then the first layer of water is poured off and the soft body is removed from the lower shell with a special knife. The new liquid is sipped from the shell with the oyster.
If the flesh of the oyster is spongy or milky, it should not be eaten. A strong smell also indicates that the seafood is no longer fresh. The delicacies are sprinkled with, among other things, lemon juice, tabasco, tomato salsa or light soy sauce according to taste and served with a red wine vinegar and shallot vinaigrette serviert. This is ideally served with a baguette or buttered brown bread and a dry Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc or champagne.
Enjoying oysters – the right way to do it
Methods of preparation of fresh oysters Europe used to have large oyster stocks and seafood was considered an everyday meal, especially in coastal regions. In those days, mussels were served with quite down-to- earth foods that today hardly pass for a delicacy, for example as oyster ragout with sauerkraut.
Today, oysters are much rarer in Europe, but while they are considered a precious delicacy in Germany, they are on the menu of almost every restaurant in France and elsewhere. Oysters are usually served raw on ice, with the animals still alive, and then sipped from their shells. Less luxurious, but just as easily digestible and for some people certainly more ethically acceptable, are various ways of preparation such as grilling, roasting and baking. For example, seafood can be prepared in the oven, breaded and baked crisp in butter. Also popular is the preparation in which the meat is gratinated with herb crumbs or Hollandaise sauce. Many gourmets also opt for light smoking with herb butter under the grill.