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My first experiences with oysters happened at an early age. I distinctly remember my father returning from Caraquet, New Brunswick after attending a Knights of Columbus meeting, a bounty of fresh lobster and oysters in hand. This was not a common occurrence in our home, and the fact that I was even allowed to try the oysters is a bit surprising, since normally that type of luxury was reserved for the adults.

I was only five or six years old at the time and had no understanding how to properly appreciate the oyster, I put it to my lips, quickly let it pass over my tongue and into my stomach. I recall texture but have no recollection of taste.

Now, at a later stage in life, I’ve learned to appreciate the more subtle nuances of oysters and how different regions produce oysters with a unique flavour. These creatures are affected by the salinity, minerals, nutrients, and temperature in their water, and how this greatly affects how the oyster will taste. Unlike almost any other product of the ocean, an oyster will literally taste like the sea. The French poet and essayist Léon-Paul Fargue famously likened eating oysters to “like kissing the sea on the lips.”

I’ve learned that before the oyster slips over my tongue, I need to pause and savour the flavour, and then delicately work the oyster around in my mouth, chewing lightly, releasing even more flavour and allowing me to appreciate the texture.

When I first experienced oysters there were no added enhancements. Today, it is very common to add hot sauces, citrus such as lemon or lime, or even a mignonette, a sweet/acidic mixture often enhanced with shallot and fruit. However you choose to enhance your oyster enjoyment, it’s very important to remember that any additions should add to the natural flavour and not distract or overpower it.

The oyster industry in Atlantic Canada is one that is rich in both tradition and pride. The wild fishery in our region can be traced back as far as the 1600s. Oysters were first cultivated sometime in the 1850s. Today, both industries are alive and vibrant, with oysters still being harvested in the wild and produced on private leases.

There are four categories of oysters available in the market: standard, choice, fancy, and commercial. The category that an oyster falls into will be determined by the length and width of the shell. Larger oysters are often considered the most desirable.

When shopping for oysters it’s important to look for a tightly closed and undamaged shell. If the shells are open slightly, tap each oyster to ensure that it will close; if it does not, then discard it, as with other fresh shellfish.

Gently shake the oyster and listen carefully and you should not hear any liquid sloshing around in the shell. If you do, this will indicate an immature oyster that should not be eaten. A full, weighty shell is an indicator of quality. If you tap the shell and hear a hollow sound, that means that the oyster has lost its liquor, and this one too should be avoided. Once shucked, the oyster should be surrounded by a beautiful clear liquid with no cloudiness.

Once you determined that your oysters are of premium quality it’s important to follow correct storage procedures. Chances are that your oysters will have arrived in a wooden or cardboard box. Remove them from that box and place them in a shallow container, flat side up. Cover them with a damp wet cloth to keep them from drying out.

Oysters can live in the fridge for up to three weeks, but during that time, you will have to drain any excess liquids that accumulate and ensure that the cloth on top remains damp.
If you prefer to freeze your oysters, you’ll have to remove them from the shell. Shuck each one, and then cover the oysters with their own liquor. Oysters will do well in the freezer for two to three months.

When you’re ready to consume your raw oysters, brush the shells to remove any debris and quickly rinse under water. It is important that you do this just prior to eating them, so that the oyster does not drown. There are many options for enjoying oysters. You can open them, remove the meat, and cook, or you can simply open the shell, loosen the mollusc from the inductor muscle, and enjoy raw.

If you plan to serve your oysters raw, it is important to serve them very cold and to keep them on a bed of ice, which will help maintain their firm texture. Allow six oysters per person if serving them as an appetizer, and 12 if you are serving them as a main course.
Other options for enjoying oysters are to steam them, pan fry them, grill, deep fry, stuff or use in soups and chowders.

To shuck an oyster, hold the deep side of the shell down with the hinge facing towards you. Secure both the top and bottom of the oyster on a towel that has been placed on a hard, immovable surface.

Insert a dedicated oyster knife between the shells as close to the hinge as possible, twist the knife to separate the halves. The oyster is attached to the shell by a strong muscle known as an inductor muscle. Slide your oyster knife across the top shell to detach from the muscle. At this point the upper shell can be discarded. Next, slip your oyster knife under the oyster to remove it from the bottom muscle, but leave the oyster in the shell, remove any noticeable grit or shell. It’s important not to spill any of the briny liquid surrounding the oyster; this liquid is known as the liquor and should be consumed with the oyster.

Oyster bars have become extremely popular, and are a wonderful place to experience oysters from all around Atlantic Canada and beyond . Take the opportunity to sample two or three oysters from various regions and countries, taking time to note the flavour variances. You will quickly discover which areas produce your favourites. Keep in mind that oysters are available year-round, always fresh, and always full of flavour.

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