Rough shell, soft flesh: this is what pleasure is made of

Is there any product more closely associated with upmarket cuisine than the oyster? Opening them requires the right tools and a little skill.

Oyter served on a table

Some people wear a steel glove when shucking oysters, to avoid injury. ‘But you can also press them into a cloth with one hand on a stable surface. That stops them from slipping. With a bit of practice they are easy to handle,’ explains Philipp Lange, head chef at the Michelin-starred restaurant Agata’s in Düsseldorf.
When opening oysters, the bulbous part should face downwards with the pointed part containing the hinge facing towards the body. That’s where you insert the oyster knife, the couteau à huîtres. Using a little pressure, slide the wide, sharp knife between the shells. Then rotate the knife at the hinge of the oyster to lift up the lid. The knife will slide under the lid with a soft crack. Guide the knife along the oyster to sever the muscle that opens and closes the shell. This is towards the centre of the oyster. Take care not to damage the flesh while doing this. Once the lid is off, you can also cut through the muscle at the bottom. This makes it easier to slurp the oysters.

Oyster on a table

The luxury shellfish and its variants

Whether you eat them raw or prepare them in a different way is ultimately a matter of taste. Philipp Lange grills the oysters in their shells. His description verges on poetry: ‘Oysters, grilled in the shell, topped with a sake kasu cream, dressed with puffed wild rice, seasoned with rice vinegar, with a cauliflower cream, seared cauliflower florets dressed with garlic chives – and sweet-and-sour braised cucumbers with a little apple foam.’
However, not all oysters are the same. There are more than 50 different types of oyster. 88% of those eaten in Europe come from France. Normale creuses and Fines de claire are the standard grade. Spéciales de claire are regarded by gourmets as particular delicacies. Huîtres sauvages are large oysters more suited to cooking. Marennes-Oléron from the French Atlantic coast are considered especially good. The superstars of the oyster world are Gillardeau, Belon and Pied de cheval. French oysters are graded from 0 to 5 by size, where 5 is the smallest and 0 the largest. An oyster graded 000 weighs 150 grammes. ‘Numéro 3’ is the biggest seller, as this is the size most people find most pleasant to eat.

The right tools

White wine or champagne with oysters
A crisp, dry white wine goes best with oysters. Preferably not too fruity, as that will make the oyster taste bitter. A dry champagne is of course the classic accompaniment.

Oyster knife
You should always use an oyster knife to shuck oysters. It is very sturdy and has a relatively blunt blade. If you use a different knife you increase the risk of injuring yourself.

Stab protection glove/cutting glove
If you are not used to shucking oysters, you can protect the hand that holds the shell with a stab protection glove made from stainless steel chainmail.

Oyster plate
A porcelain oyster plate is one of the many ways of making sure this precious bivalve looks as good as it tastes.

Crushed ice
When serving oysters the classic way – that is to say raw – a glistening bed of crushed ice is a visually appealing way of ensuring they stay fresh and appetising.

Lemon juicer
Should oysters be enjoyed with a squeeze of lemon juice or just as they come? This is a question that divides lovers of the raw delicacy. A citrus press helps to drizzle the juice sparingly.

Be careful when buying and storing oysters

The journey to oyster perfection starts long before they reach the kitchen. Fresh oysters are always sold alive. They should have a slight aroma of the sea when you buy them. Be warned though: if they have a strong fishy or ammonia odour, they are already off. Avoid oysters that look too dry, too. It’s also important to make sure that the shell is tightly closed. One trick is to gently tap the edge of the shell of any slightly open oyster. If it is still alive, it will flinch twitch then close. Dark flesh on the inside is usually another sign that the oyster is no longer fresh.
Fresh oysters can go off very quickly, so it is important to keep a close eye on how they are kept, for how long, and at what temperature. If stored properly, freshly bought oysters will keep for 3 to 10 days after being harvested. Ideally, they should be eaten on the day you buy them. Always store oysters at low temperatures. A 4% saltwater solution helps to keep them fresh. Frozen oysters will keep for up to a year at -20°C. But remember that frozen oysters are not suitable for eating raw. They are used in stews or soups.

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