Oyster 101: East coast experts on deciphering flavour, shucking, pairings and more

Yes, it actually is fine to eat them all year, and yes, you too can shuck 'em — promise!

Yes, it actually is fine to eat them all year, and yes, you too can shuck 'em — promise!

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Once you get turned on to oysters, there's no going back. Served moments after it has been prised or "shucked" open, and slurped delicately straight out of the shell, an oyster should be chewed a couple of times, and then swallowed along with its brine, or "liquor". One is never enough of these small, salty, seafood treasures.

For oyster-unacquainted, the first time can be daunting, and if you're buying oysters and need to shuck them yourself, you will need a guide. To find out how to prepare and enjoy them, who better to consult than some of the best farmers, shuckers and chefs on Prince Edward Island, one of Canada's prime oyster producing regions, a province recently deemed by Vogue magazine to have an "unbeatable oyster scene."

PEI has a unique merroir that produces exceptionally clean tasting oysters (Credit: Helen Earley)

What makes one oyster taste different from the next

Islanders claim that PEI has the best oysters in the world, but there's actually no competition. True oyster-lovers know that East and West Coast oysters are actually two completely different types. The Eastern oyster, or Crassostrea virginica, cultivated in colder waters, is said to have a crisp, salty flavour while the Crassostrea gigasis or Pacific oyster, has a deep shell and tastes sweet.

Taking example from the wine industry, oyster experts have coined the term merroir (a play on the term terroir) to describe the set of conditions — minerals, tide, temperature depth — that contributes to an oyster's taste.

Since an oyster's job is to filter water (each one filters about 7.5 litres of water per hour) oysters will take on the taste of the water in which they grow.

"If you have a river and there's a lot of rock, the oysters are going to filter that water and you'll get a mineral taste," says James Power, manager at PEI's Raspberry Point Oysters. "Here on PEI, you get a lot of sand and sandstone so all that water gets filtered through and you get a really clean tasting oyster, with just a nice salty finish. If you see a green colour, you can assume that there's been a lot of algae in the water and you're going to get a little bit of a [vegetal] taste."

How to assess the flavour of an oyster

"Every depth and every point in our coastline provides a unique flavour profile to be experienced in each bite," says Chef Ilona Daniel, instructor at the esteemed Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown, PEI, and the culinary ambassador for the Island's North Cape Coastal Drive.

When you eat an oyster, think about the liquor that surrounds the oyster flesh. Does the brine taste cool and clear, with just the right amount of saltiness? What about the finish? Once you've chewed and eaten the oyster, does your mouth feel slightly sweet, or does a soft, salty taste remain on your tongue?

"Salinity is a complex sensory experience," says Daniel, "It can be like a bar room brawl with a punch…or it can be a seafoam whisper."

Can you eat an oyster in the summer? (Spoiler: Yes)

There is a saying that you shouldn't consume oysters during summer months. The logic is that during warmer seasons, when oysters spawn, they can develop an unpleasant creamy taste.

According to James Power, who harvests oysters year 'round, that's only a problem for the gigas, or Pacific oyster, which spawns inside its shell. "Here on the East Coast, oysters always spawn outside themselves, so you don't get all that really milky taste. They get thinner, because they've used all their energy to reproduce, but they still taste great."

The best way to eat an oyster

According to experts like Daniel, the best way to enjoy an oyster is "naked", with no sauces or condiments. "When you enjoy them, have them just as they are: fresh, unadulterated." But if you like a bit of zip, try a squeeze of fresh lemon or a small spoonful of mignonette – a delicate oyster condiment made of vinegar and chopped shallots. A modest drip of seafood sauce, Tabasco or even a tiny dash of wasabi can offer an exciting kick.

How to pair wine and oysters

Chef Marc Brunet is a wine pairing expert, and an instructor at the Culinary Institute of Canada, one of the country's top culinary schools, located in Charlottetown, PEI. He suggests matching the saltiness of the brine in a naked oyster with a dry sparkling wine or Brut Champagne because the citrusy quality of the wine will bring balance to the saltiness of the oyster.

If eating oysters with fresh lemon or a tangy mignonette, you can go even zingier with something like an unoaked Sauvignon Blanc, or a dry Riesling. If eating an oyster with a spicy sauce, choose a white wine with a higher sugar content such as an off-dry Riesling to bring balance to the palate. Cider works well too.

How do you shuck an oyster?

Nervous? Don't be. Shucking an oyster is easy once you know how.

Holding one hand firmly on top of the cloth to secure the oyster, stick the tip of your oyster knife in the hinge of the shell (this sweet spot can be hard to find), and twist. Next, position the knife to be flat, move the blade along the shell to open the oyster. Finally, once the oyster is open, slide the blade under the flesh of the oyster to separate the abductor muscle. Et voila!

Chef Charlotte Langley, a PEI-trained chef, and sustainable seafood advocate who now lives in Toronto, says it's all about, "committing to the process and not being scared to try it."

"Lots of people are nervous about maybe cutting themselves and unhinging it improperly," continues Langley, "so it's about having a knife that feels comfortable in your hands, as well as a flat surface that's not going to move around that much. If you're a beginner oyster-shucker, look for a cultivated oyster that is consistent in shape which will help with the hinge."

Oyster shucking no-no's include piercing or "scrambling" the oyster flesh, dumping the liquor, or leaving fragments of shell in the oyster.

And of course, injuring yourself is never a good thing. It can happen, please use care! Although some veteran experts can quickly split the oyster shell while it's in the palm of their hand, the safest method is to place the oyster on a table, using a cloth underneath and on top of the shell to prevent slippage.

Helen Earley is a Halifax-based food and travel writer. Follow her @helenearley.