Up until the early 19th Century, the native or flat oyster (Ostrea edulis) was plentiful and cheap and was mainly eaten by Britain’s working classes in steak and oyster pies.
Records indicate that by the 1880’s some 120 million oysters were consumed annually throughout Britain and by all classes of the population. However this soon led to the near-extinction of our native species and the natural beds were further decimated by diseases brought in by foreign varieties introduced to supplement local production.
Eventually oysters became an endangered species and had to be and still are protected by an Act of Parliament and the scarcity of supply changed the oyster into a luxury item and the general populous lost its taste for this delicacy.
With the native oyster having all but disappeared from the wild, Scottish farmers turned to the Pacific or Portuguese oyster (Crassostrea Gigas) – first introduced from Portugal in 1922 into the River Blackwell, Essex. Seed is purchased from hatcheries and the tiny oysters are laid out in mesh bags that are raised up from the seabed on metal trestles. The oysters are cultivated on the seashore in inter-tidal areas and the bags are turned regularly with oyster numbers being reduced progressively to promote growth over the two to three years that it takes to reach a marketable size.
It can take up to 3 years for the Pacific Oyster to reach harvestable size and, due to a combination of modern refrigeration techniques and the fact that they do not generally breed in our cold North Atlantic waters. As a result, Scottish cultivated oysters can be consumed all year round, while the native oyster (Ostrea edulis) should not be eaten during the spawning season, which normally coincides with those months without an “r”.
Oysters acquire their complex flavours from the areas where they are grown. So the same species grown in different locations will have noticeable differences; with some tasting sweet, others salty, some with a mineral flavour and others with a fruity melon-like flavour. The quality of raw oysters depends on texture, degree of sweetness/salinity and mineral/marine flavour. At The Mussel Inn we serve Pacific Oysters (Crassostrea Gigas) that are cultivated in the clear waters of areas such as the Isle of Mull. Their texture is soft and fleshy but crisp, their smell is clean and they have a strong taste of the sea.
In spite their plump and succulent looks, Pacific Oysters contain relatively little fat as the reserves that they store consist mainly of glycogen. Although rich in vitamins, minerals and amino acids, perhaps it is the rapid surge in energy provided by this readily available source of glucose – rather than the high zinc content – that has fuelled the oyster’s reputation as an aphrodisiac. Whatever the exact explanation, oysters also have a long culinary history that dates back more than 2,000 years and provide just as much pleasure whether eaten raw, with fresh lemon or Tabasco, or grilled, pan fried, deep fried, steamed, smoked, or sautéed in honey as in Ancient Greece.