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Oyster fritter and tempura oysters at the Clevedon Oyster Gallery (Photo: Lucinda Bennett)
Oyster fritter and tempura oysters at the Clevedon Oyster Gallery (Photo: Lucinda Bennett)

KaiMay 6, 2024

How to make the most of oyster season

Oyster fritter and tempura oysters at the Clevedon Oyster Gallery (Photo: Lucinda Bennett)
Oyster fritter and tempura oysters at the Clevedon Oyster Gallery (Photo: Lucinda Bennett)

The Boil Up’s Lucinda Bennett considers the oyster – from freshness to pearls to the joy of shucking your own.

This is an excerpt from our weekly food newsletter, The Boil Up.

In Carmen Maria Machado’s short story ‘Eight Bites’, a woman begins her last supper before bariatric surgery with “a cavalcade of oysters.” When her sister – already made svelte – asks if they are good, she replies: “They are.”

“Tell me about them.”

“They are the sum of all healthy things: seawater and muscle and bone, I said. Mindless protein. They feel no pain, have no verifiable thoughts. Very few calories. An indulgence without being an indulgence. Do you want one?”

She does not, but I do. I always want an oyster. Any time they are on offer, I will order them, sometimes a half dozen served in a silver bowl filled with ice, but more often just one each for me and my dining companion, perhaps with a puddle of mignonette or a pale spoonful of champagne granita melting into brine. I love the ritual of an oyster, using a tiny implement to sever the fleshy hinge, prising the soft body from its sheath before clinking shells and tipping them down our throats, sweet salty buttery decadent slugs.

There are 28 oyster recipes indexed in M.F.K. Fisher’s Consider the Oyster. Oyster soups, stews, bisques and gumbo, instructions for making fried, grilled and roasted oysters as well as two recipes for something called pain d’huîtres or oyster loaf, a delicacy she remembers her mother describing as part of the sumptuous spreads at illicit boarding school midnight feasts – maybe there were cigarettes, and pickles, and bonbons. But it is the oyster loaf that I remember. There is even a recipe for how to make a pearl, although it will take at least 7 years and require such ingredients as an “unnameable wound-astringent provided by the Japanese government” and “1 diving-girl”.

A plate of big guys from Matakana Oysters (Photo: Lucinda Bennett)

I think it was the romance of possibly finding a pearl that first convinced me to eat an oyster. That, and my adolescent determination to appear bold and sophisticated – much like a young Anthony Bourdain defiantly volunteering to eat one of the “raw, slimy things” and changing his whole life.  While I never bit down on a pearl, I did become the kind of sophisticate who will drive for the well-priced glistening, coppery Pacifics sold at the roadside shack on the way to Tāwharanui or head to the east coast after a hike for plump winter oysters so fresh they quiver when squirted with lemon. In Aotearoa, we are lucky to never be far from the coast, never far from fresh kaimoana, so we can eat our oysters like this: raw but for a few bright drops of citrus to cut the butter, their briny scent mingling with ocean air, the best way to eat them.

In saying that, I do like a fried oyster, or an oyster fritter – both of which Clevedon Oysters do gorgeously from their weekend galley. To enjoy oysters even more cheaply (although not quite so cheap as gathering your own), you can often buy sacks of wholeshells (Matakana Oysters often has them, and a great video on how to shuck) or order them online from places like Mahurangi Oysters. It’s hard mahi, but by the time you’ve shucked a couple of kilograms you’ll be an absolute pro, and if you bugger them up you can take a leaf out of Monique Fiso’s book – literally – and use a couple to make a deeply oystery emulsion to intensify flavour of all your perfectly shucked ones.

Some oyster season recommendations:

  • This interview with Wini Geddes (Ngāti Awa, Ngaitai ki Tōrere) of Ōhiwa Oyster Farm – one of the first 100% Māori-owned oyster farms in the world – by Charlotte Muru-Lanning is worth a revisit. If you’re visiting Whakatāne, Tio Ōhiwa also offer oyster tours which include a cruise around the Ōhiwa Harbour as well as shucking, tasting and a complimentary meal.
  • A nice little round up of where to get Bluffies in Tāmaki Makaurau right now.
  • …or if you really love Bluffies, why not make a trip for the festival on May 25th? There’s a few tickets still available!
  • For the bivalve-averse, food writer and chef Sam Mannering has shared a recipe for cinnamon oysters – although it is for paid subscribers.
  • An essay by one of my favourite food writers, Alicia Kennedy, who is vegan but eats oysters – more common than you think – on her first. Writing on oysters is so often about the first!
Keep going!