In Falmouth, October marks the beginning of the oyster season. For centuries, this small fishing village on the southwest coast of England has welcomed seafarers and fisherman to dredge its wild oyster beds, which lay dotted along the silt flats of the Fal estuary. Their prize is the native or flat oyster—a sweet, delicate, saucer-shaped mollusk much sought after by the Romans, whose historian Pliny the Elder recommended them for improving the complexion.
Today, it is their taste—an experience that lays somewhere between the sea bed and the salty water—that attracts thousands of visitors to the Cornish village of Falmouth.
Next weekend, the rivers around the Fal estuary will be flooded with small oyster boats, known as Falmouth working boats, powered by sail or hand-pulled, looking to dredge the many oyster beds that lie beneath the waters. (For oystermen fishing in the Port of Truro Oyster Fishery, engines are prohibited, by decree of ancient laws put in place to protect the natural ecology of the river beds and the oysters.) Once the fishermen have collected their haul, the oysters will be purified for 36 hours before they are sold to customers across Europe, a practice that will continue until the end of the season in March.
It is part of a renaissance of the British oyster, says Nick Hodges, executive head chef at the Flying Fish restaurant at St. Michaels Hotel in Falmouth. “Oysters are back in vogue. We’ve gone through times when their popularity has dwindled, but now they are very much a prize possession again,” says Mr. Hodges, whose grandparents farmed oysters. “Even on a local basis, they are on a lot more Cornish menus now. We now export much more to the European market, something we were not doing a few years ago.”
There are two main kinds of oysters found in the British Isles: the flat, or native, oyster (Ostrea edulis), most famously grown among the beds in Whitstable, Colchester and Helford; and the rock, or Pacific, oyster (Crassostrea gigas), which was introduced commercially into Britain in the 1960s.
Although they are smaller, the native oysters are widely regarded as tasting superior, with a more delicate, metallic note. Rock oysters, meanwhile, are characterized as having a rough shell and a tear-dropped shaped. They tend to have a sweeter, more salty flavor and are meatier in texture. According to Drew Smith, author of “Oyster: A World History,” oyster fossils can be found in England’s Portland stone, which dates back to the Jurassic period, making them one of the oldest foodstuffs in the world.
While the British may have some of the oldest evidence of oysters known to us today, all of the major seafaring nations, including France, Spain, Portugal, Japan and the U.S., can boast an oyster culture.
In France, the oyster beaches at Cancale in Brittany have been supplying Paris since the court of Francis I in the 16th century. France is now the world’s largest oyster producer and consumer, fuelled by the oyster beds in Normandy, which produce the vast majority. This is followed by Brittany’s northern coastline and, further south, the Loire and the Arcachon Basin. There, they grow both the rock oyster and the rarer Belons (Ostrea edulis), which possess an intense mineral flavor.
In the U.S., the most widely grown oyster is the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), which is farmed down the East Coast and Chesapeake Bay. This is followed by the Kumamoto oyster (Crassostrea sikamea) in Japan, a tiny thimble-shaped oyster grown in the Pacific Northwest.
With such a myriad of different species and flavors, buying oysters is, in many respects, almost as complicated as buying wine. The taste is derived from the water where the oyster is grown, as opposed to the oyster itself. This is because the oyster is constantly sieving water for its food, thus taking on the various characteristics of the water it inhabits. For example, a cold-water oyster will have a firmer texture than a warm-water oyster, which will generally be saltier. The taste can range from briny to possessing buttery, mineral and seaweed characteristics. Some oysters have even been described as having a nutty or vegetal characteristic.
In recent years, the fashion has been to eat oysters raw, served on a bed of ice. The connoisseurs argue that they should be eaten accompanied by nothing, as the flavor is derived from where the oyster is grown. But a drop of lemon or Tabasco is still favored by many.
Chef and food writer Valentine Warner, author of “What to Eat Now,” who will be opening this year’s Falmouth festival, says that previously, oysters were served cooked, a trend that is coming back. “Now they are associated with the food of the wealthy, but that wasn’t always the case. Once they were eaten by all and almost looked down on,” he says. “We went through a period of oysters being supped from the shell, but now there is a return to cooking them. As a general rule, if they are really good, I wouldn’t do anything to them at all.
“But when you do want variety, one of the dishes I like is to deep fry. To do this, one has to take the oysters out of the shell, flour them, dip them in evaporated milk and then roll them in crumbs and oats, and serve with a barbeque sauce in a big golden pile of crispy, crunchy fat,” Mr. Warner says. “They are also delicious stuffed inside game birds or popped in a beef pie.”
That view is echoed by Mr. Hodges, the chef at Falmouth’s Flying Fish. “The purists will always serve oysters as naturally as possible,” he says. “There is no doubt that 75% of our sales are served on a little bed of sea salt on a slice of lemon. But the other natural option is to serve them with a slice of lime and just a very fine dice of fresh chilli.”
Historically, oysters weren’t sought just for their taste. Another attraction was their high nutrition levels. Low in fat and calories, oysters are naturally high in protein, zinc, magnesium and calcium, as well as containing levels of vitamin A,B,C and D.
Mr. Smith, the author, argues that a dozen oysters can amount to less than 100 calories, but are worth as much in protein as 100 grams of steak and contain as much as calcium as a glass of milk. He adds that only liver can equal an oyster in terms of the levels of iron and copper it delivers into the diet, and spinach in terms of folic acid.
Despite this, Britain’s oyster beds have a long way to go if they are to match the output of the mid-19th century, when companies in Whitstable sent more than 50 million tons of oysters to London. Since then, the impact of two world wars and a series of harsh, frozen winters in 1947 and 1963 all but wiped out the native stocks. Mr. Smith also argues that moorings and shore management were given over to richer fraternities of yachtsmen.
In Falmouth, the river beds and oyster stocks are still governed by ancient laws that protect the natural ecology of the riverbeds. Oystermen are prohibited from using engines, instead having to use sail-powered or hand-pulled dredges.
Leslie Angel, an oyster fisherman who will be dredging on the rivers surrounding Falmouth next weekend, admits that after growing in recent years, the yields have decreased, a factor he puts down to a variety of factors, such as weeds and pollution. “We farm about eight to 10 tonnes a year,” he says. “I would say stocks are decreasing. There are a number of different factors why, from the quality of the summer to the harshness of the winters and even the amount of rainfall. Some of the old fisherman used to say the oysters liked lightening even; that when it would strike, it would make them spawn. But we haven’t had lightening down here for a long time, so maybe they are right.”
A Guide to Oyster Varieties and Pairings
European Flat Oyster (Ostrea edulis)
This oval or pear-shaped oyster, also known as the Belon, has been a native of Europe for centuries. First cultivated by the Romans, it is now found along the western European coast, from Norway to Morocco; the northeastern Atlantic; and the Mediterranean Basin. Although smaller, these oysters have a more delicate, metallic taste.
Pacific or Rock Oyster (Crassostrea gigas)
One of the most intensely cultivated oysters in the world, it was first introduced to European coasts and British Columbia in the 1960s, following the decline of the native stock. Fast growing, it has spread across the globe. Sweet tasting and rich, its shell has a tear-dropped shape and is rough to the touch.
Kumamoto Oyster (Crassostrea sikamea)
This oyster was first cultivated in the Ariake Bay on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu. It is now widely found on the West Coast of the U.S. Smaller than most oysters, they have a more subtle, more refined flavor. Their flesh is pronounced by a creamy, buttery texture, while their shell is deep and bowl-shaped.
Atlantic Oyster (Crassostrea virginica)
Otherwise known as the Eastern, Gulf or Bluepoints, this variety of oyster is most commonly found along the Atlantic Seaboard of the U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico. It is perhaps best known for its thick, deeply cupped shell, a factor that encourages many chefs to serve it in a half shell.
Olympia Oysters (Ostrea lurida)
A very small oyster, barely exceeding two inches across, this variety is native to the West Coast of America, where its popularity in San Francisco during the Gold Rush almost led to their extinction. Today, they are strictly protected. Rowan Jacobsen, author of “A Geography of Oysters,” has described their flavor as “unmistakable sweet, metallic, celery salt.”
WHAT TO DRINK WITH OYSTERS
Perhaps the most famous pairing with oysters is Champagne—the drier and meatier, the better. Personally I would opt for a forceful house style, such as Bollinger or the bone dryness of Pol Roger.
Author Drew Smith, in “Oyster: A World History” argues that wine is, in fact, a very difficult match for oysters, as the “complexity of texture in an oyster usually far outweighs the skills of any vintner.” Mr. Drew suggests Calvados, a shot of Guinness (anything more is simply too much) or an Islay whisky. He also suggests sherry, perhaps a fino or an oloroso.
For my own part, I would recommend the dry, flinty flavors associated with white Loire or perhaps the steeliness of Chablis. I also like a glass of Muscadet to wash down half a dozen oysters. If the oyster is cooked, the creaminess of an aged, oak Chardonnay will suffice, whereas if it is part of a wider recipe, such as game pie, opt for a meaty red.
Falmouth Oyster Festival runs from Oct. 14-17.
Write to Will Lyons at email@example.com