The wonderful world of oysters

15 Nov 2015
3 min read
So much more than a delicacy, these prehistoric molluscs have not only played an important role in cooking, but also art, literature and politics from the the dawn up time to the present day. Oysters have inspired chefs, painters and writers alike, have sustained communities financially and ecologically, and have loomed large in legend and history. FOUR speaks to Drew Smith as he navigates through time to show how the oysters have shaped the cultural past and present throughout the world…

DrewSmith’supcoming book ‘Oyster: A Gastronomic History’provides everything you ever needed to know about oysters, charting the oyster’s influence through colourful anecdotes, eye-opening scientific facts and a wide array of visuals as well as highlighting geographical areas where oysters have played a key role. As well as history and trivia the book includesover thirty recipesfrom traditional country dishes to contemporary examples from some of the best restaurants in the world, plus practical tips for opening oysters, oyster etiquette and what to drink with oysters.

As someone who is no stranger to fine foods,Drew Smith is the former editor of The Good Food Guide, a number one bestseller for more than a decade. As a three-timewinner of theGlenfiddich award for outstanding food and drink writing, FOURspoke to Drew to find out more about the wonderful world of oysters…

Tell us about your latest book, ‘Oyster: A Gastronomic History’ …

Oysters are extraordinary and an extraordinary subject for a book.

Where did you get your inspiration for the book?

Oysters are older than us, older than grass, so they have been around at every point in human history and they tell a slightly different story to what we were taught in school. Plus we are starting to understand that planting oysters is a means of reviving the estuary and reversing decades of pollution. In the context of climate change oysters are important. They could feed the world in the future.

What can readers expect from the book?

More than 40 recipes for cooked oysters chart the change of attitudes through history plus we have an explanation of how and where they fit in our history, culture, lifestyle, dinner and even answer the question as to whether or not they are an aphrodisiac.

Oysters have had a strong influence in art, literature and in more recent years a strong link with fine dining, what do you think it is that makes oysters so special?

An oyster tastes of the waters in which it was raised, so no two oysters will ever taste exactly the same. It is also the only food we eat virtually alive.

What are a few memorable anecdotes from the book that you think are important in the way we understand oysters?

I think a few memorable areas of the book that stand out for me are thatoysters were at the start of canning industry, the winter crop for Florida peaches. I love the first examples of branding on the tins.I also like that oyster plates were a Victorian fashion and you can still find them on ebay. Another interesting oyster theme is that it can be observed that nearly all the Dutch masters painted oysters in different guises, I suspect so the artist had something for dinner…They also had their own dialect in the Thames with wonderful nicknames like curdley (with eggs) or hockley (open shell)..the list is endless really.

In terms of oyster recipes, combinations or uses, what is currently hot on the radar?

From nearly extinct 20 years ago, the oyster bar revival in USA is sweeping the country, plus many thousands have been enjoying festivals all down the east and southern coast. Oyster happy hour is something we need to import to Europe. Equally much of this is about collecting shells and returning them to the estuary to create new oyster beds and restore the quality of the waters.

Could you suggest FOUR unusual oyster pairings?

  • Oyster ceviches from Chile built up with shallots, limes, tomato, pepper and coriander. Serve chilled.
  • Hiroshima oyster dote nabe, oysters in a stew with dashi, tofu, cabbage and tofu
  • Classically, the iron in spinach makes a supreme pairing, in soup or as bed with a Sauterne jelly, crème fraiche and if you can afford it caviar.
  • Sherry

Find out more about the wonderful world of oysters in Drew’s new book, ‘Oyster: A Gastronomic History’ here