Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mothershuckin' Oysters: A Beginner's Tale

I put oysters top of the list of all those things that demand an acquired taste. The more patronising of us might call them ‘adult’ foods; I don’t, I just silently judge you when you say you don’t like the texture or aftertaste (philistine!!). Also on this list are any mollusc or shell fish that hasn’t been smoked or pureed, coffee, rum and raison ice cream, mango and avocado. (Ok, so these are all the foods that I used to hate and now enjoy, but we’ll just keep pretending I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth and a can of Beluga caviar in my tiny hand…). I've got to admit I felt pretty triumphant the day I gleefully realised that slurping down ‘sea water snot’ could actually be quite enjoyable.

Because I’m a fiend for anything with spicy Asian flavours, my preferred dressing is a dipping sauce spooned onto the half shells, containing grated ginger, chopped Thai chilli and coriander stalks, soy sauce, lime juice and a dash of sesame oil. But really, you can’t go wrong with cracked pepper, sea salt and a wedge of lemon.

So anyhoo, last week was old mate Clare’s actual birthday so, rather than have her spend the night commiserating in the bath with a bottle of wine, or trying to reserve a table for nine at Trullo when they’d said eight was their limit, we decided to bring the mountain to Mohammed and collaborate on a dinner party to end all dinner parties. We came, we cooked, we cleaned, we conquered.

I was allocated that very important responsibility of nibblies, which was definitely a step up from my last dinner party contribution, green salad – “really Megs, some lettuce and a cucumber will be FINE” (I choose to believe that I’m never given a bigger task because everyone’s scared of the bar being lifted to irretrievable heights, amirite?). I could have rocked up with some hummus and a packet of crackers, but being a competitive overachiever I decided to do a mad closing-time dash around Brixton market, charming the white wellies off tens of fishmongers, and arrive at Clare’s with an assortment of Scottish oysters on ice. And some lemons. The fact that the oysters were unshucked was no biggie until all the kitchen hands realised noone else had ever actually shucked an oyster – I mean, we’d all seen Rick, Jamie, and Bill do it during many seaside cooking shows, and you just had to jam a screwdriver into that hinge bit and shuck it open, so it wasn’t too involved, right? (See below for imagined technique*)

Because noone other than an OCD utensil hoarder or a Sapphire Coast resident would actually own an oyster shucker (short stubby knife with protective handle), I’d recommend a super-sturdy slotted screwdriver (not a Phillips head!) on a leatherman or a short handle, so the head is easier to manipulate. Knives, forks, spoons and scissors do NOT work.

My job on the shucking production line was to prise the oysters open enough to hear that ‘shuck!’ sound, and then pass them on. Despite initial estimations, we managed to get all 27 oysters open, halved, plated up and eaten. Everyone agreed that the occasional gritty shard in the mouth added a truly fresh and authentic effect. I think they were just being polite because they’d seen the bloody hands and the array of sharp, discarded and broken metal implements lying at close range in the kitchen.

* Image courtesy of Today’s ‘How to Cook’ section on the Guardian website had a step-by-step photo guide which *might* have been useful last week. But they failed to include the icy Tom Collins which I found to be crucial in navigating the process (and a delicious match when we finally ate them).

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