What's the shucking fuss about oysters? Are they really aphrodisiacs, should you chew, and which is better: rock or native? We have all the answers
Hailed as libido-boosting pearls of the sea, oysters can seem a bit daunting to the uninitiated. Homemade met Harriet Horne, resident oyster expert at the Wright Brothers Soho Oyster House in London to get the definitive guide to prepping, cooking and eating them.
Don't just swallow
There, you've been told. Although you may be tempted to gulp it down in one go, you'd be doing it all wrong. A good oyster deserves to be rolled around your mouth a bit and ever so gently chewed. "You have to savour all the additional flavours they have in their flesh," says Horne, "and you just don't experience that if you don't chew them."
And don't forget to breathe: "Turn the oyster around in your mouth to get a real feel for the texture, and gently breathe in a little as you do so to aerate it and release the flavour," says Harriet. And a final tip: make some comment about how milky it tastes (that's a good thing, by the way).
Be sure to eat the whole thing; the best bit is the heel (the thicker, muscley part that connects the oyster to its shell) which tastes a lot like a scallop.
Know where it's been
If you're going to put anything in your mouth, it's probably best to know where it's been. This is especially true in the world of oysters, because where they're grown affects the flavour. Colchester oysters have a slightly grassy flavour as they grow in muddier waters, estuary-grown have a more intense taste, whereas Whitstable oysters bring a fresh whiff of the sea and a crisp, zincy edge.
As well as their much-celebrated (albeit scientifically unproven) aphrodisiac qualities, the humble oyster is pretty good for you too. But why are they an edible turn on? That's probably linked to their high levels of zinc, which is used in the production of testosterone, and goes some way to explain why oysters have such a fiesty reputation in the bedroom. Ahem.
Stay in season
The most popular varieties in the UK are the native (flat) and Pacific (rock) oysters. Traditionally native oysters should only be eaten when there's an R in the month, although rock varieties are available all year round.
Shuck it up
Oysters can look pretty scary, but if they're not fresh you should steer clear. Let your nose be the judge. All fisheries have to clean their oysters for a minimum of 42 hours using a filtered watering system: a fresh oyster will smell of the sea and look shiny and plump. If the shell won't open when tapped or it smells of anything but salty seawater – ditch it.
First-timers might be tempted to hide the plump flesh with a dash of fiery Tabasco, but that can overpower the flavour. The purest way to enjoy an oyster is with nothing more than the seawater that comes trapped in the shell when you open it.
Known as the "liquor" or juice, this water is a taste of where the oyster comes from and should be savoured as much as the oyster itself. A top tip from Harriet Horne is to tip the first juice off and let it release a little bit more: "but not too much," she warns, "as I have occasionally knocked an oyster back and choked on the liquor as it hit the back of my throat!"
If the risk of choking isn't for you, try a dash of light soy sauce or a chilli and ginger dressing. If you prefer your shellfish hot, we'd recommend them deep-fried or served in the traditional beef and oyster pie.
How to shuck an oyster like a pro
If you're shucking your own oysters, follow these simple tips to make sure you don't injure yourself or the oyster: