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Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Guest post: tales from an oyster lady

Possibly the ultimate food of love, oysters can be a little daunting if you've never tried them before. So if you need an excuse to try them, or maybe even to dish them up to someone special, then we'd like to hand over to a lady who knows a lot more about them than we do. Scottish oysters are the best we've tasted, so here is a guest post by Judith Vajk, offering an insight into life as a oyster farmer, top tips and oyster facts, just in time for Valentine's Day:

"I had my first oyster in 1984 in Saint Vaast, a small seaside town in Normandy known for its oysters. I had moved to France for work and was introduced to Hugo, who worked on an oyster farm. I cannot say I enjoyed my first oyster; I do find that the first one can take you by surprise as you are unsure of exactly how it will taste. However, after a couple more I enjoyed the pure flavour of the sea that is indeed the true taste of an oyster.

[At The Caledonian Company] we farm the Pacific oyster which does not spawn in Scotland but grows happily in our clean, cold waters. The Pacific oyster is an easier oyster to grow than the native Scottish oyster. Natives are slower growing and are not so happy grown in bags – they would rather lie on the sea-bed. We grow our oysters in mesh bags, with varying sized holes depending on the size of the oyster. The bags sit on trestle tables on the sea-bed. At low-tide we drive out on a tractor and get to work, turning the bags, bringing in oysters to be graded for sale. If we did not turn the bags regularly the oysters would grow into each other and we would not be able to sell them individually.

In Scotland, we sell oysters throughout the year. Because they do not spawn here they do not become very milky in the summer months. However, they are probably at their best in the colder months – and naturally chilled! The most common question I get asked about oysters is with regards to their aphrodisiac qualities – surely, that depends on who you are eating them with! But I do know they are the highest food source of zinc – very important in the production of the male hormone, testosterone. The second question is whether to swallow or chew an oyster? I definitely advise to just give the oyster a couple of bites to release all the flavour that is contained within the oyster.

The best way to open an oyster is carefully and with a proper oyster knife! Place the oyster, cup-shape shell down, on a tea-towel; this helps keep the oyster steady. Hold the oyster firmly and taking an oyster knife, put the point into the natural space that is between the two shells at the hinge (pointed) end. With careful pressure gently work the knife between the two shells then twist the knife to ‘pop’ the shell. Bring the knife along, between the two shells, cutting the muscle from the top shell, and remove the shell. Sweep your knife along the bottom shell, releasing the oyster muscle there too.

Oysters are wonderful with a squeeze of lemon, and we do like one or two drops of Tabasco with the lemon. Chopped shallots with red wine vinegar is a delicious alternative and adds a rosy glow to the oyster.

We do supply one wholesaler, Charlie Magee, who distributes our oysters in Edinburgh to fishmongers and restaurants in the city [including supplying Tom Kitchin]. I also attend Perth Farmers’ Market on the first Saturday of the month. Though saying that, I won’t be there in March as we are going to the European Oyster Shucking Championship in Sweden to cheer our son on who is the Scottish champion.

So, how did I get into oyster farming? Well, I married the man who fed me my first oyster!"

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