Oyster stew on Christmas Eve is a festive tradition for many. The briny bivalves also add classic flavour to turkey stuffing and pair brilliantly with sparkling wine when slurped raw off the half shell.
But why must we always reserve oysters for special occasions? I would happily hang myself from an intertidal culturing rack for any excuse to crack into a gloriously liquored mess of juicy sea jewels.
December is peak oyster season, isn't it? Yes, and no. The antediluvian adage that they be eaten only in months with the letter "R" predates refrigeration, never mind the modern engineering of aquaculture birth control. Pacific oysters do typically spawn in summer's rising water temperatures, clogging up their shells with flabby egg sacs and milky foams, making them inedible. But Mother Nature can now be neutered by sterile hybrids farmed from Pacific seeds and harvested year-round, or shocked into frigidity when plunged deep into dark, eternal winter at the end of 100-foot lines.
That said, there are heaps more oysters to choose from in the R months, when icy coastal waters run crisp and clean, firming up their undeniably tastier flesh and posing less risk for toxic algae bloom and bacterial contamination.
If you are intimidated by the boggling variety spilling over your local raw bar, chill out. There are just five main oyster species in North America – Pacific, Atlantic, Kumamoto, Olympia and European Flats. And the latter three barely make a ripple in Canada.
Here, the main distinction is between East Coast Crassostrea virginica and West Coast Crassostrea gigas. Both are often marketed under the names of the brackish bays and misty coves (Raspberry Point, Effingham Inlet, etc.) where they're grown. Like wine and cheese, oyster appellations owe much of their special characteristics to terroir – the soupy stock of kelp-bed flora, drifting phytoplankton, swift currents, lazy tidal flats, ancient glacial sediment and fertile nutrients washed in by rain, river or mountain snowmelt – that seasons the water in which they filter and feed.
Microclimate splintering aside, a deep national oyster divide attracts passionate aficionados on either side who are always raring to defend – in gale-force (and typically beer-fortified) bluster – the general supremacy of their preferred coastal species.
Wondering which team you paddle for? Well, if you can't get enough of those meaty Malpeques, you cheer for the East Coast slugger and its knockout punch of pure, salty seawater (the Atlantic ocean has a higher salinity than the Pacific). In awe of its brawny resilience (this is Canada's only native oyster, one that has been conditioned by brutal thrashings and titanic storms over thousands of years), you are unfazed by plain grey muscle, big chewy mouthfuls and tough, gnarly shells (the latter property also make Atlantics a fan favourite of competitive shuckers).
But for those who are drawn to smoother textures, showy velvet mantles and a graceful shuffle – which floats over the frilly edges and sweet melon flourishes of a Marina's Top Drawer, yet stings with the metallic jab of a scrappy beach-cultured Fanny Bay – the complex Pacific is your mollusk.
The astonishingly adaptable immigrant oyster is derived from a Japanese seed that was imported to B.C. in the 1920s. Now the world's most widely cultured species, it grows with breathtaking speed and has developed an unmatched range of sweet, fruity and vegetal flavours in the West Coast's pristine, glacier-fed waters and island-sheltered passageways.
If left to run wild, the lean meat gets flabby and its thin shell weakens. But with careful handling, the mighty Miyagi (another name for the Japanese/Pacific species) can be tumbled into such highly prized, creamy, deep cupped, and mildly mineral-flecked gems as the grand cru Kusshi.
West vs. East? I'm obviously partial to the Pacific. But go on, splash out over the holidays to sip, suck and judge for yourself.
Rodney's Oyster House
1228 Hamilton St., 604-609-0080; rohvan.com
The low-tide special offers one type of oyster for $1.50 a shuck, daily from 3 to 6 p.m. Not the best deal in town, but wide selection and fun ambience. Hunky servers make it a good catch for girls' night out.
Oyster Seafood & Rawbar
475 Howe St., 604-899-0323; rawbar.ca
A small, charming pearl tucked into the old Stock Exchange Building. Buck-a-shuck daily from 4 to 7 p.m.; or an 18-piece mix for $36 any time of day. Romantic vibe for date nights.
Cork & Fin
221 Carrall St., 604-569-2215; corkandfin.ca
Buck-a-shuck on Monday nights – all night long – with more than one local variety to choose from. The champagne mignonette at this small Gastown boite is the fizziest around.
1045 Alberni St., 604-685-5010; glowbalgroup.com/coast
Slide up to the bar from 3 to 5 p.m. for buck-a-shuck. Smile nicely at the bartender and he might slip in some Kusshis or other premium varieties. Good selection of East Coast oysters.
Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver, 791 West Georgia St., 604-689-9333; yewrestaurant.com
Wind down the week during Sunday brunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., when a fair shake of oysters (Kusshi, Effingham, Gorge Inlet, Kumamoto and Malpeque) are only $1 a piece, and all bottles of wine are half price.
1118 Mainland St., 604-689-8318; goldfishseafood.com
The sexy Yaletown fish house has adopted a new menu, similar to its sister restaurant Joe Fortes, which includes buck-a-shuck during happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m. Be sure to ask for freshly shucked oysters. They don't always appear to be.