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Oh shucks, it’s oyster season
Everything you need to know about tucking into these moreish molluscs
We anchor the boat having spotted a mud oasis peeking out of the swirling brown waters of the Breede River. We jump in and swim towards it with a hammer. Feet on the squelchy land we find flat oysters the size of a man’s palm attached to the rocks. Like wild things, we hammer the cluster loose. After prying two open (not an easy task) we rinse them in the water, and the river oysters go down our throats au naturel: slippery with a salty, sweet taste, underpinned by earthy river notes.
Not your everyday shucking experience, finding and enjoying these fanciful delicacies in this manner was almost as uncommon as river oysters themselves. Although native to South Africa, this breed of the raw shellfish is rarely cultivated here.
“The Pacific oyster is the most popular breed worldwide,” says Ross Baker of Wild Peacock, a Stellenbosch supplier of gourmet goods. Ross, a bit of an oyster expert, shares that this breed’s spat (oysters in the larval stage) is imported directly from Japan and sewn in estuaries all over South Africa’s east and west coasts. The majority in the Western Cape are produced in farms along the West Coast, with Saldanha Bay being a hot bed of production.
Wild Peacock’s oysters are farmed in the town. “The spat starts growth in the inner bay,” informs Ross. “Then comes to term in the outer bay, where the water is colder and cleaner.”
The briny bivalves are best eaten in winter
Oysters should have plump flesh that’s clear and tastes of the sea, with a touch of sweetness. In summer though, the heat kick-starts the spawning process, which results in not-so-appetising milky oysters. The off-putting milkiness can be avoided with a breed of oysters called triploids, which are engineered without sex genomes—meaning when it’s time procreate, the equipment isn’t there.
Ross, however, likes to keep things natural and deals instead in diploids (oysters that get to keep their junk). He says that over the last few years farms place mature oysters in holding tanks with chilled water. “The oysters ‘think’ it’s winter, and don’t spawn as much.”
Now that you know when to enjoy them, there’s also the question of how. When shucking at home wear a pair of gloves, and brace the oyster against a kitchen towel. Then insert an oyster knife (or if you don’t have, a flat knife that doesn’t have a sharp point) into its front opening and slide the knife along the lid. Cut through the abductor muscle (it’s located midway down the shell), but try and keep most of it intact, as it’s one of the sweetest parts.
Finish off your opened oyster with lemon, black pepper and enjoy the natural flavour.
Oysters are good for you too, brimming with zinc and omega-3 fatty acids. But are they an aphrodisiac, or is that just an urban legend? “My dad has this running joke,” says Ross. “It only works after the sixth one.”
The best places to eat oysters in Cape Town
Wild Peacock Food Emporium
These gourmet gurus have a bistro-style restaurant, where it’s a sin to leave without slurping up a few of their quality oysters; an indulgence that’s duly helped along with a glass of local bubbly, of course. They deliver too.
32 Piet Retief Street | Stellenbosch | +27 (0)21 887 7585
Find yourself a seat at their seafood and oyster barand sip on a frothy head of Guinness; a sublime and quintessentially Irish match for a plate of briny oysters.
Wale Street | Cape Town | +27 (0)21 819 2000
Haute Cabrière Restaurant
This restaurant has a view of Franschhoek like no other, perched on Pass Road, the wineland town is spread out below. Soak up the vista with a plate ofoysters and the estate’s Mèthode Cap Classique. We tried oysters with apple and ginger sorbet.
Pass Road | Franschhoek | +27 (0)21 876 3688
Mother Shucker Oysters
Neighbourgoods Market in Woodstock wouldn’t be the same without this jolly two-some steadily shucking oysters. They sell plates of half-a-dozen for a song, and they even throw in a glass of bubbly. Many of the city’s party people swear by this Saturday morning hangover cure.
The Old Biscuit Mill | 373 - 375 Albert Road | Woodstock | Cape Town
The Noisy Oyster
Head to this Paternoster institution for sweet, plump oysters in a rustic fishing village setting.
62 St. Augustine Road | Paternoster | +27 (0)21 752 2196
By Malu Lambert