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Oysters

Introduction

Oysters. People either love them or hate them. They are eaten today the same way as we ate them when we first discovered them: raw. Some like them with hot sauce, some with lemon juice but they need to be fresh. Real fresh.

Oysters ought to taste like the sea, i.e. briny. This is the easy bit when first getting into eating these morsels. Many people get their head around the briny taste of fresh oysters only to trip up over the soft, slippery texture. It is for good reason that Irish satirist Johnathan Swift remarked that: “[H]e was a bold man that first ate an oyster”.

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Fresh oyster, Walvis Bay

Whether you swallow them whole or chew them, if you don’t appreciate soft and silky-textured foods, fresh oysters are not going to be much of a delicacy for you.

Types of oysters

Oyster is the common name for a number of different families of salt-water bivalve molluscs that live in marine or brackish habitats. Ancient human dumpsites called “middens” contain remains that suggest that humans consumed oysters as far back as ten thousand years.

Of all species, it is the Ostreidae that are considered the “true oysters”. These include most species of molluscs commonly consumed as oysters. Those bi-valves cultivated for the production of pearls, so-called “pearl oysters” are not closely related to true oysters. They are members of a distinct family, the feathered oysters (Pteriidae).

Producing oysters in Namibia

Commercial oyster production started in Namibia during the late 1980s. The first commercial farms were established with juvenile oysters imported from Chile.

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Oyster farm using the long line method, Walvis Bay

Early on, farms at Walvis Bay were only “maturing facilities”. Their aim was to grow imported juvenile stock into market-ready adults. They produced for local markets mostly. This changed with the establishment of a local hatchery in Swakopmund. Oyster spores are now bred locally before the spat are sold to the commercial farms. The spat is kept at nurseries and farms around Lüderitz. Here they are allowed to grow for about one year to “cocktail size” – 30 to 50 grams.

Once to size, the juvenile oysters are brought back to Walvis Bay to reach full maturity when they’ll be sold to local or shipped to international markets. This strategy of moving oysters up and down the Namibian coast allows the producers to avoid the risks of regular red tide and sulfur eruptions which kills the stock. It also circumvents the occasionally elevated cadmium levels which makes shellfish temporarily unfit for human consumption.

These threats are more prevalent along the coast at Walvis Bay and Swakopmund. However, at Lüderitz, the oysters do not benefit from the very advantageous feeding conditions at Walvis Bay. Hence, the adult stock are moved back to Walvis Bay to get them ready for the market as soon as possible.

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Cleaning and sorting oysters, Nam Oyster on-land facilities, Walvis Bay

Exporting oysters

Local and international consumer safety standards require regular testing of all shellfish. The Namibian Standards Institution (NSI) is responsible for such tests. It is their task to issue public warnings when such products are not fit for human consumption.

Namibia’s cold Benguela Current is among the most fertile marine habitats anywhere in the world. It contains extraordinary volumes of oxygen and plankton, which greatly speeds up the time it takes the oyster to reach market size.

Much of Namibia’s stock are exported to Europe, South Africa, and Asia. Hong Kong and China are the most important importers of Namibian oysters. They can range in size from 30 grams (cocktail oysters) to 150 grams (full maturity).

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Oysters cleaned and ready for sale

Culinary use

The local market for fresh oysters has grown significantly over the past two decades. Yet it seems to be limited to the coastal regions close to the production farms and the upmarket restaurants in the capital city. As such, it is yet to be fully embedded in the Namibian cuisine.

Cooking oysters is a great way of overcoming the difficulties of eating them raw. They are quite versatile: they can be grilled, baked, pan-fried, deep-fried, steamed, poached, blanched, stewed, or “cooked” with acid Ceviche-style.

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Fresh oyster with mango salsa

They pair well with butter, garlic, soft herbs like thyme and parsley. Furthermore, acids such as lime and lemon juice complement their brininess, and a little heat from hot sauce adds a further dimension. Mignonette, Tartar and Remoulade are classic sauces for oysters. The latter two are commonly used with breaded and deep-fried oysters, the former with fresh oysters.

They also pair well with other seafood in a soup or stew and fit well as part of a surf-and-turf dish with meat. This works really well if the meat is pork or beef. Oysters together with beef and a dark beer such as stout are key ingredients in a British Beef and Oyster Pie. The Carpet Bag Steak is an Australian classic that combines fresh oysters with beef fillet wrapped in bacon.

Wine and beer pairings

Most recently oysters started featuring in the craft beer craze in the form of oyster stouts – dark, semi-sweet beers brewed using actual oyster shells. The combination of stout and oysters is a British classic dating back to the early 1900s when stout was the go-to beer and oysters not much more than cheap bar snacks in British pubs.

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Oyster soup

It is very popular today to pair oysters (and other seafood) with craft beers. Such pairings depend very much on whether the oysters are eaten raw or cooked, where the beer is made and with what ingredients, the origins of the oysters and the additional flavours added to the oysters. These pairings with beer are fast becoming as popular as pairings with wine, particularly champagne, which is perhaps the most popular drink to serve with oysters.

Lighter, milder white wines (such as a classy Sauvignon Blanc for example) with lime lemongrass, guava or green apple aromas and sparkling wines such as Italian Prosecco and French Champagne would elevate any dish that includes oysters.

 

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