Ironically in Canada, with its two major coastlines flanked by numerous islands, accessible from three oceans, the best oyster bars can actually be found in landlocked cities smack in the middle of the country. Patrick McMurray, World Oyster Opening Champion and Proprietor of the Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill in Toronto, notes that our coastal restaurants tend to fully appreciate their local oysters. (Neither barb nor intent to bite the hand that feeds him, for if it were not for the oyster houses located on each coast harvesting its bounties there would not be a supply to boast about), he continues to explain that “landlocked cities are forced to buy oysters, so we can get multiple varietals not only from the east and west coast but as far away as Ireland and France and also down through the coast of the United States. That creates broader palates towards different oysters.” Hence, oyster bars with optimal variety and luxury!

Fresh from performing an “oyster dog and pony show” in Singapore, which included participating in a shucking contest and providing some formal training to Singapore’s national champion, Patrick McMurray can solidly confirm that the oysters from our shores are indeed making waves on the world stage. The trip, a celebration for the Canadian High Commission, prominently featured Canadian seafood and quickly became a multifaceted media event. The ever-affable Patrick was conducting interviews with the press and appearing on a breakfast show in Asia viewed by millions of people. The Canadian oyster has found international fame.

A topic waxed poetic by the enchanting M.F.K. Fisher and harkened to be the cause of Anthony Bourdain’s culinary commitment, when Patrick McMurray speaks of this quintessential bivalve he does so with the same exuberance as an art gallery owner describing an exhibit combined with a winemaker explaining the elegance and finesse of the latest vintage. “There are 30 to 40 different varieties that I would love to show but limit it to 12 … the top pick of my favorites, what the market can bare, and the style of eating in the city,” he says. Tasting notes, courtesy of Patrick, can be found at the back of the menu (and on the Starfish website). You will find a description for a Fines de Claire from Brittany, France that reads: “This oyster has a very floral, almost an ocean breeze in the nose. Soft salts start at the front of the palate with a creamy-sweet middle, and a slight seaweed finish. Very plump and full bodied. The meat can be a dark grey-blue to bright green in colour as the oyster has been “finished off” in a specific algae pool.” It is near impossible to follow Patrick’s passionate depiction of oysters, interspersing taste and texture notes with species names, table names, and brands but one thing is for certain when talking to him, his enthusiasm for this single, delectable seafaring creature is contagious. So where does an oyster virgin begin?

Start small. “Start with a Canadian east coast oyster and move on from there. A good choice would be a Malpeque or BeauSoleil, tasting it without the use of sauces or garnishes.” Canadian oysters are often sold generically by their place name or “their table name”. Novys are from Nova Scotia, Malpecques from PEI, Caraquets from New Brunswick, and Fanny Bays from British Columbia. Others are sold under boutique-like labels, “usually in reference to the grower’s name like Colville Bay and BeauSoleil,” Patrick explains. “It’s like their brand.” Pay close attention, this is where etiquette is both proper and important for the ultimate oyster experience. “Chew your oyster, my mother always told me to chew my food, otherwise you are just tasting sea salt and water. Don’t chew it like a steak but break it across the palate, taking in a bit of air. It is similar to chewing caviar and by taking in some air the flavours cover the palate as much as possible,” he says. “And don’t drain the oyster of the liquor because it contains a lot of flavours that make the oyster more exciting. Next try a Kumamoto – plump with flavours of sweet cream and cucumber, then onto a Fanny Bay or Fines de Claire and then a Belon (described as petit and flat but apparently an oyster delivering quite the flavor punch despite its size). Finish with the most rare, hardest to find, smallest oyster with the most complex flavor – the Olympia. By far and absolutely to be had with only a smile on your lips! Just think of them like wine and you’ll appreciate their differences,” Patrick concludes.

The parade of oysters should arrive at your table looking very wet or moist and they should be enjoyed as close to being opened as possible. If they have been exposed to the air they will dry out and the shells will go chalky white. “Smell it a couple of times, it should have a very happy smell – clean and nothing or slightly salty like a happy ocean smell. If it is off it will smell unhappy like sulfur.”

If you are serving oysters at home, make sure they are on ice but not submerged in water at the fishmonger. “They don’t like water, just cool and cold,” Patrick states. The oyster should feel heavier than it looks because it has a density from the meat inside. It should be very tightly closed, with such a perfect seal it is difficult to see where it starts and stops. If you are planning to serve them on the half shell, it is better to shuck them at home but make sure you have a proper knife made especially for shucking oysters. If you feel more comfortable, have the fishmonger shuck them for you (of course if you are planning to cook them or put them in a chowder this would be the way to go) - you will not lose anything from the oysters, just ask the fishmonger to put the cap back on before you take them home. “Canadian east coast oysters are not optimal for cooking because they shrink too much but west coast oysters cook well as do the oysters from the Gulf of Mexico, like those found in Louisiana or Texas, which are plump and meaty and take the heat perfectly.” Patrick recommends putting a bit of butter, breadcrumbs and minced garlic on the oyster and cooking them under a broiler. “They are unbelievably good because the oyster poaches in the garlic and butter and the breadcrumbs become crispy. The oyster should be lukewarm not piping hot.”

Similar to other seafood and fish, oysters are seasonal – the popular held belief is to enjoy oysters only in the months containing an ‘R’. “This really only applies to one species of oyster – the Ostera Edulis or Belon and Irish Flats. This rule was written in UK in 1500’s when there was no refrigeration (another ‘R’) and it was difficult to take them out of the cold water and transport them,” Patrick explains. Apparently the oyster has obscure switch hitting traits – changing sex from year to year. When they reproduce (another ‘R’) in May, June, and July the female keeps the young in her gills until September when she expels them. “They go through different stages of growth within the gilling of the oyster – milky on the gills is the first stage, grey is the medium stage (a battleship grey), and when they are black or darker grey the silt is thicker and the eggs are bigger,” he explains. “At that point the oyster expels them into the water. For that reason the oyster is not very palatable, however some folks think it is the best thing to eat – an oyster with 30 million oysters attached to it consumed all in one go. Our oysters are water and weather dependant and after a certain temperature they are spat out into the water. During this period the growers don’t want to harvest them because they are no longer plump but actually thin and watery. In the summer you are down to 6 to 8 varieties and right now you have 12 to 15. Since they are temperature dependant, the availability goes from south to north, so down south in the United States when the oyster season is somewhat finished, it becomes ideal in the north.”

With intense hand/eye coordination, uncanny bivalve knowledge, and an appreciation so great they are the sommeliers of the oyster world, the World Champion shuckers are serious ambassadors for the oyster industry. More like champions for a cause, you will find John Bil at Joe Beef in Montreal, Jason Woodside at OysterBoy and of course Patrick McMurray at the Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill in Toronto, shucking oysters and making connoisseurs of us all.

Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill
100 Adelaide Street East
Toronto
416-366-STAR (7827)