Ever wondered which wines slide down brilliantly with a cheeky oyster? Our wine expert visits The Wright Brothers to find out.
There’s everyday food, then there’s frontier food. That’s to say, there’s food whose tastes and textures you’re completely at home with, and food that calls for a sense of adventure - the crossing of a threshold into the exotic unknown, before you know where you are with it. I count oysters as a frontier food. Anthony Bourdain put it aptly in Kitchen Confidential. Tasting his first raw oyster was, he said, in the same territory as his first sexual experience, his first jazz cigarette; it tasted somehow “of the future”.
I’ve thought hard about it and decided this special status is attributable to two things. First, an oyster is alive when you come to eat it (or should be – to test, prod its tenticular skirt with the tip of a fork and you should see it shy away ever so slightly). Second, well, it’s what it reminds you of. Ever seen Ken Russell’s film version of DH Lawrence’s Women in Love? The scene where Alan Bates’ character is rhapsodising to scandalised co-diners about a fig? “The proper way to eat a fig, in society,” he ruminates, “is to split it in four… and open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled flower…” You get the picture. That fig was rude. But oysters are ruder – more evocative in appearance, texture, fragrance and flavour.
The carnal associations of oysters have been pored over aplenty. About the most clinching is that Casanova is said to have eaten 50 (some say 60) oysters every morning in preparation for his daily… workouts. Whether fact or fiction, there is some logic to this for one so libidinous. Oysters are an excellent source of protein. They are also loaded with vitamins A and B12 – both good for boosting metabolism and increasing stamina, so it’s said. Then there are the trace elements of calcium, zinc, iodine, phosphorus and selenium – all of which contribute to the human body’s optimum functioning. Casanova would have probably put it another way.
When it comes to eating an oyster, first check its appearance. Inside it should look clean and glossy, with a decent amount of clear liquor and a fresh sea fragrance. Any offish smell, or if totally dry inside, it should be passed over. Next you’ll need to separate the adductor muscle from the nacreous inner shell. Most people ignore it, but this morsel should be savoured. Firmer than the main flesh, it’s full of sweet flavour –reminiscent of scallop, which makes sense since the meaty part of a scallop is in fact a large adductor muscle.
Getting an oyster that’s swimming in liquor in your mouth can be an awkward act. It’s more fun to tip the thing in and let it slither over your tongue, but there’s no shame in picking the meat out with a fork if you’d prefer to avoid the risk of spilling brine all over yourself. Then *chew*. Chew slowly, in fact – the more to savour the oyster’s mouth-filling flavour. Swallowing an oyster whole is an unpardonable waste. And what about that flavour? Yes, it *‘tastes of the sea’*, but once you’ve tried a few different varieties, you’ll find that oysters have much more to give where flavour is concerned. As with wine, it’s largely down to their terroir, or ‘merroir’, as some punning souls like to call it. The minerality, the purity and the salinity of the water all contribute to subtle variations in flavour – which make oysters a particularly rewarding food to find drink matches for.
If this is something that appeals to you, here are five oyster and wine pairing suggestions to set you on your way:
**1. Colchester rock oyster **
*Tasting notes:* Big briny flavour to start, strong mineral notes – iron, zinc – and a pleasant creamy sweetness lingering on the palate.
*Pair with: *A flinty English wine would work well. Try a Chapel Down Flint Dry 2011 (Waitrose, £9.49).
**2. Lindisfarne oyster **
*Tasting notes:* A more subtle minerality and a more delicate sweetness broadening on the palate. Milder in flavour than the above.
*Pair with:* Try a Poiron-Dabin Folle Blanche 2010 (£10, Borough Wines), whose lemony acidity should talk to the Lindisfarne’s sweetness.
**3. Jersey rock oyster (also known as the Jersey Royale) **
*Tasting notes:* Light woodiness, then cucumber, then melon. Herbal notes, even. Tea. Not as salty as the Colchester or the Lindisfarne.
*Pair with:* Something floral would work very well. Michel Furdyna Brut rosé (£29.99, www.frenchbubbles.co.uk) works very *very* well.
**4. Marenne-Oléron Spéciale de Claire **
*Tasting notes:* Clean, nutty, hazelnut, light wood, then at the end a grassy, camomile note.
*Pair with:* A wine with a delicate flavour that won’t overpower the delicate but complex flavour of the oyster. Try a citrusy and floral Chateau de Jurque Jurançon Sec (£14, Borough Wines).
**5. Carlingford Lough rock oyster **
*Tasting notes:* Robust flavour. Strong saltiness and lingering minerality – copper, zinc, rocks – then a nice cucumbery aftertaste.
*Pair with: *Try a nice tangy Spanish Albarino Arca Nova Albarino 2011 (£9, The Sampler).
***Notes:*** Oysters provided by Wright Brothers Soho. A thousand thanks to brother Robin, gracious host and pre-eminent guide to the subtleties of oyster and wine matching. All the oysters tasted were Pacific (or rock) oysters, as opposed to native oysters, which are not available from May to August - their spawning season. For more information on the oysters and seafood served up at The Wright Brothers, please visit: http://thewrightbrothers.co.uk.
**Written by: **Darren Smith