They’re available all year round. But around Christmas and New Year, oysters are usually out in full force on buffet and party tables. Back in the day, only a few varieties of oysters were available on the market, but now we’re seeing more and more types from all kinds of places. Can you still see the woods for the trees? How do you choose the right ones? And what’s the best way to store them? We asked Marc Thoonen, who is passionate about seafood and out-and-out oyster lover, some questions. He has a huge amount of respect for the craftsmen in this sector.

Is it true that there is now a bigger and broader selection of oyster varieties available in the catering industry?

Oysters have become very popular. The range, availability and price are much more accessible than they were 10-15 years ago. Then, oysters were only served between Christmas and Easter, and particularly in specialised restaurants. The increasing popularity of oysters in specialty restaurants or supermarkets is partly due to the transport possibilities which are available to the oyster farmers. In just a few hours, oyster barrels can be transported from one end of the country to the other. Marketing also plays an important role. With the advent of social media it has become easy for farmers to post photos and whet the public’s appetite.

Why are ‘branded’ oysters becoming so popular?

Oyster farmers increasingly want to promote their own oysters and even give them an appropriate name. In the past, they simply said: it’s an oyster from Oléron or Zeeland, regardless of who the farmer was or where exactly they came from. Today, they use brand names like Gillardeau, L’Oléronaise and Ostendaise. Some farmers are using this technique to improve the visibility of their business and oysters. It’s also a way for them to cultivate an exclusive brand.

How do you select oysters for your catering business?

As a catering business, you should offer about 3 varieties. Why? Oysters might look the same but the flavours can be a world apart. Compare oysters from different regions, for example Belgium, Zeeland, Ireland, Brittany and Oléron. Just like with wines or coffee, it’s not only the variety which determines the flavour; the region, the growing time and the schedule are also important factors.

What are the most important factors for achieving top-quality oysters?

The quality is largely determined by the water in which the oysters are grown and by the growing method. The more time and care devoted to them during the growing process, the better the oyster. Bottom-grown oysters or oysters in hanging baskets (off-bottom method) are very different in terms of meat content, shape, taste etc. There is an AOC label (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) for oysters too. Farmers have to apply for this quality label and whether or not they are successful depends on a number of criteria. Some oyster farmers in France have this label. We (Belgians) have our regional product label, the criteria for which is quite similar to the AOC criteria.

Are Belgian oysters a valuable alternative?

The Belgian oyster is worth putting on the menu. The big difference with other European oysters is that Belgian oysters are grown in shallow water (about 1.50 m). The water at this depth is very rich in phytoplankton. This produces a meaty, thick oyster. Because we work in a sealed seawater basin, there is no chance of pollution and this oyster has a soft, salty flavour.

Another question: are there good oyster years and bad oyster years?

For oyster farmers some years are better than others, primarily because of the mortality rate that is directly affected by the changing nature conditions. During some years they grow or ‘survive’ better, meaning you have a bigger harvest. Depending on the content of phytoplankton in the water, the size of the oysters might change from one year to the next.


Do you use different oysters for raw consumption and for hot preparations?

Both hollow and flat oysters can be eaten raw, preferably without adding lemon, pepper or vinaigrette. If you want to cook an oyster, it’s best to choose a hollow oyster, preferably one that is a bit larger so that there is enough space for the extra ingredients and the filling doesn’t spill over. It’s a waste to use flat oysters for hot preparations, but it is of course possible.

How do you judge the quality of delivered oysters?

An oyster should smell like the sea – salty and pure. The oyster meat should also look nice and translucent. If you notice when opening that it doesn’t smell fresh, doesn’t look translucent or the shell doesn’t have a beautiful mother-of-pearl colour, you can throw it away.

Advice for storing: oysters are best stored in the refrigerator at max. 3 to 4 degrees.

What do you serve with oysters: traditional champagne or are there better pairings?

Depending on the variety of oysters on your menu, there are various options you can try. We usually recommend combining Belgian oysters with a dry sherry to really bring out the flavours.

 

Want to be creative with your oysters? Then this combination with bergamot lemon is definitely worth a try.

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