Oysters really split the crowd in two. Either you make gagging motions at the thought of them, or like me – you start the countdown to Bluff Oyster season about a month ahead of time. (Oyster fishermen are my Santa Claus). I was in the first camp until about four years ago. Couldn’t understand it. People pay a premium for something so….. gooey?
And then one day, like tenth grade chemistry…. It just CLICKED. Oysters were now amazing. And my bank account has never been the same.
My first NZ oyster experience started off pretty poorly. We were in the middle of an epic campervan trip at the bottom of the South Island. After hitting up the Catlins, we decided to head South down to Bluff – to try the World Famous in New Zealand Bluff oysters. My boyfriend promised me that it was a good starting point. They were small. Meaty, and full of flavour. Delicious. And so popular that New Zealand restaurants and shops sell out of them as quickly as they get them in.
I was excited. We were in Bluff. A town full of promise! And oysters! Unfortunately however, the town hadn’t got the memo. Apart from an abandoned hotel building with penises grafittied all over the outside, there didn’t seem to be much…. activity. Or. Oysters. We looked everywhere! We asked everyone! (Two people). Bluff did not seem to have Bluff oysters. And then finally, dejected and downcast, we found a lady in the know. Hallelujah! She nodded her head, pointed her finger and said “yep, if there are any, they’ll be at the Four Square on the corner.”
My romantic notion of Bluff oysters was coming to a screeching halt.
But on we went. Determined.
There isn’t really a seafood section at the Four Square. But we walked up and down every aisle. We couldn’t find the oysters. WHERE WERE THE BLOODY OYSTERS?! I started hyperventilating. And then. We saw this:
Now I’m not entirely sure what those unfortunate circumstances were, but I reckon there’s correlation between whoever branded the “art” on the side of the abandoned hotel and the person who created the need for this homemade sign. I’m just saying.
Anyway, we finally got our container of oysters. From the Coca Cola chiller. We drove to a nearby DOC campsite, set up for the night and ate our Bluff oysters with a squeeze of lemon while sitting around a roaring fire. I ate them slowly. Savouring every hard earned mouthful. And they were perfect. I was now converted. And obsessed.
I have, in the last four years made it my mission to eat as many oysters as I possibly can. The best two places for oysters in Auckland? Depot on Federal Street – the raw bar is the best. Mahurangi or Tio Point. And during the one of two Bluff oyster seasons at Euro, where at lunch you can get a dozen served on the half shell for a pretty decent $25. (They were only $15 two years ago though. I havent forgotten this Euro. Just saying). Hot oyster tip: Bring a friend who hates oysters with you for lunch, and make them order a second dozen. There’s a limit of one dozen per person. A small child counts. We’ve tried this.
I have two favorite oyster places from this past year of travelling. The first, is this cavernous area below Grand Central Station in New York. It’s just amazing. Appropriately named the Grand Central Oyster Bar , there is a more formal restaurant section as well as rows and rows of communal tables. But the best place to sit, is right up at the bar. Watching the guys pour the seafood bisque and bark orders at each other. This place does not mess around with oysters. In fact, the day we visited, they had about 50 oysters available on the menu board. Check out the insane full list here.
Oysters added and crossed off as the evening progressed. I feel like we ordered two of every kind. Served on ice with some odd tomato sauce on the side and packets of oyster crackers – this was my heaven.
The second was a side trip while in Brittany, France. We had a loose itinerary of where we wanted to end up next and remembered we were near a village famous for it’s oysters. We thought. We were certain we read about it somewhere. By some stroke of oyster luck, we were only about twenty minutes drive away from Cancale. Cancale is famous for it’s huîtres (ask me to say this, I can do it with a pretty convincing french accent). We drove into the pretty town centre, and found a park easily. But now was the challenging part. Where WERE the oysters. Did we get the town name wrong? Was this Bluff all over again? Ermagerd.
Common sense prevailed and we realised soon that there were actually two parts to Cancale. The little town on the clifftop, lovely but no oysters. And the seaside strip of restaurants, busy and LOTS of oysters. We walked down the steep hill and saw a vast area of oyster farms out in the sea at low tide, hundreds of tractors pulling in the days supply, working furiously to put oysters in the mouths of patrons at the zillion of restaurants on the harbour.
We walked by all the restaurants, each offering similar versions of seafood or oyster specials. We kept walking, wanting to get a closer look at the tractors pulling in the oyster shipments. And then we found the mother lode. Millions of empty oyster shells, piled up like a mini mountain with people sitting right in the stack, slurping up fresh oysters and throwing the shells onto the growing pile. Older ladies with their BYO champagne. Little kids collecting the prettiest of the left over shells. It was so awesome. It turns out you can pay to sit in a restaurant and eat oysters in Cancale. Or you can sit amongst the stacks of discarded oyster shells and eat them fresh from six little tents set up right on the beach, for a quarter of the cost. We opted for the second choice.
After choosing our tent (the lady was friendly and kind and pretended to understand our bastardised french), we paid ten Euros for two dozen size three oysters and an extra euro to have her shuck them for us. She then waved us to the corner of her stall and whispered “10 ans d’age… enormes”, lifting up a cloth, which was covering the most giant oysters I had ever seen in my entire life. She was right, they were enormous. The size of a child face. Like a small child. Like a baby’s face. Not entirely sure if it was legal to sell these giant oysters (hence the secrecy), we quietly nodded and added two to our pile. Balancing our plates, we made our way onto shell mountain and dug in, slurping and throwing shells with the locals. It was brilliant. The ten year old oysters were fabulous. Although definitely three biters, which made things a little messy. The rest were delicious. Fresh. Glorious. And we certainly had the restaurant with the best view.