Food #10: Oysters
When I set about planning a week in London last year, oysters were as prominent a part of my plans as Michelin stars. I figured I’d get off the train at Euston, hop on over to St Pancras and the St Pancras Grand, crack open a bottle of champagne and tip a dozen bivalve molluscs down my throat.
It didn’t matter that I’d never had oysters before and might not like them, it just sounded like a good idea.
As plans changed and I realised it’d be a stretch to go to the St Pancras Grand on day one, I decided I’d get my first taste of oysters while on a trip to Borough Market instead. The Wright Brothers Oyster & Porter House was earmarked. It looked like a lot of fun.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find space in my schedule to go to Borough Market either. By the time I had time for some oyster chugging, it was the end of the week. Homesick, overeating and rich food sick, I decided to give it a miss. My first oyster experience would have to wait.
I eventually ticked this item off my Foods To Try Before You Die list a couple of months later – completely unplanned – at Manchester’s Smoak, a restaurant known more for its steak than its seafood. I’d spent most of the day at a whisky tasting and was pretty damn drunk by the time I arrived. Not really in the mood for oysters, my wife and I ordered just half a dozen between us. What followed next was, I felt, quite profound.*
The Cornish oysters arrived in a ridiculously oversized bucket, so full of ice I half-expected to see a polar bear roaming amongst it. Lemon quarters, shallot vinegar and a bottle of Tabasco were shoved in alongside.
I looked down at the oysters and they glared back at me – huge albino slugs, trodden into jagged shells, threatening to come alive at any moment. I was John Hurt, staring on the eggs of aliens, at risk of one bursting open and attaching itself to my face.
Oysters didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. I was dreading the first tip; steeling myself for something truly horrific. I’ve never hesitated with food before, but I had the same feeling with this that I have when someone places a shot of tequila in front of me.** It wasn’t going to taste nice; afterwards I might have to fight the urge to vomit.
My wife cracked one down her throat, and I decided I should stop being such a pussy and followed suit.
A salty tang of seawater filled my mouth and I gave the mollusc a couple of chews. The texture was as anticipated – a combination of raw gristle and jellied mucous. The flavour was that of brine.
Swallowing was unpleasant – like chugging down a big ball of snot – however, there were no feelings of nausea after; I simply felt incredibly underwhelmed.
“Seriously, that was it?!”
Some people love oysters, worship them, can’t get enough. I’d expected that if that wasn’t me, I’d have to be the antithesis – hate oysters, revile them, can’t get away quick enough. But I had no opinion either way. I just didn’t get it.
I tried another oyster with a squeeze of lemon and some shallot vinegar. This was better because it didn’t just taste of salty water, but it still felt like there was no point in me eating it. It was doing nothing for me at all.
The last oyster I had with a dash of Tabasco. The sauce jarred with the ocean taste and I wished I’d just stuck with the lemon instead. Again, I didn’t understand.
At Smoak that evening, for the first time in my life, I’d eaten something and been totally bewildered as to why anybody bothers to eat it. Just what is the appeal of this giant bogey that tastes like the sea? It’s not that it was revolting or anything like that. It was just banal.
I appreciate that these were probably far from the best oysters available. I can also see how you might be able to get some enjoyment from the way oysters are consumed. However, I cannot at all envisage how people take pleasure from the actual eating.
I don’t plan to try them again.
Verdict: I can’t possibly recommend oysters based on my experience, but maybe you could try them and tell me what I seem to be missing.
NEXT UP: Valrhona chocolate
*How profound I might have found any of this had I not spent all afternoon knocking back drams is up for debate.
**Tequila and I were once great friends. When I was 18 years old, we were as close as close could be. For seven months, we partied together relentlessly. Salt and lime were shunned – we wanted nothing to come between us. But after a while tequila began to turn on me. The taste of her started to make me feel sick, then the smell of her started to make me feel sick. Once the mere thought of her made me want to vomit, I decided we could no longer see each other. People I know who don’t understand our past will occasionally bring her along to parties. When this happens I just need to grit my teeth, choke back the chunder, and get on with it.
Posted on January 31, 2012, in Foods To Try Before You Die and tagged food, Foods To Try Before You Die, Manchester restaurants, oysters, Smoak, St Pancras Grand, Wright Brothers. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.