Paul Howard Articles, Blog, Food

Oyster & Champagne

The world’s your Oyster

In Victorian times, Oysters were food for the poor. They were harvested in abundance from around British shores and were cheap. Oysters are a good source of protein, especially valuable when meat is an expensive treat. The situation is very different nowadays—oysters are a costly delicacy, thanks to overfishing and marine pollution. Sadly, many people have yet to experience the delight of a simple platter of fresh Oysters.

Like so many foods, they are an acquired taste. Even the thought of eating them raw remains deeply repellent to some, though if you enjoy other seafood, you should have little difficulty getting to grips with them. While Jonathan Swift once remarked that “he was a bold man that first ate an oyster”, their slithery beauty has a unique taste most definitely worth acquiring! Many discover a lifelong enthusiasm for the mollusc and will choose Oysters in preference to any other item on a restaurant menu. I include myself in that category.

Oyster Season

Oysters are at their best and most plentiful during the traditional British season from September to April. The adage was that Oysters should never be eaten during months not containing the letter “R”. This is partly because these warmer months are when the Oysters breed, but they also taste better when the sea is colder. Years ago, there would also have been a higher risk of spoilage in the warmer months. These days, Oysters are available all year thanks to refrigeration and imports.

In Ireland, Galway and Carlingford have their famous Oyster festivals, where oysters are swilled down with a pint or three of Guinness. Smaller festivals can also be found around British shores. The smallest Oysters are tastier and best eaten fresh; the larger ones are better cooked.

Oysters are also good for you. They are also rich in protein and low in fat and calories. They contain significant amounts of zinc, calcium, iron, iodine, copper, magnesium and selenium. Legendary properties are also attributed: some believe that they are the Viagra of the sea. Whether they are an aphrodisiac is moot, but you might have fun finding out. As an aside, Oysters can change gender several times during their lives! Those with allergies to shellfish or the immune-suppressed should avoid them. Oysters are a no-no during pregnancy.

Size, shape and flavour

The size, shape and flavour vary considerably according to their origin and species.

There are two main species available in Britain. The smaller, flatter, brownish Native or European Oyster takes five or more years to grow slowly to an edible size. These are pricier but also taste superior to the Rock or Pacific Oyster. Rocks have a fluted and pointed shell, a grey-blue colour, and a milder taste. Because they grow much more quickly, they are more plentiful and cheaper.

There are other species, too. In New Zealand, the Kiwa (or Bluff Oyster) is a close relative of the European Oyster. While the Atlantic Oyster (or Bluepoint) rules the Eastern seaboard of the USA, the Kumamoto Oyster is common on the West Coast.

Provenance is also a major influence on the flavour. Edible Oysters are creatures that inhabit estuaries and shallow coastal shelves and filter their food from seawater, which itself varies in salinity, nutrients, and temperature. In addition to the difference in intensity of flavour between the species, oysters take on the taste of the local sea conditions where they live—truly, there is terroir in Oysters!


The best Oysters from British waters are said to be from Colchester (Essex), Whitstable (Kent) and Helford (Cornwall). However, other good sources are available in small quantities, including Welsh Oysters from Pembrokeshire and Scottish Oysters from Loch Fyne and Cumbrae. At Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant in Cornwall, you’ll find oysters from Padstow and Fowey on the menu and tasty examples from Lindisfarne and Dorset. Don’t look for pearls – they are found only in inedible deep-water species.

Merchants such as Wright Brothers in London also offer a varied range. A good restaurant, fishmonger, or market will often have several types on offer—select a few of each and taste the differences between them. All should smell of nothing but fresh, salty sea air. Some taste almost sweet and creamy, others have briny mineral flavours, while some can be nutty. The texture is soft and fleshy but fresh and crisp. Never swallow an Oyster whole; chewing brings out the taste!

Serving suggestions

Whether you choose Rocks or Natives, the classic way to serve them is au naturel – served on ice in their half shell. Allow six per person as a starter or twelve for a main course. Then, a squeeze of lemon with rye bread is the only requirement for a feast. However, adding more robust flavours can spice things up nicely, too. Try a few drops of Tabasco or fresh Horseradish. The French classic is Mignonette, where finely chopped shallots are macerated for half an hour or so in red wine vinegar. Some swear by Oriental sauces containing soy and fresh ginger. I also like them with Samphire.

If, like Woody Allen,  you prefer your Oysters dead, there are splendid recipes, from Oysters Rockefeller to Beef and Oyster pie. My favourite is a Welsh recipe: melt Caerphilly cheese over a grilled oyster, served in the shell with Lava bread.


Like any seafood, raw oysters are safe to eat for most people. However, follow these simple tips and be scrupulous about their provenance and freshness.


Oysters should be stored at a low temperature and smell briny-fresh. Their shells should be clean, tightly closed and unbroken. A good fishmonger or quality fish market is your best bet unless you live near the coast and can buy them straight off the boat. Personally speaking, I still have reservations about the ultimate freshness of Supermarket Oysters. Ideally, buy them on the day of consumption.


Unopened Oysters are still alive. You can keep them in the fridge, covered with a damp towel, for a couple of days. Keep checking them and discard any that open, as those will have died. Don’t store them in an airtight container or freshwater; this will kill them. They can be frozen, though those are best cooked.


Ten minutes before opening, bury the Oysters in ice in the freezer to make shucking them easier. Fresh Oysters must be alive just beforehand. A live Oyster will have a tightly closed shell. Tap any open Oysters—a live Oyster will close up and be safe to eat. Oysters that are open and do not close are dead, so discard those!

Take the Oyster and scrub it under cold running water. Hold it so that the curved bottom shell is downward, with the flatter lid facing up. Wear gloves to avoid painful scrapes from the razor-sharp shells. Failing that, use an old towel wrapped around the Oyster.

Use a knife or a screwdriver with a short, thick blade. Insert it into the seam between the two halves of the shell as close to the hinge as possible, then push it hard downwards. Once the knife is well inside, twist it through 90 degrees to break the muscle that holds the shell shut. Then, work the knife along the opening until the top shell can be twisted off. Keep the bottom shell level during this process so no liquor spills out. Pick out any shards of shell. Discard any Oysters that are dry or smell.

Practice makes perfect! Enthusiasts will find investing in a specialist oyster Mitt and knife worthwhile to avoid Shucking Hell.

What to drink?

Beers such as Guinness, Porter, or IPA are excellent with oysters, especially if you are a Tabasco lover. But dry white wines are the perfect foil.

Oysters are a species that have been around for millions of years, and their fossilised shells are frequently a significant component of Limestone and Chalk rocks. It is uncanny that bone-dry white wines grown on this type of geology seem to have a particular affinity with Oysters. Try the following wines with oysters and be amazed:

  • Champagne – a personal favourite is Lanson, but any Brut NV should be good. Look out for “no dosage” or “Brut Zero” styles. Other dry sparkling wines can be excellent as well, including English sparkling;
  • Chablis – this classic cool-climate Chardonnay makes a perfect match, especially an unoaked steely Chablis Premier Cru;
  • Sancerre, Pouilly-Fumé, Reuilly, Quincy and Menetou-Salon. The restrained style of Loire Sauvignon Blanc makes a perfect match for Natives.

Also, Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie has no underlying chalk or limestone geology, yet those Loire wines have a leesy salinity that accentuates the Oysters’ minerality. In Spain, Godello and Albariño are whites that match well, though Fino or Manzanilla Sherry is a vastly underrated and tangy match when served ice-cold. In the world of spirits, Gin, Tequila, Absinthe and Sake have their followings.

Famous Last Words

I’ll leave the last words to Ernest Hemingway. “I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture. And as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”


How about Pie and Mash and Jellied eels, then?


Originally published in August 2016, this article was revised and updated in March 2024.

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