What fun we had last night at Starfish, the five of us lads – Sean and Rasoul (our good friends from British Columbia), we others from Toronto, showing what this city can do by way of an oyster presentation. I don’t believe anyone in North America can match Patrick McMurray for the breadth of his offering – oysters from B.C., the Maritimes, the U.S., England, Scotland, Ireland and sometimes France – the distinctions and differences between them a fascinating, humbling education. Patrick’s latest toy is an iPad upon which, at the stroke of a nimble fingertip, he can summon a map of Galway or Essex or Clydeside or Prince Edward Island and Google down until you can see the actual oyster bed. He points out the source of the fresh water rinsing the estuary, the salt tidal pools, the thatched cottage on the shore where he watched the oystermen work and enjoyed a pint. Patrick is taking the hi-tech bivalve thing to the next level, developing an app for oyster lovers, but he still relies on his knife for real work. The other day in Beijing, he broke his own Guinness Book of World Records record for fastest oyster opening, shucking 38 in a minute. It usually takes me a full minute of cursing and nicking to open one.
You will see from the photograph that we ate our fill last night. At four o’clock are the P.E.I. malpeques with which we began – sweet, rich, creamy, innocent as children. Above them are the critters from New Brunswick – even sweeter but with a hint of a tang. At high noon in the picture are the Irish darlings from Clarinbridge Bay. After the Canadian oysters the first taste of one of these was like falling out of a rowing boat into a cold, roughish sea. Big and meaty, plump and briney, they leave a bracing memory of salt and minerality in your mouth.
Beside them at 10 o’clock are the oysters from Galway Bay – the oysters used for the World Championship oyster shucking competition that P. McMurray won in 2002, as we all recall. These are oysters for men – even more filled with ocean than their Clarinbridge neighbours. I used to read that oysters and Guinness was a famous match and never understood it, popping malpeques with stout and always feeling the Guinness overwhelming the morsel of slippery life. These macho, brine-bitter Galway molluscs could give any beer a bashing. Well, almost any beer… We did come up with one brew… But I’ll save that for the end.
Two English oysters came next – one from Jersey in the Channel Islands that was all sea salt and ripe honeydew melon on the palate (so Sean said, and he was right). The other was from Mersey – not the Liverpudlian flood (no Gerry and The Pacemakers needed here) – but the little river near Colchester, home of south-eastern England’s most beloved oysters. These reminded us of the flavour of watermelon – the fruitiness at odds with the texture, so meaty, beaty, big and bouncy.
Patrick McMurray gets these rare jewels from an English dealer called Tristan Hugh-Jones (though perhaps with a name like that he should properly be described as Welsh) who carries the Canadian government seal of approval. He also promises to provide French oysters as the need arises. Meanwhile, last night, there was a final oysterly treat with half a dozen perfect ambassadors from Scotland’s Loch Ryan – no-nonsense shellfish with a tangy, dry, metallic finish like a Glasgow kiss to the palate. Sharing that upper tier of the presentation were marvels from Neptune’s pantry – Irish limpets as cold and crunchy as brown abalone, and New Brunswick scallops, the small ones, with rims and roes intact, sweet as sugarcane.
What did we drink? I am happy you asked. Of the several wines sipped, the star was La Baronne, a blend of Vermentino and Grenache Blanc from Montagne d’Alaric, with a typical Vermentino hit of lemon juice and lemon zest, filled out and mollified by the Grenache. Of the beers, I can only bow down before a brew provided by Rasoul – Rogue XS Old Crustacean barley wine from the Oregon Brewing Co. of Newport, Oregon. Unfiltered and unrefined, it was quite unlike the sickly-sweet, viscous, head-splitting barley wines of my misspent youth. The bottle boasted of 120 IBU (International Bitter Units), the result of an array of bittering hops and aromatic dry hopping, and it had the acidity to match it. There was also a message, “Best when aged for 1 year,” on the glass, alongside the information that this particular specimen had been bottled in 1999. The extra decade was not without effect. Sean, whose palate is excellent, came up with the most accurate comparison, likening it to the corrosive taste of rotting plums. Everyone loved it.