Some 30 years ago oysters were so expensive in Palma that I never considered buying them —even as a Christmas starter. But nowadays their price is so reasonable I can put them on the menu as a weekend special — if I have someone special with whom I want to share them. The prices have remained steady over the years because there is a great deal of competition in the trade.
Watch out for the boxes of French oysters that appear every Christmas at El Corte Inglés. They are slightly more economical than those from Galicia and they sometimes come with an oyster knife as a little gift.
Some people are put off having oysters at home because they think you have to be an expert at opening them. Buy this little job, which is called shucking, is easy enough once you know how it’s done and have opened a few. First, put an old oven glove on your left hand (if you’re right-handed) or wrap it in an old towel or thick cloth.
Hold the oyster by its rounded underside with the hinge end facing you. Using an oyster knife, or any knife with a short strong blade and a blunt edge, and work the point half a inch into the joint. Twist the knife sideways to break the hinge. Do this slowly to avoid losing any of the oyster’s juices. Then slide the knife along the inner flat top to slice through the muscle that opens and closes the shell. You will then be able to lift off the top part of the shell.
Slip the knife under the oyster to loosen it from the lower shell. Serve them on the cupped lower shell in their own juice — or ‘au naturel’, as the French say. Open them just before serving and have them well chilled.
Most connoisseurs eat their oysters like that, with perhaps brown bread and butter. They don’t want to know about lemon juice, pepper or Tabasco. Nothing comes between the delectable sea taste of the oyster and their palate.
For me, that is the only way to eat oysters. But if anyone wants to make me grilled oysters Rockefeller in a rich herb and butter sauce, or deep-fried breadcrumbed oysters, I’d be delighted to try them.
And when I say ‘eat’, I mean just that. I do not subscribe to swallowing an oyster whole, as many connoisseurs recommend. I bite into the raw oyster two or three times to extract its sublime sea taste —and then I swallow it.
Champagne, cava and very dry sherries are best for drinking with oysters. You could also choose any dry Spanish white wine, but especially a verdejo from Rueda, a Galician albariño or a Basque txakoli —all of them served really cold.
It’s not just in Palma that the cost of oysters has come down — British prices have also dropped and sales have soared. In many homes up and down the country oysters have become a weekly treat instead of an annual one.
The British people’s appreciation of this raw mollusc shot up partly because of the profusion of oysters bars that have opened in recent years. Some London oyster bars sell over 1,000 a day. Restaurants have taken advantage of the oyster revival and now offer them as reasonably priced starters. More and more young people are treating themselves to oysters. Women are especially attracted to them because they are fat free and low in calories.
In Palma we had our own oyster phenomenon when two oysters bars opened inside the fish market of the Mercat d’Olivar some years ago.
As there was no oyster eating culture in Mallorca, I predicted that both bars would have a quick demise. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The first one did so well the owner almost immediately doubled its size. That wasn’t enough, and he also opened a place across the aisle where customers can sit at tables instead of standing at the bar.
The second oyster bar eventually closed after more than a year, but the oyster bar pioneer opened a raw and cooked seafood place that has been doing good business.
The abundance of oysters is not new. Maids and kitchen staff in Victorian England used to complain if oysters were on the menu more than a couple of times a week.
In Pickwick Papers, Dickens describes Sam Weller driving through London’s East End and observing how “poverty and oysters always seem to go together”.
One of the reasons steak and oyster puddings were so popular in those days was because oysters were much cheaper than beef and could be used as a protein filler everyone could afford.
Many men have now taken to eating oysters regularly because more than any other shellfish they have always had a reputation for being an aphrodisiac.
Casanova, one of history’s great lovers, used to down five dozen oysters before going out on a date — which was every night. He was totally convinced of their effect on his libido.
Are they an aphrodisiac? The short answer is that nothing is an aphrodisiac —unless you think it is.
Benito Roth, the Bulletin’s popular columnist in the early days, always recommended a couple of glasses of tequila as an aphrodisiac.
His wife Nuri was having difficulty conceiving and when she did eventually become pregnant Benito was able to work out that the happy and essential moment finally came the night he had two tequilas in the old Viking bar in Calle Apuntadores.
One can construct more of a scientific case for the effect oysters could have on a man’s sex life: they are the richest source of zinc, which is essential for healthy sex organs and reproduction.
If men don’t get enough zinc their sperm count could drop and that could make conception more difficult. A serious lack of zinc could even make a man infertile.
Most experts say that while the oysters’ zinc content won’t do a man’s love life any harm, don’t expect oysters to be a big deal that will produce fireworks in the bedroom.
Oysters obviously did something for Casanova at a psychological level, but they are definitely not nature’s viagra.
It’s better to take oysters for what they are, and to revel in their incredible tastes of the sea on at least one of the 12 days of Christmas.