"I thought you and your readers may enjoy adding how to shuck an oyster — and pair it — to your repertoire of gastronomic life skills," the email in my inbox read.
I'm not sure how someone knew I was a virgin oyster shucker, but I was. Always up for learning something new, I gave the go-ahead for fresh oysters and a bottle of Chablis to be sent to my home. The wine showed up first, along with a cut-resistant glove — which I would later discover is very important — and a special knife to make the job of opening the stubborn oysters a little easier.
A few days later, the oysters arrived. That evening, I took the shellfish and wine to a pool party. When it came time to open the oysters, my friends looked to me to see if I'd be up to the task. I saw some doubt, which made me extra determined to get this right. (It also made me realize that perhaps I should first watch the video I'd been sent about how to open an oyster, so I did.) I took a few sips of the Chablis and got to work.
It's a good thing I watched that video. Opening an oyster is work, but once you get the hang of it, there's a great sense of accomplishment that you've learned this gastronomic life skill.
Tips for first-time oyster shuckers
Based on my experience, I advise not going into your first oyster shucking experience unprepared. You may think that if you've watched the shucker at an oyster bar open them up, you know what to do. The shucker makes it look easy, but remember, he's very practiced.
1. Research first. Read some instructions or watch a video like the one below. Or both.
I like this video because it's thorough and emphasizes the importance of wearing the cut-resistant gloves. However, I didn't find getting into the end of the oyster as easy as this video made it look.
2. Have the right tools. An oyster knife is specially designed to get into an oyster shell and open it up. A regular knife is not and could be more dangerous. Even with the correct knife, there's still a danger of it slipping while you're applying pressure. When it slips, you'll want a cut-resistant glove or that knife will go right into your palm.
3. Be prepared for a mess. Not only is there an oyster inside that shell, there's also salty seawater. The trick is to keep most of the liquid in the shell along with the oyster, but some of it will spill out. Place an old towel under your workspace to soak up the liquid, just in case.
4. Hold the bowl of the mussel in your palm. The rounded part of the mussel needs to be in your palm and the flat part should be on top. That way the oyster stays in the round part (it acts like a little cup) with its liquid.
5. Start at the narrow end and use your muscles. On most oysters, there's a rounded end and a more narrow end. Start at the narrow end and work the oyster knife into the shell to separate the two parts of the shell. It can take some muscle to get in there. The first thing I did, once I got the hang of it, was to place the tip of the knife on that spot and push as hard as I could. Then, if the shell didn't give, I would move my wrist left to right, wriggling the knife into the shell while continuing to apply as much pressure I could. As I did this the knife would sometimes slip, and I was grateful for my protective glove.
(Note: There are oyster knives that have a pick-like end of the blade that may get into the shell more quickly, but I'm wondering if those knives are more dangerous? Seems like that end could easily pierce through a protective glove.)
6. Slide the knife along the inside of the flat side of the shell. Once you get the knife into the end of the shell, sliding it all around the edge to separate the two halves is easy. Make sure your blade is touching the top of the flat side of the shell so you separate the flesh of the oyster.
7. Pop the top off. And congratulate yourself for your accomplishment the first time you do it.
8. Run the blade along the bowl of the bottom half. This will dislodge the oyster to make it easy to slurp up when eating it.
9. Put on ice. If you're not going to immediately consume your open oysters, put them on ice to keep them cold. (We consumed the ones I shucked immediately, so we didn't need the ice.)
10. Choose a wine to pair with it. Chablis is a great choice, so is a dry sparkling wine. (If you'd like to pair your raw oysters with beer, you can't go wrong with an oyster stout or a dry Irish stout, like Guinness.)
Oysters and Chablis
I was sent Kumamoto oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farms. These oysters were farmed in Washington state and are small, plump and very briny. Taylor's oysters are considered "best choices" according to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch.
The wine sent was William Fèvre Chablis Champs Royaux, a 100 percent chardonnay wine from the Chablis region of France. According to Rowan Jacobsen, author of the recently released "The Essential Oyster," the soils of Chablis are "pock marked with fossilized seashells, long ago sealing the fate of the perfect marriage of Chablis and oysters."
The minerals from the seashells in the soil make their way through the roots of the vines and into the fruit, eventually coming out subtly in the wine. Jacobsen notes that the entry-level Fèvre Chablis Champs Royaux is sourced from "all over the Chablis region and will the most friendly to all types of oysters."
William Fèvre organically farms all of its vineyards, although it is not certified, which isn't uncommon at many long-established European wineries. I understand this. Why jump through the bureaucratic hoops plus spend money for certification when you've been doing things the right way all along? The winery as a whole does hold the "High Environmental Value" certification, the highest level that can be earned in the French sustainability program.
What did I think of the pairing? Watch and find out.
It is, indeed, a great pairing. My friend in the video is Dana, whose home I raved about when I wrote about scruffy hospitality. We're in her very welcoming kitchen, and as you can see from the makeshift wine bucket in the photo above, it's more important to be together than to be perfect — even when you're eating freshly shucked oysters and drinking French wine.