I come from hardy rural Afrikaner Boere stock where most of the older folk who dared to do so say they only ever tasted an oyster twice: once on the way down, and once on the way up again. As an off-shoot rebel, I fell in love with these bivalves while I was still sucking a bottle from one hand and shucking a Belon oyster with the other.
Modern eating fashions have created a current generation more agreeable to the thought of swallowing a live, slimy sea creature. Subsequently South Africa is awash with oyster suppliers who offer shells from, inter alia, Namibia, the Cape West Coast and Algoa Bay. Although nothing beats those yellow-green wild Cape oysters from Infanta way.
Quality was debatable a few years ago, but commercially-grown oysters have never reached the superb standards currently available to locals. If the chain from supplier to market is respected by all parties concerned, including a few persons who know the difference between a live oyster and a prawn nigiri, oyster lovers are in for a treat.
These days my oyster-craving sends me to the DeWarenmarkt in Stellenbosch where a Champagne and Oyster Bar has just been installed in conjunction with the Cap Classique folk from Simonsig. The shells – including mussels – are supplied by the Mussel Monger from Saldanha Bay, and those doubting that an oyster is a thing of great beauty, just has to check out these critters.
The oysters are the Pacific species Crassostrea gigas known for their ability to grow into a healthy edible size in 18 months whilst maintaining firm flesh and a sweet marine flavor. At the DeWarenmarkt they are kept live in salt water tanks and are available in two sizes: large and then very large, the latter size comfortably filling the palm of a Number Five rugby-forward on a Koshuis team.
The large are just fine, and after ordering they are deftly shucked in front of the eyes before the plate is placed before you.
You can easily judge the quality of an oyster by looking at it. The inner bulb has to have a slight protrusion, while the thinner fleshed outer lining should be thick enough so not as to see the shell on which it lies. Colour is pale grey with flecks of blue-green, and when the drop of lemon juice hits the oyster, the flesh must visibly contract at the pain caused by the acidity.
Bringing it to the mouth, the air is filled with fresh sea weed, tidal pools and iodine. All set, thus.
I like to eat from the shell, and there has to be a decent amount of liquor to accompany the oyster. And I bite twice, once to kill the creature instantly and secondly to crush the labial glands which impart extra saltiness.
The Saldanha Pacifics have a tangy ocean taste on entering the palate which yields a creamy sweetness on the bite. The finish is long and smooth, leaving a length of slime on the end-game which is perfectly cleaned by the Kaapse Vonkel Brut.
Here I must disagree with Ernest Hemingway who said Sancerre and Sauvignon Blanc are the ideal partners to an oyster. The layers of fizziness in Cap Classique or Champagne work perfectly with the dank, maritime flavours of a good bivalve which elevates the experience of the sparkling wine to greater heights. For example, with the oyster a sip of Kaapse Vonkel Brut gains an added dimension of brioche and wild honey that is nothing short of criminally delicious.
For those not that into oysters, the Champagne and Oyster Bar offers bowls of steaming Saldanha mussels in white wine and cream sauce. Pluck the orange fresh from the black shells, mop-up the juices with the vetkoek the mussels are served with, and look for the guy ordering another portion of oysters.
That guy, he be me. Always.