10 things you might not know about oysters

Oysters at French Saloon, Melbourne.
Oysters at French Saloon, Melbourne. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen

Oysters are ancient. Prehistoric. Positively primal. We now enjoy them at top-end restaurants, in the backyard on Christmas Day and by the river with our toes in the water, but spare a thought for our Neanderthal cousins. Before knives, before vinaigrette even, they had to make do smashing oysters over rocks and slurping grey bodies through whatever hole could be cracked, a mouthful of shell all part of the fun.

There's a primordial satisfaction to an eating oyster - the knowledge this cold, slimy, delicious thing tastes the same as it did to our ancestors millennia ago. Here's another 10 things to ponder next time you're getting your Sydney rocks off.

R U OK?

The adage you should only eat oysters in months containing the letter "R" has no relevance in Australia. It's an old American dictum concerning oysters farmed in US coastal waters that may have higher levels of naturally-occurring bacteria between May and August. It's not a problem for commercially farmed bivalves.

Sydney rock oysters at Peg Leg, Pyrmont.

Sydney rock oysters at Peg Leg, Pyrmont. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer

It's worth keeping in mind that an oyster's flavour will change throughout the year, though, dependent on its environment and spawning cycle. Any good kitchen or retailer will rotate oyster suppliers, so customers are always eating the best gear available. Australia has a lot of coastline and a lot of oyster options.

Roll out the red carpetbag

Carpetbag steak is not a mid-century Australian invention. As much as we would love to claim it as our own (pavlova, anyone?), the dish of beef fillet stuffed with oysters has its origins in 19th-century America. How and why it became popular in Australian restaurants at the time Barry Humphries was first donning a frock is uncertain.

Carpetbag steak at Charcoal Grill Restaurant, Canberra. Carpet bag steak.

Carpetbag steak at Charcoal Grill Restaurant, Canberra. Photo: Graham Tidy

What we do know, is that it's a winning combination of surf and turf - the oyster's ancient saltiness bolstering the beef's flavour and creating a perfect umami storm. If you're going to whip out that Blue Nun you've been cellaring and cook carpetbag steak at home, don't be tempted to use smoked oysters. Freshly shuck a few Sydney rocks and make sure to get their wonderful brine in the meat pocket, too. ("Meat pocket" is a terrible term, yes.)

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Middens are VERY old

Sitting together as a family and sharing oysters is an ancient Australian tradition and middens of oyster shells and other molluscs created by Australia's indigenous communities have been carbon dated to more than 8000 years old. Gosh knows what those seafood scraps would have smelled like the next morning, though - this was long before you could dump prawn heads in the neighbour's bin on Boxing Day.

If oysters be the food of love, play on

"The world is your oyster" makes no sense on the surface. It means "all the world is there for you to enjoy, get stuck in" but where does the phrase come from? Why not "the world is your guppy fish" or "the world is your Mrs Mac's traveller pie"? Like most weird idioms, the blame lies with Shakespeare.

Grilled oyster at Igni, Geelong

Grilled oyster at Igni, Geelong.  Photo: Josh Robenstone

In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Pistol the trash-talking thief proclaims, "the world's mine oyster, which I with sword will open". What Pistol is trying to say here, is that he's going to use stabby violence to obtain his riches (in reference to an oyster's pearl).

It makes a bit more sense in context. Actually trying to open an oyster with a sword would be very difficult, but a killer party trick if you could pull it off.

Shuckin' big Willie style

Speaking of Shakespeare, archaeologists have discovered oyster fragments at The Rose Playhouse on London's Southbank dating back to the 16th century. The fragments suggest oysters were a popular theatre snack in Shakespeare's time. Molluscs: the original Malteser.

Plankton to plate

When you're next eating oysters with a glass of fizz, consider how lucky those oysters are to be there - less than 0.1 per cent of oyster larvae will survive to become an adult and make it to your gob. Also consider how lucky you are to be eating oysters with champagne.

Rabbit vs Spider

There was a big upset at the New Orleans Oyster Festival in June when Adrian "The Rabbit" Morgan overtook Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas (aka "The Leader of the Four Horseman of the Esophagus") to become NOLA's number one oyster eating champion - a title The Black Widow had maintained for a decade.

Steamed oysters with sujuk, soured yoghurt and plankton.

Steamed oysters with sujuk, soured yoghurt and plankton at The Apo, Fortitude Valley. Photo: Supplied

To be declared winner, The Rabbit ate - get this - 44 dozen raw oysters in just over eight minutes. That's 528 oysters and it's all kinds of disgusting. And amazing. And disgusting. For a fun night in, YouTube "competitive oyster eating". Or don't. (Probably don't - it's a deep hole.)

Nature's Viagra

Are oysters an aphrodisiac? Yeah, no. That's most likely bollocks. A 2005 study suggested there was a link in the libido levels of rats and amino acids found in oysters, but to date there's no scientific evidence pointing to a similar response in humans.

Pearls before swine

The chances of finding a jewellery-quality pearl in a table oyster is extremely rare - almost non-existent. Most pearls are formed in oysters farmed specifically for the purpose and with human intervention. Although it does happen every now and again - like the bloke from Cornwall who discovered one after visiting the chippy to cure his hangover via oysters and a bacon sarnie. True story if you believe him.

Oyster legends on the shuck at Sydney Fish Markets.

Oyster legends on the shuck at Sydney Fish Market. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Domestic bliss

Australians bloody love eating Australian oysters. Only 3 per cent of domestically farmed oysters end up on the global market (with over 80 per cent of those exports sold to Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, according to Oysters Australia). The rest of the world is yet to discover how delicious our Sydney rocks and natives are. Perhaps it's best things stay that way. 

Five places to eat oysters in Melbourne

Entrecote

Make like The Real Housewives of Melbourne by staking a seat on the garden-facing terrace during happy hour (4pm-6pm daily) and ordering Mumm by the glass and half-price Coffin Bay oysters ($2 each) mignonette dressing.

131–133 Domain Road, South Yarra, 03 9804 5468, entrecote.com.au

France-Soir

Anyone who says nothing good happens after midnight hasn't rolled into France-Soir for oysters and a cheeky chablis. Thirty-year-old France-Soir has a wine list that runs 3000-deep and staff who pull the late shift so you can have oysters, steak frites and creme brulee.

11 Toorak Road, South Yarra, 03 9866 8569, france-soir.com.au

French Saloon

Plans are afoot to add an oyster bar to the long zinc counter at French Saloon, where the delivered-daily bivalves are served with lemon and Tabasco or shaved bottarga and horseradish. 

380–384 Little Bourke Street, Melbourne, 03 9600 2142, frenchsaloon.com

Philippe

Philippe Mouchel's oyster bar opens from 5pm Monday to Friday, serving three or four types of oyster – often sourced from small producers. Try them natural, with mignonette dressing (shallots and vinegar), or with watercress chantilly and seawater jelly.

Basement, 115–117 Collins Street, Melbourne, 03 8394 6625, philipperestaurant.com.au

Aptus Seafood

When you want an oyster and you want it now, head to Aptus Seafood, where $1 oysters are shucked while you watch. Help yourself to lemon juice, Tabasco,  tartare sauce or wasabi, or slurp them straight-up.

Stall 25, South Melbourne Market, 03 9699 7189

Top five oyster bars in Sydney

The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay

The snapper pie gets all the attention at this Glebe stalwart, but it's the oyster service that makes The Boathouse a must for any bi-valve fan. Expect 12 varieties available at any time, served with rye bread and butter as God intended.

123 Ferry Road Glebe, 02 9518 9011

Catalina

Catalina's Rose Bay view is one for the ages and the best way to enjoy it is via a seat on the balcony. Eat from the bar menu and order shucked-to-order Sydney rocks, served natural on ice with every drop of their delicious brine.

Lyne Park, Rose Bay, 02 9371 0555

The Morrison Bar and Oyster Room

Executive chef Sean Connolly is mad about molluscs and we're big fans of The Morrison's "oyster library" menu and the individual flavour descriptions of its half-shell heroes. There's also a beef cheek, barley and oyster pot pie that demands a pint of stout on the side.

225 George Street Sydney, 02 9247 6744

Bennelong

Eating Sydney rocks on Sydney harbour is the birthright of all Australians, so you might as well do it at sunset in the country's most breathtaking dining room. Pol Roger on ice mandatory.

Bennelong Point, Sydney, 02 9240 8000

Any park, anywhere

Pick up two-dozen unopened oysters (Matraville's CMB Seafoods is the go) and head to your favourite park with a good mate, a picnic rug and bottle of fresh pet-nat. Happy shucking times, ahoy!