Oysters are grown and celebrated all over the world! As I travel, I love trying them wherever I am. But where in the world are the best? Are they found in the harbor estuaries of Cape Cod Bay, the cold waters off the New Zealand coast, the bay around Hiroshima, Japan or a Scottish inlet that has been farming oysters since the 1700s? Or, could they be from an aquaculture farm in Rhode Island that was started on a one acre parcel in the local saltwater pond just 16 years ago
From the legend of the Goddess, Venus, emerging from the sea in an oyster shell to the tale of Casanova, the 18th century playboy, supposedly eating 50 of them for breakfast every morning, oysters have had a romantic allure.
Oysters, however, go back much further. Fossilized oysters have been found from the Jurassic and Paleozoic eras—more than 250 million years ago. The fossilized remains have been found all over the world, including in the mountains of Peru. So, it is not a huge surprise that archeologists have discovered that humans have been eating oysters since the beginning of civilization. The have found oyster shells in kitchen “middens” (ancient sites of buried domestic refuse) all over the world.
The Roman Empire had oyster farms in France and England. In fact, the first oyster farmer, a Roman named Sergius Orata, lived around 95 BC. He was a hydraulic engineer who created a way to control the tides for the oysters.
Oysters have been featured in art and literature, including Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, the Dutch Masters’ still life paintings, Botticelli’s famous “The Birth of Venus” (in which Venus is actually standing on a scallop shell—this fun fact may help you win a trivia contest some day) and paintings by John Singer Sargent.
As for their prevalence in the U.S., there are many who suggest that New York City should have been called “The Big Oyster” rather than “The Big Apple.” In The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell by Mark Kurlansky, the history of New York City and the oyster industry is explained in fascinating detail. In the 19th century, the oyster beds in New York produced 700 million oysters per year. Every day, boats left the port with 6 million oysters, bringing them to England, France and Germany. They were also sent throughout the United States. Unfortunately, however, in order to keep up with the ever growing demand, a species of oyster from Europe was introduced to the NY beds and brought disease which wiped out the population.
Oysters are Super Cool Creatures
Oysters are incredibly adaptive—they can change gender and fertilize themselves if needed. They are a great source of protein and calcium. And some varieties (not the ones we eat) produce pearls.
And as the climate continues to change, they are an incredibly eco-friendly crop. Oysters improve the health of the waterways near them by filtering 50 gallons of water a day.
Despite all these good things, however, oysters may not have that “wow, I can’t wait to try that” curb appeal. It was Jonathan Swift, the 17th century poet and cleric who declared: “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster” and when you look at them, you can understand what he was talking about.
But, you best get over their looks, because food critics and luxury magazines make lists of “where to find the best oysters.” They plan trips worldwide to visit famous restaurants and Oyster Festivals. Which of these places would you like to go?
World’s Best Oysters
The author of Consider the Oyster: A Shucker’s Fieldguide and owner of Céilí Cottage in Toronto, Patrick McMurray is the Guinness World Record holder for the most oysters shucked in one hour. It was 1,114! That’s more than 18 a minute, or one every 3 seconds! Wow! His five favorite oysters are:
- The Olympia and Kumamoto oysters found in Seattle, Washington
- The Glidden Point oyster found in Portland, Maine
- The Lighthouse oyster found in Singapore
- The Malpeque oyster found in Prince Edward Island, Canada
- The Galway and Clarenbridge Bay oysters found at Moran’s Restaurant and the Galway Oyster Festival
It is also no surprise, that this list would be disputed by chefs and food critics around the world. That may be because “local flavors” rule when it comes to determining preferences. In fact, the oysters that we all eat worldwide are actually the same species, the Pacific Oyster. They only vary because they take on the characteristics of the water in which they live. So, Eleanor Clark, in her Pulitzer Prize winning book The Oysters of Locmariaquer was right when she said: “You are eating the sea, that’s it.” And you probably prefer the taste of the sea you are used to.
Oyster Festivals—The 12 Best in the World
Having only experienced one Oyster Festival in Norwalk, Connecticut, I can only imagine what other ones must be like. There are Oyster Festivals held throughout the world; some more famous than others. These are the ones that are either famous, historical or in a place I would like to visit!
Narooma: featuring the Sydney Rock Oysters. The festival is two days long and features fireworks, live music, cooking demonstrations, celebrity chefs and a shucking contest.
- New Zealand
Bluff: featuring Bluff Oysters grown in the cold waters of the Foreaux Strait. The May (winter) festival, the motto of which is “Unsophisticated and proud of it”, sells out far in advance.
Miyajima: featuring the Okonomiyaki Oyster. The festival, held in February, is small but features Hiroshima’s famous oysters and Taiko drumming.
- South Africa
Knysna: featuring Saldanha Bay Oysters. This ten day event held in July attracts more than 65,000 visitors. There is live music, oyster shucking contests but also five big athletic events including a 80 km cycling race, running and trail races and a kayaking event.
Riec-sur-Belon in Brittany: featuring the Arcachon Bay Oyster. Held in July, the festival is hard to find information about. So, instead of heading to the festival, put Brittany on your list of places to see and while you’re there, eat the oysters. They are some of the best I’ve ever had—especially accompanied by local Muscadet wine.
Ston: featuring Ston Oysters and Peljesac wines. This Festival in March features traditional Dalmatian music, folklore, performances and raffles. I was lucky enough to try these delicious oysters recently and they are worthy of a festival.
Stranraer: featuring Loch Ryan Oysters. This September Festival which has only been around for two years features oysters that have an impressive history. Julius Caesar once stated that the Loch Ryan Oysters were “the best in the world.” Then, in 1701, King William III granted a Royal Charter of the oyster bed to the Wallace family. It has been in the family ever since!
Colchester: featuring a Medieval Fayre. Since the Festival began in the 1800s, this is more of an event for enjoying England’s 15th and 16th century lifestyle than an Oyster Festival, but with Falconry, Armed Combat, Archery, Puppets and fun outfits, this is a festival that could be a lot of fun.
Whitstable: featuring the Whitstable Rock Oysters. Held in July along the coast of England. From the Landing of the Oysters which are received by the Lord Mayor of Canterbury and blessed by the clergy, to the Oyster Parade, this Whitestable Festival is full of history. A unique event, the building of “Grotters” (a dome made of oyster shells) on the beach and the lighting of them is something that I would love to see.
Tyne Valley in Prince Edward Island: featuring Malpeque Oysters. In July, Prince Edward Island hosts this five day event featuring the Canadian Oyster Shucking Championships as well as strongman contests, step dancing, fiddling and singing competitions.
- United States
Wellfleet, Massachusetts: featuring Wellfleet Oysters. There are so many Oyster Festivals in the U.S., and probably, the New Orleans Festival is the most famous. (A trip to New Orleans should be on everyone’s list–but that’s for another post.) However, I spent my summers on Cape Cod as a kid, so the Wellfleet Festival is my favorite—and the oysters are exceptional. The two day festival in October features a street fair, local food and cooking demonstrations.
Galway: featuring Galway and Clarenbridge Bay Oysters. If you are only going to go to one Oyster Festival in your lifetime, I would suggest the Galway Oyster and Seafood Festival held over four days every September. Running since 1954 it combines live music, cooking demonstrations, a Mardi Gras Masquerade Dinner and the “Olympics” of Oyster Shucking—the World Oyster Opening Championship. This is the one that I have put on my bucket list!
And while you are in the area, be sure to save time to eat at Moran’s Oyster Cottage on an inlet of Galway Bay.
Moran’s is located down a small, windy road not far from the main road that runs south of Galway on the way to the Cliff of Moher. Unless you are looking for it, you could drive by this small road and never know that you are so close to culinary nirvana.
Moran’s has had its share of famous customers, from Kings to Hollywood “royalty.” The pictures adorning the walls of this quaint Irish cottage restaurant are a historical “Who’s Who” of international stars. But it is the oysters that are the true stars of this place.
Aquaculture—the future of Oyster Farming?
The world’s climate is changing much more quickly than it should. The biggest issue with these dramatic and rapid changes will be both living space and food sourcing. I recently heard of an incredible oyster farmer who lives not far from me. His name is Perry Raso and he owns and operates the Matunuck Oyster Farm in South Kingstown, Rhode Island.
In 2002, he was awarded a one acre parcel to create an oyster farm. He now has 7 acres and is overseeing roughly 17 million oysters in that area. The Matunuck Oyster Bar serves fresh oysters, quahogs and now, scallops, that are raised on the farm. The restaurant has been recognized as one of the Top 10 Oyster Bars in the World. I am so fascinated by this incredible achievement and I highly recommend watching the TED Talk that Perry gave in Providence to discuss the importance of aquaculture.
Oyster Books and Recipes
There are a surprising number of books on Oysters, but here are just a few that I would recommend reading.
- The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell by Mark Kurlansky. The author of Cod and Salt tells the story of New York City by following the history of how oysters impacted its history. Fascinating history told as a story.
- The Oysters of Locmariquer by Eleanor Clark. The wife of Robert Penn Warren won the National Book Award for her portrayal of the lives of the oyster farmers in Brittany. It is a slow read, but the prose and history are fascinating.
- Oyster: A Gastronomic History by Drew Smith shows how food has shaped our history, literature, art, culture and cuisine.
Oysters have been one of my favorite foods since I can remember. I will add notes to this article as I try more of the oysters I’ve highlighted. And, to answer the question at the beginning of the article, maybe the best oysters are the ones found closest to home. So, there’s a chance that I’ve already had the world’s best oysters, but won’t know it until I try as many others as possible. I’m willing to give it a go, though!
Thank you for reading this article. Please email me if you have any specific questions about any of the information provided.