Out of its shell

NATIVE Irish oysters (Ostrea edulis) are at their very best when there is an R in the month.

During the warm summer months, the flesh becomes soft and milky and though edible, the flavour and texture are undesirable. They are at their plumpest and most gorgeous right now and will still be delicious until the end of April.

Máirín Uí Chomáin, author of Irish Oyster Cuisine, has had a love affair with oysters for many years. Living within an ‘oars length’ of the sea in Co Galway, she’s well placed to forage for shellfish and seaweed along the coastline.

As a fledgling home economist, her first assignment was to teach young Aran Island fishermen how to cook well for themselves during their long voyages. She also lived in the US where she saw how different ethnic groups treasured their food culture and traditions. Like many Irish emigrants, living away gave her a more acute appreciation of the quality of Irish life and produce.

The native Irish oyster is prized by gourmands the world over. No other oyster, except perhaps the tiny Olympian oyster from the North Atlantic, has that fresh briny mineral-tang. Oysters are highly nutritious, low in calories, high in calcium, vitamins A and D, selenium and zinc. They have a well-deserved reputation as an aphrodisiac and for enhancing fertility. Máirín also tells me that because oysters produce serotonin they help to regulate sleep and fight infection.

Two types of oyster are now cultivated in Ireland. The Pacific or rock oyster, Crassotrea gigas, was introduced in the 1970s to provide for all-year round production and supplement the native Irish oyster production. Irish water temperatures are too cool for gigas to spawn but they can be very successfully cultivated in ponds, a system perfected by David Hugh-Jones of Rossmore oysters. Sadly, this enterprise has had to cease production because the water quality in Cork Harbour has deteriorated so badly. The gigas oysters are good eaten raw, but because they tend to be plumper than the native oyster, they are also perfect for cooking. The native Irish oyster is so special and precious that I feel its best eaten fresh with a glass of stout, dry white wine or champagne and some good Irish soda bread.

The native variety takes up to five years to mature (you can count the rings on the back of the shell like the bark of a tree) to harvestable size, while the Pacific oyster reaches that stage in 18 to 28 months.

In her charming book, Uí Chomáin gives us a variety of delicious cooked oyster recipes plus suggestions for using seaweeds such as carrageen, dulse, kombu - here are a few examples but there are lots more in her book which recently won the international Gourmand Award for the Best Seafood Book.

Irish Oyster Cuisine, by Máirín uí Chomáin, published by A&A Farmar; €14.99. www.farmarbooks.com

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