Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 21, 2017
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Crack one open

Canada's top oyster shucker shares his picks for the country's tastiest bivalves

Visitors to Starfish — probably the best oyster and seafood restaurant in Toronto, or the The Ceili Cottage, its sister establishment — are well aware that the restaurant’s owner, Patrick McMurray, won the 2002 Galway World Oyster Opening Championship. He’s the only Canadian ever to win the title. And they know that he’s a five-time Ontario champion and a four-time Canadian winner.

What even regulars may not know — as Patrick is never too busy for a chat, though he typically has his head down shucking oysters with one of the custom-grip knives he has designed himself — is that he is the holder of the Guinness World Record for oyster shucking, having broken his own previous record and opened 38 in one minute, live on TV in Beijing, two years ago.

But McMurray, 43, has earned his reputation for fine dining on the basis of his palate, not his palette. His restaurants are places seafood lovers turn to for seasonal soft-shell crabs, British Columbia spot prawns, delectable grilled sardines and other sustainable seafood — as well, of course, for a delightful variety of the world’s best oysters. (And should you have to wait for more than a minute for a dozen or two, the wine list is also very good.)

There is no greater authority than McMurray, also the author of Consider the Oyster: A Shucker’s Field Guide, a primer to everything the educated shucker should know. So I asked McMurray for his own recommendation of the best Canadian oysters.

These oysters can be found on the right day at his and other fine seafood restaurants in Canada or at their sources, providing a marvellous excuse for an original — and tasty — itinerary across the country. Here McMurray's list, from east to west.

Aspy Bay

Cape Breton Island, NS
“From the sweet-brackish waters at the northern tip of Cape Breton, Aspy oysters are hand-harvested by Alex Dunphy in scuba gear. Mild in flavour and light in texture, the Aspy is wonderfully clean tasting and the easiest to shuck — a veritable dream oyster.” Travellers can feast on the Aspy at the nearby campground the Dunphys also own.

Colville Bay

Souris, PEI
The Colville Bay oyster, already a Canadian classic, is, says McMurray, “a full, plump, meaty oyster that is crisp and salty sweet — darn near perfect.”

Raspberry Point Oysters

Raspberry Point, PEI
“Harvesting this delicate oyster in the dead of winter concentrates its briny goodness,” says McMurray. “Raised up through two feet of ice, the deep cold makes for a wonderful crisp finish.”

Green Gables

New London Bay, PEI
The Green Gables Mussels company started out as a lobster and groundfish company and turned to mussels and then oysters looking for a sustainable way out of the decline of the industrial fishery —a revolution in attitude that has also been a major contributor to Prince Edward Island tourism, what with the international reputation of chefs such as Greg Aitken. The Green Gables Malpeque oyster is, says McMurray, “a perfect balance of salt and sweet, grown on a secret spot with four spring-water wells bubbling into the bay to sweeten the finish.”

BeauSoleil

Neguac, NB
The BeauSoleil oyster is named after Joseph Broussard, nicknamed BeauSoleil, who, as one of the heroes of the resistance to the Acadian deportation, took refuge in Neguac. In 1759, he captured 17 British ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The oyster that bears its name is, says McMurray, “salty with a sweet and faintly earthy finish; aquacultured to a perfectly graded shape and very consistent. Typically, I expect a loss of five to 10 percent of the oysters in an average box of oysters; but more than 99 percent of BeauSoleil oysters are great and taste fantastic.” The choice Portage Island oyster, wild-harvested by the same house and therefore not so easy to procure, “has a short season but shows quite plump with a deep green hue on the shell that suggests a more earthy vegetal finish after its sweet salty start.”

Locker Lake Flats

Alma, NB
Says McMurray, “This inland saltwater lake holds Canada’s only European species of oyster, with a long story behind it, but a very short season. Stupendously big and complex, it has a salty start with a tart-dry finish. As few folks know about this oyster, they come up with a fairly large size and are great on the half-shell, but wonderful grilled as well. With a very big flavour, they are not for everyone. But if you like the Belon Euro-flat, you’ll like this one.”

Grand Entrée

Magdalen Islands, QC
Something of a holy grail, McMurray says that “this is a historic oyster that has not been seen in 14 years, but I do believe it is there. It is fantastically plump, crisp and sweet — almost like sugar with a distinct snap of ocean at the front. It is an excellent shell to shuck, one that is hard and provides a great house for the flesh to a full, button-tufted plumpness. Rare on the east coast, it is most memorably a favourite.”

Kusshi Oysters

Baynes Sound, BC
This rack-grown and tumbled oyster, its Japanese name meaning “precious,” resembles the more famous Kumamoto. The small Pacific oyster is, says McMurray, “tumbled every couple of weeks to grade out the sizes and smooth out the shells, creating a deep-cupped little morsel of the sea.”

Marina’s Top Drawers Oysters

Desolation Sound, BC
“These rack-grown oysters from The Out Landish Shellfish Guild come up with a frilly shell second to none. They are always plump, sweet, with a mild salt and a steely clean finish.”

Royal Courtesan Oysters

Cortes Island, BC
These big, deep and beautifully named oysters are grown on the beach—and hand-harvested by The Oyster Man, Brent Petkau, who is, says McMurray, “the most passionate and quirky oyster grower I’ve met yet. (All the good ones are usually off their nut a bit.) The Royal Courtesan is an excellent representation of a beach-cultivated oyster. It is salty up front with a sweet cream, cucumber and seaweed earthy finish.”

Courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission. The text has been modified from the original.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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