Vv Magazine’s Vancouver editor Alexandra Gill considers the recent (and recently lifted) ban on B.C. oysters, and asks: should we have been eating them during the warmer months at all?
In early August, Vancouver Coastal Health and Vancouver Island Health issued a ban on raw B.C.-harvest oysters. Restaurants could serve them, but only if they cooked them. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency in B.C. followed up with a total recall for all oysters harvested in B.C. before Aug. 18.
The scare was prompted by a food poisoning breakout linked to vibrios, a naturally occurring bacterium that flourishes in warm water. Symptoms include diarrhea, cramps, vomiting and fever lasting up to a week.
This type of shellfish poisoning happens every summer in B.C., though this year was much worse. According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, there were 12 to 39 cases of Vibrio parahaemolyticus per year in the last decade; this year, there were reportedly 60 to 70 cases due to hotter-than-average weather.
On Sept. 17 – more than a month and thousands upon thousands of dollars in lost sales later – the ban was lifted. West Coast oysters have slowly begun flowing back into restaurants, although most are still trying to sell off their inventories of East Coast oysters.
The B.C. Shellfish Grower’s Association is still fuming. They complained that the ban was too broad and that not all B.C. oysters were contaminated. They say that oysters grown in deeper, colder waters were always safe to eat and that the health authorities were remiss in not reporting exactly where and from which producers the contaminated oysters had come from.
These are valid points. But it’s also true that B.C. oysters not grown in deeper, colder waters taste terrible in summer months and we probably shouldn’t be eating them in the first place. As a restaurant critic, I do not recommend West Coast oysters in the summer and rarely eat them from March to November.
Why? Because West Coast and East Coast oysters are different species from different oceans.
East Coast Crassostrea virginica is a wild, harsher species that has been conditioned by thousands of years of thrashing around in the titanic storms of the much colder Atlantic Ocean. This is why East Coast taste saltier and their shells are harder and tougher, making them a favourite for competitive shuckers.
West Coast Crassostrea gigas are not native to British Columbia. They are cultivated from Japanese seeds. They’re smaller, sweeter, more delicate and nuanced because they pick up characteristics of kelp, phytoplankton and glacial snowmelt from the gentle flowing, island-sheltered waterways in which they filter and feed. In the winter, they’re divine and so much fun to eat because every microclimate tastes slightly different. In the summer, uh, not so much.
Pacific growers take many precautions to make their oysters edible in the warmer summer months. They use sterile hybrids to prevent spawning and clogging up with milky foam, or plunge the seeds into deep, dark waters at the end 100-foot-long lines, which shocks them into frigidity.
But after years of tasting, I have concluded (and have previously written): “that it does not matter how deep the seeds are cultivated or what kind of non-spawning hybrids are used. If ocean currents aren’t icy cold, the flesh just doesn’t firm up as densely or absorb all those flinty, vegetal and fruity nuances from their watery terroir (some call it merroir).”
Ask any discerning oyster lover on the West Coast. Most local summer oysters are not very good. They’re flabby, bland and a bit of a marketing joke.
So, yes, B.C. oysters are back. But I’ll probably wait another couple of months before I have my fill.
If you must, here are a few local restaurants that are celebrating the return.
Merchant’s on the Drive
“#Buckashuck is still in effect! All day, Every day until October 25th, we will be offering Sawmill Bay Oysters for $1.00 each, as well as @parallel49beer Craft Lager for $3.00 per 12 oz glass!” – Instagram
Cork & Fin
“BC oysters are back! Come and celebrate with us and enjoy Buck a Shuck Oysters for the next 2 weeks, excluding Friday & Saturday.” – Twitter
Rodney’s Oyster House
“Low Tide oysters are back!!! Both Gastown and Yaletown will be shucking Fanny Bay’s from 3-6pm for $1.50/piece.” – Facebook
Chewie’s Steam & Oyster Bar
“Welcome Back B.C. Oysters!! We now have Sawmill Bay – Joyce Point Oysters freshly stocked. Buck-a-Shuck is back!” – Twitter
Do you eat B.C. oysters in the summer? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below, or tweet us @ViewtheVibe.