There is more to oysters than the participants of Patagonia’s “Mollusks for the Masses” ever imagined.

Oyster expert and restaurant-owner Adam Colquhoun led the evening’s celebrations, which included information about the history of oyster raising and lessons in tasting and shucking. The event May 17 was the first of Patagonia’s free Thursday night sessions this month, each spotlighting different sustainable foods.

Colquhoun shared his passion for all things oyster as he imparted his extensive knowledge about them with an eclectic audience of all ages, from hard-core foodies to environmental activists.

“An oyster is alive when you eat it—the only live food people eat—and it becomes part of your life force,” Colquhoun said.

As the audience listened, Colquhoun detailed the history, nutritional values, biology, species, and sustainable cultivation process of oysters.

Colquhoun said he believes “oysters should taste like the sea,” and he discourages adding anything to them. He also said diners should chew the whitish-green mollusks to fully appreciate their flavour.

Oysters are now more popular than ever, partly due to a lower availability of fish from unsustainable fishing, Colquhoun said.

“Twenty-five years ago, not a lot of people ate seafood,” Colquhoun said, and only about 20 per cent of those people ate oysters.  Now, not only do more people enjoy seafood, he said, but 80 per cent of those people are oyster eaters, he said.

Now, almost all oysters are organically grown and produced. They are farmed in sustainable bays and estuaries where they actually clean the water they live in, Colquhoun said. As an added bonus, oysters don’t need to be fed.

An oyster stays in its bed for about five to six years before it’s eaten, Colquhoun said, and is handled 25 to 40 times from its beginnings in the oyster bed to its end on the dinner plate.

Part of this handling is the shucking. There are only a few steps in shucking an oyster, but it’s important to be precise because, Colquhoun said, shuckers have a responsibility to ensure the oyster isn’t damaged by lack of skill or impatience.

“We need to respect the animal,” he said. “We’re its last hurrah.”

Oyster shucking has also become a competitive sport. Colquhoun is an oyster shucking contest veteran, and although he rarely competes anymore, he has won titles in Ontario and Eastern Canada, and consistently placed in the top five at nationals.

When he started 25 years ago, oyster shucking contests were a good way to generate awareness of oysters. With the mollusks’ current popularity, now the contests are much more focused on the pure competitive side, said Colquhoun.

The world record is more than 38 oysters shucked in under one minute, and participants are judged not only on speed, but also on the quality of their shucking. Colquhoun’s speed is still important at his Queen Street restaurant Oyster Boy, where he shucks anywhere from 600 to 1,200 oysters each night.

Andrea Reekes, the King Street store manager, explained that Patagonia aims to become a hub for local grassroots organizations and the community.

“Part of our mission is to use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis,” she said, “and we feel a duty to bring awareness to issues like sustainability.”

As the event came to a close, Reekes echoed the feelings of many other participants.

“There’s so much more to oysters than I ever imagined,” she said. “And I want to learn more.”

While the oysters have moved out of Patagonia’s spotlight, the store will be celebrating local artisan food and wine on Thursday the 24th.

—Photo by Christine Ackerly