Happy 2018! We had a jam-packed 2017 and a really wonderful Christmas season but quickly turned our attention ahead and thought we’d kick off the year with something 2018 will hold a lot more of: foraging. Now what, might you ask, is there to forage on Vancouver Island in January? We’re figuring that out too…one clear answer though is shellfish!
We realized recently that despite living on an Island, our regular seafood consumption is pretty low. We’re changing that this year and this is one of the first steps! When it comes to local, sustainable, foods, wild oysters, around here, are a terrific option. If you’ve never collected shellfish before, oysters are a great starting place. Mostly because they’re very common, they’re easy to pick (no digging required), they’re easy to prepare, and they taste so darn good!
A few technicalities as you plan an oyster-picking outing.
1. You need a tidal-waters sport fishing license. These can be purchased online here and will allow you to collect up to 15 oysters per day. The oysters have to be a minimum of 5cm in diameter. It’s worth noting that beyond that, bigger isn’t necessarily better when it comes to eating them (chewing a mouthful of oyster for 2 minutes loses its charm!).
2. You need to find an open beach. There is a helpful map along with area-descriptions outlining where you can and cannot legally collect bi-valve shellfish when you enter your location here. There are a few other places you can’t collect shellfish like in parks, conservation areas, private oyster leases, and in proximity to marinas, etc, but you shouldn’t have too much difficulty finding your own Oyster jack pot.
3. Once you’ve found your ideal beach, there are some health issues that you’ll want to look into. This website is updated regularly with information about red-tide and any other pollution or toxicity levels which would make the shellfish unsafe to eat. Growing up, I was taught the rule of thumb: you can pick oysters in any month that contains the letter “R” (ei. September – April). That’s a helpful starting point but shellfish in certain areas can be contaminated any month of the year and cooking does not make them safe to consume.
4. Check your tides! The best oyster-picking is in the intertidal-region so you’ll want to wear gumboots and go at a time around low tide so that you have most access to the prime oyster-beds.
Our oyster-picking started a bit slowly but as we walked further from beach access and well out into the inter-tidal region, we had some satisfying results. Kieran was delighted with the whole process when he caught on to what we were looking for and he actually found some of the best ones! Once we were good and cold and had filled our limit into my toque (shouldn’t have left the bucket in the van…) we packed it in and got to work on the rest of the meal.
I’ve eaten oysters raw and I’ve breaded and fried in the past, but honestly, both methods involve shucking raw oysters which is quite an ordeal and I always come back to the BBQ method. Firing up your BBQ in January is oddly gratifying on its own but it’s also the most consistent and easiest way of cooking oysters. Simply pre-heat your grill and then lay them out right-side-up evenly across the heat. Check on them every 2 minutes and remove them once they start to open up but ideally before they leak all their water out. Even if they don’t fully open up, after a few minutes they should be cooked enough for you to easily open their shell with the help of an oyster shucker (or a rusty old screwdriver, in my case).
BBQing oysters also smells fantastic – it’s like bringing the beach back into your house! They are packed full of flavour and need very little seasoning to be made appetizing. Having said that, you can’t go wrong with a little fresh lime and cilantro – that’s what we opted for and it brought the dish to 11!
As for side dishes, I was hoping to serve the oysters with a crispy French-style bread, but we weren’t able to pick any up in the afternoon and there was no time to make a loaf from scratch so I made some quick and easy Chipati which Kieran had a lot of fun kneading (that’s ultimately what it’s all about!). Chipati, as I learned to make it in Tanzania, is just flour, water, and salt, kneaded and rolled out and then fried in oil. It was simple and delicious and a great bread to compliment the other strong flavours and clean up all the last drops of fresh oyster flavour!
I roasted some yams with maple syrup and chipotle pepper (too spicy for Kieran’s taste but really delicious for Mom and Dad!). Yams and sweet potatoes are nutrient-rich and delicious so it’s always worth finding new ways to incorporate them into meals!
I also try and include raw veggies in as many meals as possible so I made a ranch-style dip with Greek yoghurt, mayonnaise, lime, and herbs, and served it with a plate of carrot sticks and bell peppers.
Overall, the experience of oyster picking as a family was really precious and cooking them together was hands-on and exciting. The end result was an interactive and intensely delicious meal experience.
Happy New Year,