By Sean Murphy, SeafoodSource online editor
Published on 27 January, 2014
The more I hear about oysters the more they are becoming less of a delicacy reserved for the elite in high-end restaurants, and more of a mainstream food that everyone can appreciate.
With the newly-renamed Seafood Expo North America coming up, I’m reflecting on last year’s event (back when it was the International Boston Seafood Show). Last year we had Patrick McMurray, the chef-owner of the Starfish Oyster Bed and Grille in Toronto, come to the show to emcee the annual oyster-shucking competition and he’s agreed to come back this year, too. He also delivered a master class on the five major species, discussing each one’s flavors with the detail and passion of a sommelier going through a wine list.
I asked him at the time about a few high-profile illness-related oyster bed closures, and whether he thought they would impact the market. Without blinking, he told me he was confident that there were too many suppliers, fueled by too much interest in the tasty bivalves, for any closures to put a dent in prices or consumer interest.
Turns out he was right, and perhaps moreso than he realized. Just a couple of weeks ago, I attended the National Fisheries Institute (NFI)’s Global Seafood Market Conference in Miami, which featured panel discussions run by suppliers and other industry experts on various species, including oysters.
During the high-value shellfish panel, the experts, including Chris Callahan, VP of the Ipswich Shellfish Co., noted that aquaculture firms looking to cash in on the new popularity were seeding billions of oysters — “that’s ‘Billions.’ With a ‘B,’” Callahan said — but there are no fears that a glut of product would cause prices to bottom out. Quite the contrary — supply and demand are in perfect step with each other, and have been for the last several years at least. Callahan said in Boston alone, a number of oyster bars had sprung up in recent months, capitalizing on what he said is a growing trend with oysters. He likened it to cigars in the 1990s — it’s not that no one had ever heard of them before then, but for some reason, popularity spiked in that decade, making them a bigger part of pop culture than they’ve ever been.
The same thing, Callahan predicted, is happening and will happen to oysters, and so far the numbers seem to be supporting that idea. If he’s right, it’s possible that this period will be looked back upon as the “decade of the oyster.”
The bubble seems to certainly be growing, but will it burst? It did for cigars by the end of the 1990s, but then, sushi exploded onto the scene in the 1980s, and as another speaker at the NFI conference noted, you can buy that in convenience stores today. It will be interesting to see if the oyster trend has any staying power, or is destined to be just another flash in the pan.