Making the world your oyster
Oyster aficionado Katy Davidson, who has spent the last few years on a campaign to raise the profile of oysters in the British food scene, recently took her efforts to a new level by setting up an Oyster Academy. She is also developing a new ostrelier qualification, which she hopes to have up and running later this year.
“I have a life-long passion for eating oysters and have worked in and around the oyster and food education industries for a decade now, enjoying regular slots on TV and radio,” she said.
Davidson has shucked oysters at foodie events, given masterclasses and chef demos, set up and run oyster bars, and catered for weddings, parties, premieres and other events, with her Mangez Moi and Oyster Lady companies.
The idea for an Oyster Academy came at the end of a long summer spent shucking oysters at festivals and working with chefs to encourage greater uptake in restaurants. Davidson realized that if she formalized her message, she could reach more people.
“It became obvious that the biggest barrier to people eating oysters were misconceptions, and I wanted to bust the myths about this bivalve. People are cautious about oysters in restaurants, and they won’t order half a dozen because they don’t know how to tackle them and are dubious of their rawness,” she advised.
In particular, Davidson wanted to get people away from the idea that eating oysters was only for the elite and/or the brave and that oysters always had to be eaten raw. “They are superb when cooked,” she said.
“The majority of people eating an oyster for the first time think they have to throw it back and swallow it whole, whereas in reality, the oyster gives a complex flavor and texture profile when chewed and savored. It’s really gratifying to see smiles on people’s faces when they first try them and enjoy the experience,” said Davidson.
For those who don’t immediately warm to the taste, she recommends leaving it a while then trying again, or joining one of her oyster appreciation classes, to try oysters from different regions.
“Many people don’t realize that oysters from different estuaries can have very different tastes; it is just like the culture of wine,” she said.
Davidson generally works with the Pacific oyster, Crassostrea gigas, but also encourages people to try native oysters, Ostrea edulis, when they are in season.
The Academy provides masterclasses and training to fishmongers, restaurants, hotels and individuals who wish to shuck like a pro, cook oysters with variety and finesse, match them with wines, and be able to enlighten their guests as to the merroir, culture and gastronomy of the oysters they serve. Since its launch, the Academy has attracted a lot of attention, particularly from the popular media, and boosted demand for Davidson’s services.
“Chefs are easily deterred from serving oysters because of their reputation, but I have found that the more they understand the product, the more they sell, and oysters add an interesting aspect to any menu,” she said.
“To get them started, I help them with sourcing, tasting notes, storage, handling, preparation and display tips, and information on sustainability, which more and more customers are interested in.”
Her work has taken her all over the world, and she particularly enjoys visiting oyster farms, where she adds to her knowledge base and tasting repertoire, as well as meeting other passionate oyster lovers, who always have stories to tell.
She has also worked with the World Oyster Society and the Shellfish Association of Great Britain on education and awareness raising projects and events.
In 2015, Davidson set up and ran a highly successful oyster/seafood pop-up restaurant and take-away in Cornwall’s surf capital Newquay. Named Amity, the tiny restaurant quickly earned the number one slot on TripAdvisor.
Will she repeat the experience in 2016?
“It’s possible, but the premises were only available for a short let, so I would have to shift elsewhere,” she said.
Just as the holiday season was ending, Davidson heard that she had been awarded a place on the Lloyds Bank School for Social Entrepreneurs programme, with a grant to formalize the ostrelier qualification.
“I am hugely excited by this. The qualification will cover gastronomy, ecology, history, nutrition and professional, practical skills that will raise awareness, understanding, market share and popularity of the oyster,” she said.
Her Oyster Lady community interest company has social/environmental aims which she believes will be achieved through the effect of the qualification on the industry and the market. Davidson also intends to invest surplus funds into oyster restoration projects, education, research and community supported aquaculture schemes, such as the Billion Oyster project in the USA.
Any spare time is spent researching and writing an oyster cookery book, working with a London based literary agent, with the aim of revolutionizing the public perception of oysters and getting them on more tables around the country.
“It’s going to be a very busy year!” she said.