Pull up a chair to the Bearfoot Bistro’s Champagne Bar and watch an artist at work. Paintbrush is replaced with knife and canvas with a mess of gills, stomach and muscle.
"They aren’t the most pretty things in the world," laughs the Bearfoot’s oyster shucker Chris Field.
"You know the guy must have been really hungry to eat these things."
Since 2 nd Century Romans first documented oysters as an aphrodisiac food, people have been ignoring the unsightly creatures’ appearance and slurping the high-protein mollusks.
Sit at Field’s oyster bar and a diner gets more than an oyster unlocked by an award-winning shucker – Field placed second in Canada and seventh in North America two years ago – guests can listen to a fascinating history of the salt-water jewels, which can often make the slippery suckers slide down a little easier.
"Casanova ate 50 a day to keep things going," Field said. "No Roman orgy was complete without them. In truth, they sent thousands of slaves to Northern Scotland to get (oysters) and then packed them in ice and traveled across the Alps to Rome, where they were worth their weight in gold – a roman coin was valued at one oyster."
Field got his first oyster pep talk 19 years ago after returning a stolen wallet to the owner, who turned out to be the famed Rodney Clark of Rodney’s Oyster House in Toronto. As a good-Samaritan reward, Clark gave Field his first oyster experience and then a shucking job to boot.
The then art film director hasn’t looked back and has since competed in more than 70 shucking competitions.
The Whistler resident of 10 years said proper shucking, chilling and seasonal oysters all add up to a successful first hand experience.
"If you can’t watch your oysters being opened for you, don’t eat them," he said. "It was probably done hours before in the back. Oyster shucking is done in the kitchen as punishment duty."
One man’s punishment, is another man’s art form as a steady hand ensures the meat stays in tact, with no shell or dirt residue.
An oyster’s characteristics are dictated by its environment, similar to wine grapes. For grapes, soil, sunlight and water are determining factors. For oysters, it’s tidal flow, food availability and water salinity.
Field drew on the example of how oysters inundated by fresh water rivers tend to be sweeter, and how Gorge Inlet oysters from Cortez Island take on the rust brown hues of the Jerry Oak Tree leaves that fall into the ocean.
For someone who has never tried oysters before, Field recommends a smaller, more delicate varietal, such as the Kussi, Effingham and Kunomoto. For the braver shellfish aficionados, the European flat.
While wine or champagne – particularly something dry and crisp to counteract the salt of the oyster – is a popular accompaniment, Field prefers a beer pairing.
"I am already an oyster snob, I don’t need to be a wine one too," he said. "We have a huge wine list, but a Guinness is great. Oysters are a simple food. They don’t need gussying up."
The Bearfoot hosts oyster hour between 3 and 6 p.m., offering a wide variety of oysters for $9.95 a dozen.
The Four Season’s Fifty Two 80 Bistro also hosts a daily oyster special between 3:30 and 6:30 p.m., with half a dozen oysters for $5.
Raw bar chef Joel Watanabe hosts half a dozen oyster types at Araxi. Watanabe’s favourite right now is the mild and creamy Kusshi with a sweet finish. Oysters range from $2.75 to $3.75 and are perfect for sampling at Araxi’s wine bar.
Rimrock prefers a more gussied up oyster experience with Oysters Rockefeller served on a half shell broiled with spinach, minced carrots and a sensation of Pernod and hollandaise sauce. Oyster Rasputin plates raw oysters with chilled vodka, caviar and crème fraiche. Oysters can also be pan fried, almond crusted and served with butter. Oysters are $15 for a half dozen.