A Lesson in Delicacy & Brutality: The Shore Oysters
by Nicole Bergot-Browning
Watching Sam Ravenda, owner of The Shore Oysters, shuck is a lesson in delicacy and brutality. “They’re alive, so they’re fighting against you to stay shut,” she explains. Nimble fingers grasp the knife as she carefully places the tip against the shell. “Get your knife into the hinge,” she instructs. “The oyster wobbles, that’s why it’s tricky.” To remedy that she places a cloth on top, and a firm hand on that. Wiggling the knife into the hinge, she gently pulses until it clicks. Turning the knife upright, she runs it along the top of the shell, careful not to make contact with the meat. It pops open, exposing the glistening grey patty, or “Acadian gold,” as Ravenda calls it, one of many pet names she uses.
She makes it look easy, but she’s been hurt, like any shucker worth their sea salt. Once, the knife slipped on the shell and went right into her hand, embedding itself between her thumb and forefinger. “That’s the area where shuckers get hurt,” she says. The same way seamstresses get pricked on the same finger again and again, shuckers stab themselves on the tops of their hands.
The challenge is all part of her deep and passionate love for oysters. She learned to shuck at culinary school in Montreal, but it was a side course, not intended to become her actual career. But a move to Toronto, and a six-year stint at a downtown restaurant, Oyster Boy, sealed the deal. Her love of the briny coastal delicacy would not be denied. She entered shucking contests – her record is 12 in a minute 15 - and soon her world revolved around oysters. “It’s a subculture,” she explains. “And all of a sudden you’re like how’d I become a part of this?”
This past fall she started The Shore Oysters in Prince Edward County. She sells them retail, but the bulk of her business is catering. She’ll deliver oysters to parties and restaurants around the county. They come pre-shucked, or she can set up a station and shuck them on site for your guests. “I do a lot of bachelorette parties, reunions, weddings. [Shucking oysters] is an obvious way to add to those celebrations,” she says. She’s partnered up with a sommelier and they do an event called Shells and Chards, teaching people about pairing oysters with local wines. Ravenda has been taken aback by the enthusiastic response in the county. “People are so excited to have oysters here. They’re like ‘Oh! You’re the oyster girl!’”
She sticks to just a few varieties; her staples are P.E.I. Malpeques, Saint Simon from New Brunswick, Black Points from Nova Scotia, and B.C. Kusshis. She asks me not to make her pick her favorite, but then reluctantly admits her bias. “I hate to say it but I prefer east coast – they’re saltier, juicier,” she speaks as though she’s reciting poetry, “the finish is a cucumber freshness. It’s a mouthful of ocean.”
Another tenet of her business is bringing oysters to shuck to various farmer’s markets and wineries around the county. She can be found shucking at Wellington Farmer’s Market and Rosehall Run Winery. Today Ravenda is at Norman Hardie Winery and Vineyard. It’s a beautiful, clear summer’s day and they’re preparing for an onslaught. Hardie himself saunters around, overseeing the set-up as the parking lot starts to fill, and guests wander in. Pizzas are coming out of the wood-fired oven at a ferocious pace, to large groups sipping wine. You might think you are on a patio on Toronto’s Queen West, until you look beyond the deck to a farmer’s field just as two herons take off in flight.
And in the middle of it all Ravenda, in her bliss, stands deep in concentration, shucking oysters. In spite of the intricate knife work she’s involved with she still has the wherewithal to discuss at length the virtues of oysters. “They’ve got tons of zinc – your entire daily intake!” she gushes. “Iron, vitamin B, high levels of dopamine, nutrient rich.” She finishes the list with a grin “oysters are sexy.” She eats anywhere from eight to a dozen, three times a week, with a dab of Black Sheep Cannery hot sauce, and, in case anyone is wondering, she chews.