When you open and smell them there is a fresh breeze on your face from the sea. The Romans brought the flat shelled oysters from the Atlantic region of Europe back to Italy packed in ice, snow or in barrels of sea water. Oysters are woven into the cultural fabric of Europe as the essence of fine food.
In North Jutland a sound called the Limfjord is home to the largest remaining wild oyster bed of the endangered original European oyster. The waters they live in are practically the northern border of the European oyster’s natural habitat. It’s often too cold for the oysters to spawn, and the population is very volatile, being depleted in cold winters. ”The oysters are living on a knife-edge, as several cold winters will kill a substantial part of the population. But they have a much better bite than ordinary oysters - they are simply more meaty. You haven’t really tried oysters until you have tasted these” says head chef Boris Buono of Copenhagen’s oldest and most prestigious fish restaurant “Krogs” lying on the canal in Copenhagen where in old days fishwives stood in shawls and sold their husbands' catch of the day. He is passionately in love with the classic, flat shelled European oyster. Oysters are a tale of exclusivity, of the pure taste of the sea, of lovers and aphrodisiacs – and also of a fragile environment.
Boris is one of a young generation of chefs that have drawn the gastronomic community to Copenhagen, being a veteran of the young and uber-creative chefs that eventually started a Nordic revolution in gastronomy around the restaurant Noma, twice voted the best restaurant in the world. He is of a generation that threw out the chemists of modern cuisine, and replaced their approach with botany and zoology, demanding that nature, not the lab, should be the foundation of cooking – and that natural diversity should be displayed in food culture.
Best oyster in the world?
Oysters from the cold waters of North Jutland in Denmark have always been considered a great delicacy. Once they were completely monopolized by the king, and kept exclusively for the royal tables, with the threat of capital punishment for those trying to take the precious animals. When Boris Buono and others claim that these oysters are world class, it is because of climate and living conditions, as well as the special species: The colder the water, the slower the growth of the animal, the more concentrated the flavour of the meat. In the north of Jutland, in the Limfjord, the largest natural concentration of the endangered original flat shelled European oyster, Ostrea Edulis – “the edible oyster”, is to be found. The feed and salt content is also particular to these oysters.
Søren Mattesen, director of Vilsund, the largest producer of the Limfjord oyster, explains that these oysters fetch the highest prices of any oysters on the international market: ”In the sound of Northern Jutland the waters are a combination of fresh water running into the fjord from the North of Jutland, and an inflow from the North Sea. This creates flowing waters, rich in nutrients, with the freshness of the salty Atlantic water. And since they are protected from invasive species, they remain disease free.”
“The low salt content of the water also allows a more refined, some say nutty, taste, not overly dominated by the salty-iodine flavours of open sea oysters,” Søren Mattesen explains.
In his kitchen Boris uses the oysters for small gastronomic excursions into forest and field, preparing the animals with wild herbs, yoghurts and mineral flavoured vegetables. “Because they are so different and more subtle, they’re also great for pairing in many different ways. To me they’re like a journey to sea and shore and we can make so much more out of them than just serving them with something very acidic like vinegar or lemon juice. You don’t need that for these oysters”, he explains.
”They are exquisite little creatures. These oysters from Jutland are also one of the only strains of the original European oyster that are free from disease and are used to replenish the depleted and endangered rearing grounds in the rest of Europe, but the harvest is kept under strict control to preserve this unique animal,” Søren Mattesen explains, referring to the protected “Natura 2000” habitat of the Limfjord, a European Union special nature reserve. The oysters are carefully monitored and are protected from over-fishing through annual licenses that are only given if the stock can withstand the depletion.
The stock varies considerably, for example this year very little fishing will be allowed since Denmark has had cold winters and short summers – conditions where the oysters do not spawn. The stock has been depleted and the permitted harvest has been reduced by 70% to only 450 tons. There is a much bigger demand than can be met. But in the rest of Europe, overfishing is one of the reasons why this animal is in such drastic decline.
Food Organisation of Denmark