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Patrick McMurray: Man of the Oyster

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By Malcolm Jolley

Patrick McMurray is standing behind the long bar of his downtown Toronto restaurant Starfish Oysterbed and Grill. In front of him are a half dozen tubs of ice on which lie the bi-valvic object of his obsession and behind him copies of his new book Consider the Oyster. While the book's title may take inspiration from MFK Fisher, McMurray's is the result of an adult lifetime's passion for the halfshell. His knowledge is encyclopaedic, but he brings it all down to earth, or maybe seabed.

Gremolata:This is not a cookbook.
Patrick McMurray: No. I don't cook oysters, actually. Oysters are such interesting creatures that you can have them on their own. In fact, I tend to describe oysters much like wine: there are seaweed notes and mushroom notes, or you might get grassy notes, or things like that. I actually based the book a bit on Hugh Johnston's Wine Atlas.

Gremolata: It's driven by terroir?

Patrick McMurray: Mother nature made each oyster taste a certain way and I try and promote that in the book. At my restaurant, we only carry two sauces, a cocktail and a Champagne mignonette. And for some oysters, like the Olympia, I always recommend that they be served just as is. If you have a variety of oyster, I highly recommend you taste each without lemon, or sauce. Then go to town and do what ever you want.

Gremolata: Olympia is the only native west coast oyster, right?

Patrick McMurray: Exactly. They're little guys, slow growing but they have big and complex flavour. The Olympia oyster Company in Washington State have been growing them for something like 127 years.

Gremolata: There is a lot of moving around for oyster, though. In your book you explain that French oysters are actually Portuguese.

Patrick McMurray: Right. Those oysters were originally grown as a "second oyster", as they were hardier. They were from Portugal, but may have originated in Asia. Crassostrea angulata. The true native is the Belon, but it's not for everyone: very dry and metallic flavour.

Gremolata: Speaking of wine, it has it's own AOC, right?

Patrick McMurray: Yes. The French are into classification, even for oysters, so the Belon has it's own designation. The have very specific rules about growing them, how many oysters per square meter in a pool. We're a little looser on North America.

Gremolata: Are there ways to judge oyster growing areas the way you would look at a vineyard?

Patrick McMurray: Yup. This is what I mean about the book being like a wine book. The term is "mirroir", which is the taste of the ocean. Like winemaking, a lot of the flavour also comes out of how the oysters are grown: if they're using rack and bag suspension. These are things that many growers learn on the way and play with. The French play with fresh water run-off in the spring on their claire pools, for instance, but then they block it off to grow an algae that they finish the oysters off with.

Gremolata: For guy who knows so much about oysters, I think many people would be surprised that you're not from PEI.

Patrick McMurray: I'm a good old boy from East York. But I've been in the restaurant trade since I was 16 and worked my way through university in the high end restaurants of Toronto (Beaujolais, Le Bistingo). And then I worked for Rodney Clarke [owner of Rodney's Oyster House] for years. There you either got good at shucking, or didn't shuck and I got pretty good and won a few competitions. I even used a bit of my Phys. Ed. degree by designing my own ergonomic knife. Preparing for the competitions, I learned everything I could about the anatomy of the oyster, so I could open them faster. I had a passion for good food, and the oyster was just kind of there, you know?

Gremolata: In Toronto, where we're thousands of miles from the sea, the oyster makes a perfect seafood.

Patrick McMurray: That's the beautiful thing about oysters: they're as fresh as the day they were caught. An oyster will live about four weeks out of water. In Toronto we're almost lucky that we don't have any native oysters so we can eat them all. I'm always looking for new oysters and getting growers to send me some to taste and make sure they travel well.

Gremolata: Do some travel better than others.

Patrick McMurray: The best oyster in the world is the one you taste right out of the sea with your feet in the water. But sometimes out of that context some are better than others.

Gremolata: I guess the Malpeque is a good traveller.

Patrick McMurray: Yeah, we are predominately east coast-based, but the west coast oysters are coming in as well and people are starting to ask for them. At Starfish we do a 100 oyster plate - 100 oysters for $100 - and split between east and west coast. But everybody loves the Malpeque.

Gremolata: But it's true that all east coast oysters from Malpeque to Blue Point to Wellfleets are all the same species?

Patrick McMurray: Yes, technically any oyster grown off of PEI can be called Malpeque. But this goes back to the idea of mirroir. Even within the PEI realm oysters from different spots will have different flavours. And like wine, different growers use different techniques, so that produces different flavours.

Gremolata: Can you tell by taste where an oyster comes from?

Patrick McMurray: I can tell by look. Taste-wise it changes weekly. Oysters are filter feeders, so whatever is passing through the water that day will influence the taste. More rain, then the oyster is less salty. Then there's different algae... Oysters will change, so it's pretty hard to taste blind. I can tell you what's an east coast or west coast, though. Or a French Belon.

Gremolata: What about the whole thing about eating oysters in a month with an "r"? Should we worry about that?

Patrick McMurray: Nope. In July we had James Chatto in here and he said he had some of the best oyster he'd ever had in life. Some oysters get a lot sweeter in the summertime. It's the reproductive cycle, so summer and winter oysters can be very different. Napoleon forbade French oysterers from harvesting in the summer because they were interrupting reproduction - he loved oysters and was worried he wouldn’t have any in the winter! But you can get great oysters at any time of the year.
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