Hello Mangrove Oyster

“It’s not uncommon for oyster lovers to remember their first experience and often times the person responsible for it.” Jomo Morris

The Mouth is Every Babies Favorite Investigative Tool

Oyster lovers are adults who have subconsciously developed a taste for umami. This enduring affinity for the humble oyster, the taste of ocean made flesh, begins from infancy, as babies develop sensory perception and explore their world through touch, sight, sound, feel and taste. Babies drool, smile, gurgle, laugh and are inquisitive. Children, first learn to associate food to different tastes – sweet watermelon, sour lemonade, salty potato chips, bitter marmalade, and umami by imitating those around them. Female sea otters teach their young to open oysters in a similar manner. While floating on their backs, otters place a rock on their stomach and crack the mollusk against the rock to open it. This technique is done repeatedly until the cub learns the trick. In this, all mammals unerringly pass on innate traits that guarantee the survival of mankind and wildlife alike.

I’ve grown to love oysters. My first oyster experience was in culinary school where I was put in charge of making “Oysters Rockerfeller” for prospective students and their parents at an open house.

They were blue point oysters, layered with sautéed spinach and Pernod (a French liqueur with an anise flavor) and finished with hollandaise and herb bread crumbs.  Curious, I made sure no one was looking and ate one.

That Day, an Oyster Changed My Life

“There are three kinds of oyster-eaters: those loose minded sports who will eat anything, hot, cold, thin, thick, dead or alive as long as it is oyster; those who eat them raw and only raw; and those with equal severity will eat them cooked and no other.” – The Art of Eating, M.F.K Fisher

For the next hour, I ate an oyster for each person that was given a “Rockerfeller.” I was hooked and happily so. Since then, I’ve worked my way through several professional kitchens and become more flexible in preference. I’m just as comfortable enjoying an oyster, raw, with the juice from a lemon wedge and a drop of tabasco sauce, as I am eating oysters steamed, grilled, fried, smothered in sauce or used as stuffing.Some may feel sorrow for a creature that spends its life sequestered in a fossilized mantle. But, what is life to an oyster but to spawn, spat and survive; as it waits motionless for the ultimate predator, man’s hunger. Oysters have nothing pleasant to look at and even more so pried open and naked on the half shell. For thousands of years, men have pried open an oysters’ shell and feasted on its contents without a squeamish thought.

 I had to Leave Jamaica to Love Oysters

Oysters are a constant on the buffet for Sunday brunch and for that reason, I’ve been lucky to try oysters with distinguished pedigrees – from the super sweet Kumamotos, to delicate Beausoleils, salty Wellfleets, the tiny intense Olympias, and the powerfully metallic and briny Belon, but I’ve never had a Jamaican Mangrove Oyster.

“The Wickedest City on Earth”

The small fishing village of Port Royal which sits at the mouth of Kingston Harbor was once a favorite hangout for notorious pirates like Henry Morgan and Calico Jack. Port Royal grew rich from the illicit plunder of these buccaneers, who spent their gold freely on drink and women. The city was punished for its sinful ways on June 7, 1962 when a massive earthquake struck and most of the city was claimed by the sea. Today, Port Royal echoes with the ghosts of history past; shells of brick and mortar buildings, forests of red and black mangrove trees and ancient relics watched ashore by a reticent sea. Port Royal has once again become famous but this time for its laid back ambiance and exceptional seafood. Walk into any of several open air restaurants in Port Royal, sip on a cold Red Stripe beer or Heineken and order fresh fish steamed, curried, fried, brown stewed or escoveitch. There are plenty of sides to choose from including local favorites like bammy (a fried cassava cake), water crackers, rice & peas and festival. An added bonus, Port Royal also sells Mangrove oysters.

Peta-Gay is busy texting on her blackberry phone. Her fingers methodically press each button as the car turns onto the Palisadoes highway, huge mounds of sand driven by wind and sea, mark our passage as we glide past the Norman Manley international airport. On the right side of the road, a rasta-man with a small wooden stall is busy selling fresh coconuts parked end to end in a line like metallic ants.

The smell of sea salt is strong and the landscape drifts by in a blur of dull greens and browns. Sea gulls circle overhead dipping and swaying gracefully on currents of air.  Peta-gay is still toying with her phone and I focus on the road, steering the car round a corner, lost in my own thoughts. I think our silence was appropriate and the mangrove trees twisted and wizened with thick green foliage and long slender roots, agree to our quiet homage. “Welcome” they say and I nod in passing as Port Royal comes into view.

The Oyster Man at Gloria’s’ Gate, His Name is “Juici”

We decide to stop at Gloria’s a popular seafood restaurant in the town and I gingerly nudge the car onto a large dirt parking lot across from the restaurant. Peta-Gay orders snapper, deep fried and smothered with escoveitch sauce and a side of fried bammy. “I think I’ll have my fish steamed with a side of water crackers and a cold Heineken to wash it all down,” I tell the server as she politely retrieves our menu and heads off to the kitchen. “But what about oysters, are they for sale here? And if not where can I get them.” She smile and points to the entrance, “don’t worry” she says, “in the evening around six, the oyster man sets up shop at the gate”, looks at her watch, “he should be here in another hour.” We weren’t in a hurry, by then our food had arrived – two huge plates –  one, a  whole fried fish with a generous heaping of escoveitch vegetables with a side of  piping hot bammy, the other, snapper steamed and still steaming with okra and bits of pumpkin crowned with water crackers that have been allowed to soak in the broth . It was delicious and we dug in with fingers, fork and knife, oblivious to the patrons around us.

Hers and Mine – Our First Mangrove Oyster.

Peta-gay was the first to see him. A thickset man of average height dressed in a bright red shirt, shorts and slippers. He was setting up a stainless steel table at the entrance to Gloria’s, just as the server had predicted. I turned to my sister and asked, “have you ever eaten an oyster?” And to my dismay, her reply was “no.” “Would you like to try one”, I asked, sensing her apprehension, I pinched her cheek and said “I’ve never eaten an oyster in Jamaica either, it will be the first time for both of us” and she laughed. In all honesty they weren’t the best, but we made the best of it. They were delicious for all the right reasons; with the sound of seagulls in our ear and the shore at our back, the crunch of sand beneath our feet, faces upturned to the sun and eyes closed in happy communion.

 

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