Updated: Jun 18, 2020
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t plan for this blog to be about dispelling oyster-related
misconceptions. Oyster lovers already seem to be well-versed in claires and
creuses. If people like to think that oysters squeak, have a jelly-like consistency,
become inedible during summer because they accumulate toxins and radiation, that
farmed oysters are artificial and synthetic, and that oysters can only be eaten where
they’re grown, then they’re free to do so; more oysters left for us.
But friends are telling me it’s got to be done. Fine. I looked at the calendar and
decided that now is the best time to talk about the “R” rule.
Traditionally, the oyster season in our Northern hemisphere is from September to
April. Remember this line in Remarque’s Heaven Has No Favourites: “She reached
her hotel. Her present room was again on the first floor, so that she would have only
the one flight of stairs to climb. The shellfish seller was standing at the door of the
restaurant. “Wonderful shrimp today,” he said. “Oysters are almost past. They won’t
be good again until September.”
“Oysters are not in season, but they have been replaced by peaches.”
Any person wishing to try some bivalves in the summer months is bound to be
reminded about the “R” rule. It states that oysters must not be eaten in May, June,
July and August—aka, the months without the letter “R” in their name.
Now listen here, we’re living in the 21st century, but some people still fall back on the
rule that was a thing already back in Ancient Rome. Cicero pondered upon the
dangers of eating oysters in his De Ostreis in first century BC, and about instilling the
Well, since the rule has such deep historic roots, I shall explain the meanings of the
old taboos and the truth of what is happening to oysters in the r-less months with the
help of Neptune, the Ancient Roman God of the seas.
His symbol of power over the seas, the trident, has three points. There are also three
reasons for restricting oyster consumption in the summer months, remember those.
1. The nature was so clever in designing the oyster that the mollusc can easily
survive for several days of transport or storage just with the water within the shell it
managed to retain at the time of harvest. The most important thing is the
temperature. The optimal temperature for the oyster is from +1 to +4 degrees.
Naturally, in the past, it was nearly impossible to transport a load of oysters while
keeping that temperature. The oysters went bad during transport and became an
actually dangerous foodstuff.
2. In the Northern Hemisphere, many molluscs spawn during summer. The warm
water serves as a signal for the mollusc to start this important process. During that
period, oysters produce eggs, turn a milky colour and change in taste. Oyster sperm
may make the mollusc bitter, and the flesh becomes softer. In addition, warm water
causes algae blooms, changing the chemical content of the water inhabited by the
oysters. That, too, changes its taste, and not for the better.
3. Uncontrolled oyster harvesting caused a rapid decline in oyster populations on the
coast of France, as well as East Coast of the US in the 18th century. In 1762, the city
council of New Haven, Connecticut, aiming to prevent a complete and irreversible
destruction of oyster colonies, banned oyster harvesting during the time of their
spawning, from 1 May to 1 September, and instilled strict fines for breaking it. France
introduced its own temporary bans on oyster sales from May to September in order
to preserve the oyster population with the Royal fishery edict of 1771.
Got it memorised? Now take a look at the oyster fork. It has three points, too. Each
of these represents a reason to forget about those old taboos and happily eat
oysters in a restaurant far from the sea any time of year.
1. Technology has progressed enough to guarantee a swift, careful transport of
oysters and their storage at the necessary temperature.
2. The oysters served at restaurants are grown on farms that strictly monitor all
processes in the mollusc’s life. The water temperature and chemical contents are
under the strictest control. Oyster sperm isn’t poisonous, and you can’t get poisoned
from eating a fresh “milky” oyster. I even know some people who actually like the
taste of these summer oysters. In addition, a technology of producing all-season
oysters that never turn milky was invented in 1980s. These oysters are sterile, and
their taste remains good in any time of the year. And as soon as normal oysters
upon finding themselves in warm waters, begin producing eggs, the farmers pause
the harvest of these oysters. Only the “4 seasons” oysters are sent to restaurants
3. Seasonality of molluscs in Southern and Northern Hemisphere is different. Most
Australian and New Zealand oysters reproduce from November to March, and the
peak season for them is actually the months without “r” in them. Unfortunately, for
reasons unconnected to oysters, restaurateurs and suppliers, Russian gourmets are
unable to enjoy Australian oysters since 2014. However, New Zealand oysters will
doubtlessly delight our mollusc-lovers with their excellent taste this summer.
The only rule you really must remember is that you shouldn’t even try an oyster that looks
and smells bad. A fresh oyster should smell of the sea, have a glossy and plump
appearance, contain colourless transparent liquid that experts call oyster liquor. And eat
oysters in reliable places, that have professionals guaranteeing their quality.