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Drawn together: the oyster shucking knife

Categories: Behind the stalls

Award-winning blogger and Borough Market regular Ed Smith displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word, as he talks to stallholders about the tools of their trade. This month: the oyster shucking knife

Derek at Richard Haward’s Oysters

We get two types of oysters on the stand—native oysters and gigas rock oysters, which are also known as Pacific oysters. The gigas oysters are knobbly and tough. They were imported to the UK around 100 years ago and have been cultivated off the river beds in Colchester since then. The natives, which are flatter and smoother on top, have been around that area since Roman times. These are the ones that are traditionally only supposed to be eaten in months with the letter ‘R’ in.

With any oyster, you need a good shucking knife to be able to open it efficiently, without breaking the shell. There are numerous styles and we’ve a number of different shaped and sized knives in our toolkit on the stall. But the ones we tend to use are the ones with blue handles.

The handles are a good size, which is important when you’re opening as many as we do—you don’t want to lose grip or get cramp from holding it too tightly. But, most importantly, the blades on these ones are very tough and strong. There’s almost no flex in them at all, which is what you want—oysters prise open better if a blade is rigid.

The French method
The French open oysters along the rounded side of the shell, moving the knife around to release the membrane. We prefer to go in at the hinge, which you can see is like a hole at the tip of an oyster. This seems to be a cleaner way of opening than the French method, which is more likely to cause the shell to break or leave grit.

Also, once open, we’ll loosen and flip the oyster with the tip of the shucking knife. Cleaning and checking whether there’s any shell or even a pearl inside is important, as otherwise a customer could really damage their teeth—not a nice eating experience.

The natives are more difficult to open than the rock oysters as they tend to be more brittle. It requires the knife to be pushed into the hinge a little further, then moved from side to side, whereas with a rock oyster it’s a simple case of inserting the tip of the shucking knife into the hinge and twisting it to release the top.

Punishing work
We shuck more oysters than we sell, because up to 20 per cent of the oysters that we open don’t have enough texture. They’re not bad as such, but we don’t want to give people oysters which are basically just sea water membrane. We easily open 600 oysters a day, sometimes more. Often it’s just my colleague Danny on the stall. He’s been here nine years now and I reckon he’s opened at least 2 million oysters. It’s punishing work—your shoulders and elbows feel the effort after a while.

Oyster shucking knives can last a long time. There’s usually only a need to change them if the ends snap a little—we need them to be sharp so that we can push through the hinges efficiently. When they do snap, we’ll grind them down and give them to customers.

Some knives have guards between the handle and the blade. This stops you from cutting your fingers and knuckles on the oyster shell. These blue handled ones we use don’t have the guards, though. When you’ve been doing it for a while, you get used to it. That said, my fingers are pretty scarred.

Ultimately, opening oysters is all about technique. Once you’ve had a bit of practice, it’s an easy thing to do at home. We’re happy to show customers how to do it while we work. Just remember, if you want your natives to be grit free: gently does it!