In recent times I've seen some top journalists and foodies (no, I am not going to mention names) getting their Rocks and their Natives confused. This might not seem like a big deal, but imagine going in to a restaurant and somebody, perhaps even the waiter or waitress offering you a wonderful Beaujolais which is in fact a Sancerre!? Its sounds crazy, particularly as the former is red and the latter is white, but for those of us embedded in oyster culture, the Native and the Rock are just as distinctive..
I understand the confusion when an oyster has been grown in this country, people may be forgiven for believing it to be a native species. However there is only one Native oyster in the British Isles and it is Ostrea edulis.
Calling anything a Native on a menu is going to cause problems in our global society; a different oyster in another country, can just as easily be called a Native on the daily specials chalkboard. So how do you know what you are getting?
To add to the mystery, this enigmatic oyster is also referred to with numerous other names dependent on its species description, appellation and appearance. Everyone calls it the Native, the French call it the Belon, the Pied de Cheval and 'l'huître plate' . The Americans call it the European Flat, or the Belon (Maine) or other area of growth. Now by rights, an Ostrea edulis should only be called Belon if it comes from this particular river in Brittany, France; The Belon River. But this name that is a result of origin has been adopted as a generic label in the States. Strangely not here, just a channel hop across from origin, this is perhaps because we have had a true Native of our own for just as long.
Historically courting controversy; in the World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS) there are 19 unaccepted names for this oyster species put forward by scientists over the last three centuries, ranging from Ostrea adriatica to Ostrea cristata.
If this is all becoming increasingly muddy, a sturdy starting place is to begin with the accepted species name. Ostrea edulis is indigenous to this country and others but It has been naturalised elsewhere; much like the Rock oyster here in the UK which originally came from Japanese waters and is known as the aforementioned Rock, Pacific or officially Crassostrea gigas.
Because this Rock oyster now grows here in the UK, very successfully, many people refer to it as a native oyster on menus and social media posts. This can make the above discussion step into a whole other species of confusion. Rock oysters are only native to Pacific waters but can be found around the world as they have been introduced and naturalised.
Essentially, because latin names are too much of a mouthful to be concerned with when you are already considering filling your mouth with the more appetising bivalves, the best way is to label an oyster with its 'appellation' or place of growth and harvest. The differentiator between the two species usually sits, for simplicity with Rock and Native. So, for example you would get a Porthilly Rock Oyster or a Menai Rock Oyster and you'd get a Loch Ryan Native Oyster and a Galway Native Oyster. Often, with the Rocks, because the farm only produces this species, the 'Rock' will be dropped, as you'll see in the titles of my oyster profiles.
So to confirm, there are only two species of oyster growing in the British isles and they are generally referred to as Rock and Native. The picture above shows the very distinctive differences. I hope you enjoy eating them wherever you are and whoever you're with. Let me know how they taste and if you are a media professional who wants to know more, keep an eye out on my events page for a special workshop I'll be doing with the Guild of Food Writers.
Sharing the #oysterlove - Katy.