As luxury delicacies, oysters have been desired for centuries. It is arguably their association with pearls that has cemented their reputation for opulence and refinement. However, oysters are not only a symbol of sophistication, but also one of survival and cultural significance. For centuries, the Khoisan people harvested the plentiful oyster stocks along South Africa’s coast and estuaries, fashioning tools and accessories like necklaces out of the shells. In the mid- 19th century, oysters were commonly available, often sold by street vendors and in oyster houses in cities across the globe. In South Africa, oysters gained prominence in the late 1800s and in the 1940s oyster farming became synonymous with coastal towns like Knysna. There is no doubt that oysters are integral to South Africa’s gastronomic cannon.
There are several indigenous species of oysters in South Africa with many wild populations existing today. The Cape rock oyster or black oyster (Striostrea margaritacea) grows largest on rocky reefs all along the east coast and has a firm texture and intense umami character. The smaller hooded or Natal rock oyster (Succostrea cucullate) thrives in reed beds close to the shore and has a creamier texture and gamey flavour. The red oyster (Ostrea atherstonei) named after its wine-red hue, ranges from Saldanha Bay to the south coast of KZN and is best served cooked to bring out its sweetness. However, this species is not easy to find since they do not form beds and must be harvested individually. The Cape weed oyster (Ostrea algoensis) can be found from False Bay to East London in rock pools or mouths of estuaries. They have deep narrow shells and delicate fruity, briny flavours. However, they are not as popular due to their small size.
By far the most common, though, is the introduced Japanese or Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) which is the most cultivated oyster globally. The texture and flavours of Pacific oysters vary considerably depending on the place where they are grown as well as the season, though they are consistently firm with fruity and umami flavours. While there are a few places where they have become wild, they are mainly cultivated in an abundant network of oyster farms, from the cold western Benguela current to the warmer Mozambique current of the east coast. Oyster farmers have increasingly looked towards sustainable aquaculture to preserve the product for future generations.
No matter the species or cultivation method, South African oysters are prized for their unique flavours influenced by a diversity of ecosystems in which they grow and are cultivated. They provide a rich provenance, flavour spectrum and a reference point for local and visiting seafood enthusiasts.
Belthazar mostly serves extra-large wild Cape rock oysters from Mossel Bay but may vary its selection depending on availability and the season. They have a delightfully firm mouthfeel, with a juicy and intensely briny character. “The key to serving the perfect oyster is to maintain its freshness,” says Belthazar owner Ian Halfon. “We use specialised tanks that keep our oysters live until serving,” he adds. While these wild oysters take a little extra time to shuck, the result is impressive. Since it has such an appealing natural flavour not much needs to be added, says Belthazar’s head chef Sherwyn Rayners. “Simplicity is key. We serve our oysters with lemon wedges and a side of red onion vinaigrette which helps to enhance the natural sweetness and ocean flavours,” he adds. When it comes to oysters at Belthazar, less is definitely more.
At Belthazar we guarantee you the freshest, sustainably farmed and harvested oysters – the perfect accompaniment to a glass of fine Champagne or Cap Classique over the festive season.