WATCH: What is the difference between a farmed oyster and a wild oyster?

Seen as the ultimate in haute cuisine, oysters are revered for their delicate flavour and creamy texture. Picture: Sarene Kloren

Seen as the ultimate in haute cuisine, oysters are revered for their delicate flavour and creamy texture. Picture: Sarene Kloren

Published May 19, 2024


Oysters and champagne are always associated with a life of luxury. Seen as the ultimate in haute cuisine, they are revered for their delicate flavour and creamy texture.

After many years of being a fan of oysters I was recently educated on the difference between wild and farmed oysters, and was amazed to discover that their texture, flavour and size are so vastly different.

Restaurateur Charles van Tonder, who owns 34 South, Tapas & Oysters and Sirocco in Knysna, all specialising in oysters, says that comparing cultivated oysters to wild oysters is like Karoo lamb and venison - both do the same job, and both do them well, but to the connoisseur the venison is a much rarer culinary treat.

On tasting the two side by side I now completely understand this analogy. The wild oysters are smaller, and have a wild flavour. In comparison, the cultivated oysters are much larger and almost fill the shell with a richer, creamier texture and flavour.

Wild Cape rock oysters, native to the coastal waters of South Africa have been feeding the local native population for thousands of years and are now a sought-after delicacy among discerning palates.

Keith Davis, director of 34 South in Knysna explains the difference between the two.

“Cultivated oysters are predominantly grown in two main areas in South Africa. East Coast oysters are grown in warmer waters, have a milder flavour with a thinner meat content and a very mineral- based flavour. West Coast cultivated oysters, grown in colder areas, are plumper and have a fuller flesh content with a slightly more complex flavour, and the flavour has more saltiness of the sea.

Wild coastal oysters are found on the south coast, which has milder temperatures. They take longer to mature but are full-bodied with complex flavours of minerals, seaweed, and fresh seawater”.

Keith likens the experience of tasting a cultivated oyster to tasting a great glass of Sauvignon Blanc, while the coastal oyster experience is like tasting a beautiful French champagne.

He believes the only flavour you should put on a coastal oyster is a squeeze of lemon. If you want to cook or flavour an oyster, rather do it with the cultivated oyster, which does not have its own complex flavours.

While both boast a rich history and delectable flavour profiles, they do differ significantly in taste, size, and creaminess, providing oyster enthusiasts with a choice suited to their preferences.

An oyster's flavour is dependent on the water where it grows, an oyster's flavour — its merroir — is similar to wine's terroir. Water salinity affects the taste, as does the amount of time spent out of the water.

While cultivated oysters are grown in underwater beds and are easily harvested, the wild oysters are hand-picked by local oyster pickers.

Oyster picker Andrew van Rooyen at Wilderness.

It’s a tough way to make a living – armed with crude ‘crowbars’ dressed in wetsuits, the pickers have to comb the rocks in the icy waters for the molluscs.

The job is weather dependent, and pickers can only work for two weeks a month during the spring tide.

They are harvested locally by experienced oyster pickers who are licensed by SANParks to collect one 40 kg bag of oysters each day over seven days during spring low tide only.

Oyster pickers Susan Avery and Elizabeth van Rooyen at Wilderness.

The pickers have to be able to carry the bags themselves - which is quite a feat as they often have to walk a long distance to the rocky outcrops where the oysters grow.

This tradition, like many of the traditional fishing methods along our coastline, is under threat from global warming and marine pollution.

At the end of the day, how we choose to enjoy oysters is really a personal choice - whether it’s baked with garlic and parmesan cheese oysters; with a shot of tequila or served raw with lemon wedges, black pepper, and Tabasco Sauce, oysters will never lose their global appeal as an exotic delight in the culinary world.

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