Top shucker tells Metro what to do with sea delicacy

John Sylvester photo


John Bil, left, shucks oysters with Guinness World Records shucker Marc Bardier in P.E.I.

Oysters are a delicacy that most people love to indulge in — but they don’t agree with everyone’s tastebuds.

The one thing that normally turns people’s stomachs at the sight of these slurpy appetizers is they’re eaten raw.

In fact, John Bil, Canada’s three-time National Oyster Shucking Champion, says that’s what probably puts off many people from even trying them.

“When people say to me that they had an oyster and they didn’t really like it, I ask them what kind of oyster it was,” says Bil, vice-president of the 11th annual PEI

International Shellfish Festival, which takes place next month. “Oysters from the East Coast and the West Coast taste completely different, but if it wasn’t fresh enough, then there’s no way they could have enjoyed it.”

People often don’t know how to pick oysters, so they end up with something that’s not bad, but not good, either.

Bil says to pick the perfect oyster, make sure they’ve been kept on ice, they’re tightly closed, are fairly heavy and only have a very fresh smell of the sea. Looking for the harvest date is also a good place to start.

“If they’re coming from the East Coast in the fall, they’re fine out of the water for about three weeks,” Bil says.

“If it’s from the west coast and the harvest date is more than about a week, it’s probably not that great of an idea to pick those up — you might find a lot of dry ones, and if it doesn’t have a lot of that natural seawater, the texture and the taste is going to be a little bit off.”

If you’re being served oysters in a restaurant, there should be basically no shell, there should be some natural seawater in the oyster, the meat should be typically very creamy in colour, and very opaque. But if the meat is translucent or see-through, then that’s a bad sign.

So, how do you know if you’ve had a truly bad oyster?

“There’s no mistaking a bad one. You open it and it’s like, ’Oh, man, that’s a bad oyster.’ It’s quite obvious in taste, smell, texture. When it’s bad, it’s bad,” he says.

Though oysters are typically eaten raw, you can cook them — just not for very long.

If you do decide to cook oysters, Bil suggests rolling them in a very light cornmeal with some herbs, and quickly pan fry them for about 30 seconds on each side, just to crisp them up and serve with some handmade mayonnaise.

You can also broil them with a bit of herbs and butter, and you can poach them in butter and fresh tomatoes.

In terms of drinks to accompany oysters, Bil suggests a Sauvignon Blanc with the east critters and a dry Riesling with west.

“You just want to enhance the taste of the oyster and not overwhelm it,” he says. “The wine acts like a sauce with the oyster — that’s all it really is.”

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Lemon Basil Mussels


  • 2 lemons

  • 20 basil leaves

  • 2 shallots, minced

  • 2 tbsp olive oil

  • Cracked pepper, to taste

  • 2 lb. of fresh P.E.I. mussels

  • 3 oz. heavy cream


  1. Zest the lemons with a box grater, or microplaner. Reserve zest. Juice the lemons (if you roll them on the counter before juicing them, you will get more juice). Reserve juice.

  2. Roughly chop the basil leaves and place in a small bowl.

  3. Sauté the shallots in the olive oil, on medium-low heat, for about 5 minutes.

  4. Add a splash of water to the pan, turn up heat to high, and add mussels (rinse the mussels under cold water first, discarding any that are open or cracked).

  5. Cover and steam for about 5 to 7 minutes, turning occasionally. Once mussels have opened, and firmed up, they are done.

  6. Transfer them from the pan to a serving dish with a slotted spoon, and add cream, lemon juice, and basil to broth in the pan.

  7. Heat liquid on high heat for about 2 to 3 minutes, and pour over mussels.

  8. Sprinkle lemon zest on mussels to finish.

Baked Clams Two Toms-style

In the heart of Brooklyn lies restaurant Two Toms in all of its panelled glory. There is no menu, per sé, the wine list is “white” or “red,” the beer is Bud or Coors Light. The food is simple, and unbelievable. I ordered the clams, and then ordered another plate, even though I had a huge pork chop on the way. This is my best guess at their recipe. Nothing fancy, but tasty.


  • 1/2 cup olive oil

  • 1/2 cup breadcrumbs

  • 2 tbsp cracked pepper

  • 1/3 cup chopped Italian parsley

  • Pinch of salt

  • 1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese

  • 24 littleneck clams (look for smaller clams, larger ones are often called cherrystones)


  1. Combine all ingredients (except clams) in a bowl. The mixture should be paste-like.

  2. Steam clams, until they are just opening a little. Try not to cook them all the way through. Let them cool a little, and finish opening them with a paring knife.

  3. Discard one shell from each clam, place the clams, in their shells, on a baking sheet. Turn your broiler on, to about 400 degrees. Spoon a little of the mixture onto each clam.

  4. Broil for about 5 minutes, or until mixture is slightly brown.

Tiny Tomato, and Fresh Chili Oyster Sauce

This isn’t a sauce, really, but is sure is tasty on oysters. The smaller tomatoes add a little crunch.


  • 12 small, very ripe, tomatoes (cherry, Campari, etc.)

  • 2 fresh Serrano chilies

  • Cup rice vinegar

  • 1 tbsp. sugar

  • 1 tsp. fish sauce


  1. Dice tomatoes, and toss into a bowl. Split the chilies, and remove seeds and the white “ribs.

  2. Chop them as finely as you can, and toss into tomato bowl. Add vinegar, sugar and fish sauce.

  3. Muddle the mixture with a muddler, or the back of a wooden spoon, until everything is thoroughly mixed.

  4. Spoon a little onto fresh shucked oysters, just before serving. This sauce is best if made the day of use, but can be kept in the fridge for a couple of days.

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