The last time I sat down with Rodney Clarke, proprietor of Rodney’s Oyster House, Long John Silver fan and the man who single-handedly re-introduced the oyster to Toronto, he was eating a dish of enormous Grande Entrées cooked with butter and panko crumbs, golden and oozing juice. Oysters of such a size, he suggested, would one day be a thing of the past. Except, being Rodney, he put it much better than I ever could. My tape recorder was running so I saved the immortal words: “Who knows if you’ll see virginicas this size in the future. Farmers are impatient and an oyster needs a good eight years to grow. One day, when you get old, you’ll say, ‘Shit, I remember going to Rodney’s and he had these things that were as big as the tongue on a mountie’s boot! Where are those ones today?’”
Rodney’s forebodings may yet be mirrored by event. Meanwhile, it’s the little oysters we have to worry about—Toronto’s oyster of preference, sweet, creamy small-choice Malpeques, the bargain-priced bread-and-butter mainstay of all the restaurants in the city that aren’t specialist oyster bars. They are about to become very rare, not because they’ved been ripped untimely from the ocean’s womb by venal Prince Edward Islanders but because of their own sexual diffidence. “It’s a Mother Nature thing,” says Patrick MacMurray, world champion shucker and owner of Starfish. “In the spat seasons of 2004 and 2005, there was only a two percent ‘set’ in the wild oyster beds around P.E. I. They need about 24 months to grow so we’re looking forward to two very lean years for small-choice Malpeques.”
The few we do get will be more expensive but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Oyster lovers will be obliged to expand their horizons, looking for the little beauties’ larger, older siblings or slurping bigger critters from less familiar waters. By 2008, when small-choice Malpeques are back (this year’s set was excellent) they may seem rather tame. In the meantime, people who can’t get their dentures around the burlier varieties (oysters that crowd their shells, require chewing and look, again in Rodney’s inimitable words, “like a large breast in a small brassiere”) should seek out the dainty little treats from New Brunswick’s aquacultured beds.
There’s often an alternative, you see. At least, there is in Toronto. Maybe because I’m an immigrant, I have a high opinion of this city and the vast smorgasbord of delicacies it offers. My latest find is the boneless confit of lamb that Stephen Alexander is selling at the new branch of Cumbrae’s on Bayview Avenue (oddly enough, they hadn’t even heard of it when I asked at the Church Street branch). It comes already cooked (obviously), slow-braised in duck fat in Cumbrae’s kitchens then vacuum-packed. You just warm it up in the oven. It’s awesomely succulent and rich—a surefire dinner party triumph for people who don’t cook.
The best thing I ate this month was served at Treadwell’s in Port Dalhousie, now open and already deservedly busy. After rinsing the gizzard with a glass of refreshing 13th Street Wine Co. G.H. Funk Vineyard Brut Premier Cuvée (a long name for a delicious Niagara sparkler) and hypnotizing the brain with the view of the broad and turbulent green waters at the mouth of the old Welland canal, we went indoors for dinner, during the course of which a ravier dish was brought to the table. In it was a buttery medley of asparagus, mushrooms and hairy little yellow, mauve and orange roots plucked barely an hour before from the sun-warmed soil at Dave Perkins’s Wyndym Farm. I’m not sure precisely how Treadwell had cooked them but they were still alive, if you know what I mean—still full of their natural sugars, chewy, bittersweet, rustic, intensely flavourful. “Oh right,” we said. “Of course. That’s what vegetables are supposed to taste like—the way they tasted in the Garden of Eden.” Thanks to Messrs. Perkins and Treadwell for the experience.