Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Oyster hangover horrid ...and highly recommended

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CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. -- The morning after a night in Charlottetown, my clothes smell like Guinness, my tongue feels like a strip of sandpaper and my head is pounding with the echoes of a Celtic cover band with a far-too-enthusiastic drummer.

Like many a tourist to the P.E.I capital, I've woken up with a colossal hangover -- a mind-blowing, vertigo-inducing, nausea-inspiring remnant of an exuberant night of overindulgence lubricated not only by alcohol but by the hospitality of the local populace.

This particular form of midsummer Maritime experience is hardly unusual. The bartenders and pubkeepers of Charlottetown like to keep their clients happy.

But the way I managed to aquire my humongous hangover was a little bit bizarre. Approximately 14 hours earlier, I had vowed to consume as many Prince Edward Island oysters as my stomach and wallet could tolerate in the space of a whirlwind tour of Canada's smallest province, which is famous around the world for the bivalves.

Living in Winnipeg, thousands of miles from an oyster-growing coastline, I had developed the wrong impression about Crassostrea virginica, the oyster found on the East Coast of North America, mistakenly believing it was less tasty and robust than Crassostrea gigas, the most common oyster grown in British Columbia and Washington state.

The problem was the ubiquity of the Malpeque oyster, a sort of brand name given to dozens of virginica varieties grown in and around P.E.I.'s sprawling Malpeque Bay. By the time Malpeques arrive in Manitoba, they've often lost something in the transportation, ironically because cold-water east-coast oysters can handle long shipping periods.

But when you actually visit P.E.I., you quickly find there is no such thing as a Malpeque oyster. Instead, you encounter oyster varieties named after the bay or farm where they're found or grown.

There are Colville Bays from southeast of Charlottetown, Raspberry Points on the north shore and roughly two dozen more P.E.I varieties, all branded imprecisely as Malpeques if they're shipped far away. They all have slightly different shapes and textures, owing to the differing salinity and temperatures of the places where they grow.

They can also be sweet, salty, mild or mineral-laden, depending on this same set of factors. And when you consume them at the source, they are quite simply amazing.

Along with my wife and an equally shellfish-obsessed friend from Philadelphia, I started my oyster-eating orgy at Flex Mussels, a somewhat trendy resto that began life in smaller Summerside, P.E.I. before moving to Charlottetown's waterfront.

We start with oyster-laden martinis and order a bowl of steamed mussels, P.E.I.'s other famous shellfish export. But we're really here for the raw oysters, three varieties of which were on offer on a plate with an array of sauces we barely touched because they overwhelm the delicate flavour of raw bivalves.

Surprisingly, Flex Mussels also places oysters in a light panko crust and just barely deep-fries them, coming up with a light alternative to the dreadful fried oyster often butchered elsewhere.

They also make decent cocktails, which sent us scrambling to venue No. 2: Claddagh Oyster House, a downtown Charlottetown institution with barstools and booths on the main-floor oyster bar and a gregariously rowdy pub up on the second floor.

Claddagh House, we were overjoyed to discover, had almost every variety of P.E.I. oyster on the market, cheerily shucked by a bartender whose youth belied her skill with an oyster knife.

We consumed enough creatures to gain free admission to the pub upstairs. Four hours and a few Celtic versions of R.E.M. songs later, we were intoxicated enough to forget how to find our way back to our slightly creepy bed-and-breakfast.

Suffering from horrid hangovers, we nonetheless continue our oyster tour, driving into the P.E.I. countryside along Route 6. Our destination is Stanley Bridge, the home of Carr's oysters, which are grown in shallow New London Bay and also sold in a restaurant up on the west bank of the bay.

At first, we fear our booze-abused stomachs can handle no more oysters. But hair of the dog and the sight of the shucker quickly change our minds.

We wind up with a plate full of Carr's, more mussels, steamed clams and a cold lobster. Lifted from their beds mere hours ago, the oysters were amazing -- I had never had the chance to consume the delicacies while gazing at the place where they were grown.

This is not a matter of being obsessed with terroir. It's a question of appreciating seafood that is grown in a manner that sustains its environment, the local economy and the species itself.

It also helps that these things taste amazing. The total damage in 18 hours: 120 oysters and a trio of nasty Visa bills to match the hangovers.

I'd do it all again in a second.

Prince Edward Island's best oyster bars:

Claddagh Oyster House: Old-school oyster house, with a Celtic pub upstairs. Many varieties of P.E.I. oysters. Located at 131 Sydney St. in downtown Charlottetown, (902) 892-9661,

Flex Mussels: Modern seafood resto with oyster shooters, a handful of raw P.E.I. varieties and superlative fried oysters. Inventive menu also features mussels steamed 16 different ways. Find it at 2 Lower Water St. on the Charlotteown waterfront, 902-569-0200, A second location recently opened in New York City.

Carr's Oyster Bar & Restaurant: Restaurant and patio adjacent oyster farm at Stanley Bridge in central Prince Edward Island. Located just north of route 6 on the west side of Stanley Bridge,(902) 886 3355,


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 15, 2009 E6

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