Why you should care
Here’s how to get the flavor of seafood without going near the sea.
When superstar Irish chef Darina Allen gives people Mertensia maritima for the first time, she likes it to be simple. Sometimes even just a leaf on its own, a little garnish. That’s the best way to taste it, after all — and to marvel at it.
Anytime a food can fool us, it feels like magic. That’s the trick behind molecular gastronomy, constructing what looks like a poached egg from a yolk, parmesan cheese, water and chemicals. But oyster leaf is ever weirder than such scientific concoctions because it just grows that way. It’s a lush green leaf that tastes like nothing for a second and then tastes unmistakably like an oyster — metallic, oceany and fresh. It’s not cooking wizardry. That’s just the way it grows.
If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. Most people are introduced to oyster leaf by chefs like Allen, who herself found out about it from a friend who grew it in her West Cork, Ireland, greenhouse. It grows along rocky Northern coasts in Scotland, Canada and Scandinavia, but has slowly made its way to the wider world. I discovered oyster leaf at a Parisian flower shop, where it had a large sign asking that passersby not rip off and taste leaves. To try it, I had to buy it, so I did.
Accustomed to the Northern Hemisphere, oyster leaf doesn’t like heatwaves or frost, but its thick leaves and small blue flowers (which have earned it the nickname “sea bluebells”) are hardy as long as you don’t harvest too many leaves at once. A packet of seeds from a U.S. supplier will run you $4.50 online.
“It’s uncanny how it totally has the flavor of oyster,” says Allen, who says it’s best enjoyed in the simplest possible way. She’ll often serve it simply as a garnish, but she says it pairs well with small portions of raw fish or with the corals from sea urchins drizzled with a little sea water. If you’re eating the plant because you want the flavor of oyster without consuming any sea creatures, she suggests eating oyster leaf with fennel flowers as a vegetarian option. While vegetarians who don’t like the taste of seafood might recoil from a leaf that so exactly mimics it, anyone missing oysters from their diet but abstaining for moral or environmental reasons might see whether their local flower shop can stock it.
Allen recalls sampling a dish at a Copenhagen restaurant and immediately recognizing the fishy flavor. “The waiter came to the table and said, ‘Taste this.’ I said, ‘Oh my goodness, oyster leaves,’ and he said, ‘You’re the first customer in the restaurant who has ever recognized it.’” Nonetheless, she says, it’s becoming more popular among young chefs running small restaurants, especially those with a focus on foraging, as it’s often found in the wild. And a little bit of oyster leaf goes a long way … it’s a neat trick for a chef since it requires no cooking or treatment to confuse and delight diners not expecting the taste of bivalve from a leaf.
Or you can keep it on your windowsill, demanding that everyone who visits tastes a leaf … and then wait for the fireworks.