Wearing army green waders and carrying an underwater viewer that looks like an orange traffic cone, we are 3 feet deep in the cold waters of Limfjorden, hunting for oyster gold.
The transparent bottom of the viewer reveals a seabed generously scattered with the fabled European flat oysters, which we scoop up with steel nets.
We’re on an oyster safari and have struck a rich vein.
A couple of bemused onlookers watch from the shore as we set up folding chairs and a table in the water, shuck the oysters and line up garnishes; ponzu sauce, sherry vinegar and shallots, dill oil and freshly grated horseradish.
The oysters are spectacular on their own: nutty, meaty, metallic and with a taste of iodine that tickles the inside of your cheeks.
Oysters from Limfjorden – a shallow sound in the northern part of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula – are rare treats and rated among the best in the world.
These waters are home to the largest remaining wild population of European flat oysters – ostrea edulis – also known as Colchester natives, Whitstable oysters or Belons.
Unlike the craggy teardrop-shaped Pacific oysters, the European natives are rounder, flatter and have a golden hue on the inside.
Their price is equally impressive; one Limfjord oyster can cost as much as 60 Danish kroner ($8.85) in a Copenhagen restaurant.
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While much of the endangered native oyster population in Europe has been haunted by parasites, the cold, nutrient-rich waters in Limfjorden have proved a fertile and resistant spot where the oysters grow slowly, yielding firm, meaty flesh and a complex flavor that’s treasured by chefs.
“Limfjorden is the northernmost climate in which the native oysters can live,” says Kasper Fogh, editor of online food magazine Aorta. “These extreme conditions give the oyster an intensity that you would not experience 1,000 miles further south.
“The native oysters have a bitterness which makes them versatile for cooking and they’re rich on healthy fats which bind flavor. Also, the evolution of the brain has been linked to coastal societies where native oysters were part of the diet.
“It’s quite simply the best brain food you can find.”
Most of the oysters caught on fishing boats in Limfjorden are exported to southern Europe, but the safaris here on the windswept beach at Gjellerodde are exposing a new audience to the famous delicacy.
Five hundred years ago, such adventures would have had fatal consequences.
Denmark’s King Frederik II imposed a monopoly on oysters and took a “three strikes and you’re sentenced to death” approach to trespassers.
Today, fishing is still heavily regulated to ensure the sustainability of the native oysters (cold winters can destroy large amounts of the stock), but private excursions are raising awareness of the oysters’ environmental plight and generating wider appetite for their culinary potential.
“These trips bring out the hunter-gatherer gene in people,” says Michael Madsen from the Jutland Aquarium, which started the oyster safaris about three years ago.
While most of the area’s locals seem to prefer pork chops and pates from their award-winning butcher, people from as far away as Norway, Holland and Estonia travel to Limfjorden for the safaris and the prospect of filling up bargain buckets of oysters.
“The feeling of picking these oysters straight out of the water went right to my heart,” says Madsen. “It’s an incredible feeling, it’s right on the edge of the beach and you only have to walk out a few meters.”
While the Limfjord oyster is considered the crown jewel of the molluscs, oyster safaris in Denmark actually started further south on Jutland’s west coast with a different target in mind.
Since the early ’90s, the invasive Pacific oyster has thrived in the Wadden Sea national park, a UNESCO heritage site on Denmark’s southwestern coast.
There are various theories behind this biological invasion.
One is that the oysters are remnants from farming experiments or that they stem from larvae in the ballast water of ships.
But the fact is that there are now millions of oysters nestled in the intertidal mud flats of the Wadden Sea, posing an ecological challenge to the native biodiversity, and offering a tasty reward for adventurous food enthusiasts.
With the tidal water receded, we set off from the east coast of Fanoe island and walk about a mile though the beautifully rippled seabed until we reach the oyster banks.
Our guide, Jesper Voss, is the self-anointed Fanoe Oyster King, sporting a Viking-style brown leather apron with metal fixings and a holster for his knives and Tabasco bottle.
He pitches up on the exposed concrete base of a pylon, amid the misty silhouette of cranes, chimneys and Esbjerg harbour on the other side of the water, and serves up a unique recipe: oysters with slices of strawberry, fresh lime juice and a grind of black pepper.
Hardly seasonal or local, yet strangely seductive.
Back on shore, we stay at Sonderho Kro, an almost 300-year-old inn in Fanoe’s picturesque village of Sonderho, which is all thatched houses and bucolic charm.
Salty lamb and shellfish
With the inn located a few meters from green dikes and marshland on the island’s south coast, the generous ecosystem of the Wadden Sea has gifted head chef Jakob Sullestad an exciting larder of rabbits, beach herbs, oysters and lamb.
“It wasn’t until I moved here that I started using wild herbs and all these things,” says Sullestad.
Among his different takes on oyster – topped with dried beetroot and apple compote, or crispy parsnip and turbot skin – the outstanding dish is lamb tartare, made with trimmed leg meat of salty marshland lamb, chopped oyster for seasoning and zingy horseradish.
“To me,” says Sullested, “oysters and lamb just sum up all that is great about this area.”
For now, the wild oysters caught on safaris in the Wadden Sea and in the bays of Limfjorden are only for private consumption.
Food authority regulations make it a cumbersome process to attain permits for distribution or sale, but the oyster safaris have sparked enthusiasm for a prized possession that is often the prerogative of fine-dining restaurants.
After all, standing in your waders picking oysters from the seabed and shucking them on the spot is the finest destination in which to consume this famous treat.
How to join the oyster hunts
JyllandsAkvariet (Jutland Aquarium) organizes oyster safaris on Gjellerodde beach near the town of Lemvig in Limfjorden from mid-October to April.
The safaris last three hours and the 300 Danish kroner ($44) price includes an oyster knife, a bucket for collecting and rental of waders.
Jesper Voss –The Fanoe Oyster King – arranges oyster safaris in the Wadden Sea, off the east coast of Fanoe, for small or larger groups. The price is 150 kroner per person for a three-hour excursion. Contact Fanoe Sport Event on [email protected]; +45 25 737 333.
Lars Hinnerskov Eriksen is a freelance journalist and author based in Copenhagen who writes about all aspects of Nordic culture. He previously spent six years in London working for the Guardian.