“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy, and to make plans.” -Ernest Hemingway
Oysters are one of nature’s finest “whole foods”. They need no adornment, no processing, and no cooking to eat them at their very best. There is a reason oysters are considered an aphrodisiac. Not only do they seduce with their flavor, shape and texture, but they’re loaded with zinc and other minerals said to encourage amorous feelings.
Eating an oyster is to experience a seduction from the sea. Like the ocean misting your face during beach walk on a blustery day, a raw oyster should taste briny and clean. Biting down on the firm flesh of the oyster, coupled with the chill of the animal’s own salty liquor, is an invitation to become one with the ocean, if only for a fleeting moment.
Given that February is the month of all things pink and red, hearts and roses, love and sex, and Valentine’s Day, I thought that now is the perfect time to focus on nature’s finest aphrodisiac.
A little history:
Archaeologists have found evidence of oysters going back 20,000 years and humans have cultivated them for over 2000 years in parts of Asia and Europe. In the United States, like lobster, oysters started out as a food for the poor, not for the privileged. Because they were so plentiful, oysters were the food both of Native Americans and the early settlers. By the 19th century, oysters were part of the daily diet of the working class, especially in New York, the hub of distribution. The NY Times reported in 1907 that over 100 million oysters were consumed by New Yorkers alone that year. From there, oysters were shipped across country by train in barrels filled with ice. They were so popular that rising demand, coupled with periods of disease, wiped out much of the country’s oyster stocks. This led to decreased availability, increased prices, and created the perception that oysters are the “rare delicacy” they are today.
Currently, 95% of all oysters are raised on oyster farms and take two to four years to reach a size acceptable for sale. Unlike other forms of aquaculture, oyster farming by its nature is sustainable and environmentally friendly. Because oysters filter up to 20 gallons of water a day through their gills to capture the nutrients from plankton, local water becomes cleaner, encouraging not only the oysters, but other sea life to flourish.
Just as the nuances of wine come from the land on which grapes are grown, oyster flavor changes depending on the nutrients and temperature of the waters in which they live. Oysters grown in icy cold water are often described as having a “mineral”, “cucumber” or even “lettuce” like taste. Oysters raised in warmer water tend to be milder with descriptions like “sweet” and “buttery”.
The conditions of the water also dictate the characteristics of the shells; rougher water creates a stronger, thicker, ridged shell to withstand the waves. Calmer water leads to a thinner, more delicate, and sometimes flatter, shell. An oyster’s shell is its home, and because many oysters grow in tidal areas, they are able to clamp the two sides of the shell shut with their abductor muscle (the part of the oyster’s body that holds the two shells together) and withstand being out of water for days at a time.
East vs West
The US grows two main varieties of oyster; crassostria virginica and crassostria gigas. Virginicas are typically found on the East coast all the way into the Northern territories of Canada and South into in the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico. These oysters are characterized by a mild flavor, shallow cup and delicate shell. Common varieties include the Malpeque (from Prince Edward Island, Canada), the Rappahannock (from Virginia), and Blue Points (from New York). While most oysters are named after the location in which they are grown, newer oysters are taking unusual names like the Naked Cowboy (from the Long Island Sound in New York).
Gigas oysters grow on the West Coast and are characterized by their deep cup, heavily fluted shell, and briny flavor. Besides the US, gigas oysters grow in other parts of the world like New Zealand, Australia, and Chile. Common gigas oysters are Fanny Bays (from British Columbia, Canada), Hog Island (from Tomales Bay, California), and Chef’s Creek (from the Puget Sound, Washington) as well as the Coromandel from New Zealand.
In addition to the two most common varieties of oyster, you’ll find three others grown in the US. Tiny Kumomoto oysters, the crassostra sikmea, are transplants from Japan and grow in the Puget Sound of Washington. The only oyster left native to the Pacific Northwest is the Olympia (ostrea lurida). This little oyster almost went extinct in the 1920’s which is why gigas oysters were brought to replace it.
In Europe you’ll find the ostrea edulis, also known as the European Flat oyster. The most famous is the flat, round, mineral flavored Belon from France. However, if you see an oyster labeled as “Belon” on a menu in the US it is most likely grown in Maine because imports from France are currently forbidden. In fact, the US currently allows imported oysters from only five countries; Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Chile, and South Korea. But don’t fear, there is no shortage of domestic oysters available with over 200 different varieties grown in the US.
Months with R
There is a longstanding myth that oysters should not be eaten in months without an “r” (May, June, July, August), in other words, the summer months in the northern hemisphere. This is because oysters spawn in warmer water. As the celebrated food writer MFK Fisher so delicately describes it, “all oysters, like all men, are somewhat weaker after they have done their best at reproducing”. It’s not dangerous to eat oysters at this time, but they aren’t particularly appetizing. The other theory is that the myth evolved because of the highly perishable nature of oysters in the heat. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat oysters in the summer months; you simply need to source them from the colder waters of Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and the southern hemisphere.
Oyster Century Club:
If you’re interested in a fun way to try a bunch of different oysters, you might check out friend and fellow blogger Jacqueline Church’s Oyster Century Club where a group of ambitious people are trying to record eating (over time) 100 different varieties of oysters!
Coming next…(Part 2) How to buy, store and open fresh oysters, (Part 3) Sauces and garnishes for raw oysters and (Part 4) traditional Oysters Rockefeller.
Disclaimer #1: Standard health warning regarding oysters: There is a risk associated with consuming raw oysters or any raw animal protein. If you have chronic illness of the liver, stomach, or blood or have immune disorders, you are at greatest risk of illness from raw oysters and should eat oysters fully cooked. If you are unsure of your risk, you should consult your physician.”
Disclaimer #2: Parts of this post were originally written and photographed by me for the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Whisk Magazine.