“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, A Moveable Feast
I’ll be honest, it literally took me until about a year ago to even want to try an oyster. I had been around oysters all my life, living inland, my parents still frequently ate them (usually from a jar) whenever possible. Fried oysters were a staple at family meals. However, something about the name, the texture, the look – nothing appealed to me. But after watching Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia clothing, eat a raw oyster on the rocky Argentinian shore over an open fire during a segment in 2010′s 180 South documentary, I knew I had to have one.
If you’ve never seen the documentary 180 South, then you should.
So what is it about oysters that attracts such an appeal? New Englanders praise their Wellfleets, New Yorkers rave about their Blue Points, and if you’re on the West Coast, Kumamotos are king. No other food packs such a sense of place. Their taste, in the end, is truly local in every sense.
There are some 400 recorded species of oysters worldwide and probably tons more that have yet been discovered. Even within the same species, no two will have the exact same flavor. Again, it’s all about place. Water temperature, salinity levels, tidal patterns, mating cycles, the plankton they eat, and the mineral content of their habitat all come into play when they hit your tongue.
Describing the taste of oysters is easily comparable to that of wine descriptions. Depending on the palate, there is truly so much that can be found.
In the U.S., there are just five species of oysters. The U.S. government has banned the import of oysters from abroad, with the exception of Canada, Mexico, Chile, South Korea, and New Zealand. Here’s a bit of a breakdown to U.S. Oysters and what you should expect:
Pacific Oysters (crassostrea gigas): Pacific oysters are small and sweet and hands down the world’s most cultivated oyster. They rule in both Europe and the West Coast, where they are starting to over-run the native Olympia (below). Pacific oysters used to be used to describe all small Pacific oysters like Kumamotos and Miyagis. Kumamotos, however, were found to be their own species (below). Pacifics have a distinctly more fluted, sharply pointed shell than Atlantics or European flats.
Taste: Plump and briny with a smokey-sweet finish. Excellent served raw on the half shell, grilled, baked or fried! Extra smalls are good for half shell eating and smalls are great for cooking.
Kumamoto Oysters (crassostrea sikamea): These beauties are small, sweet, and have an almost nutty flavor. They have a noticeable, deep, bowl-shaped shell that makes them great for eating raw. Like most things, they’re big in Japan, as well as the West Coast. Originally from the Kumamoto of Kyushu, Japan, they were raised in California, Oregon and Washington for many years, and didn’t become popular until the mid 1980′s.
Taste: Sweet, a bit salty, mildy fruity and nutty flavor. Some say they have a bit of a metallic aftertaste.
Atlantic Oysters (crassostrea virginicas): The truth about Atlantic oysters is that there are so many varieties. Bluepoints, Wellfleets, Malpeques, Beausoleils, and so on, and most of them, nearly 85%, are harvested in the Gulf of Mexico. But, true Bluepoints, the most popular Atlantic Oyster, are raised in Long Island’s Great South Bay where they were originally found.
Taste: Generally, they have satiny, almost liquid meats with a high brininess and very mild flavor. Genuine Blue Point Oysters have a fresh, crisp, firm texture, with a sweet aftertaste, loaded with salinity.
European Flats (ostrea edulis): These little guys are often known as Belons. But, while Belons are indeed European Flats, not all European Flats are Belons. Belons are only grown in the Brittany region of France. They have a smooth, flat shell (hints the name) and an incredible seaweed and sharp, mineral taste.
Taste: Meaty texture, seaweed, minerality, and almost a “crunch” to them.
Olympia Oysters (ostrea lurida or ostrea conchapila): These are the dwarfs of the oyster world. Often coming in about the size of a silver dollar or smaller, they make Kumamotos look like giants. They are the only oyster native to the West Coast, which allowed the gold miners of the 1940′s and 50′s to nearly wipe them out. At one point, they were thought to be extinct, however wild populations of them still exist and are strictly protected. If you see Olympias on a menu, they probably came harvested from the Puget Sound and British Columbia.
Taste: Sweet, coppery, and metallic on the finish.
To truly enjoy an oyster, you need to of course know how to shuck it. Our friends at Opening Ceremony put out a great video with Chef David Chang that is certainly worth watching. If step by step instructions are more your style, Esquire Magazine gives you a wonderful breakdown of the art. Either way, the only way to get good at it is by doing it. Having a good oyster knife helps.
Once you’ve got the shell open, your options are nearly endless. You can splash them with Tobasco, a Virginia favorite. Plop them onto saltines, dunk them in Bloody Marys, fold them into omelettes with fresh chilies, poach them, fry them, stew them, smoke them, pickle them, or put them right onto a hot grill. But it is a true ostreaphile that requests their oysters raw, straight, and with no chaser. Would you taste a good espresso by loading it up with soy milk? We didn’t think so.
The beauty of oysters is that they are truly the last of the “to-go” foods, because to get the best ones, you must go to them. Maybe it’s their shells, their texture, or the flavor of the coastline where they were raised. Maybe it’s their delicious briny liquor that goes across your tongue or the fact that they’re still alive when you eat them. When you eat oysters, you’re eating a sense of place.