Oyster aficionados can choose from a broad variety of the ubiquitous shellfish.
The Oyster Conversion Experience
by Rowan Jacobsen
 

 

Above: Well-shucked Beausoleil.  From northern New Brunswick, Canada.

Photo: ADRIENNE ANDERSON

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An amazing amount of ink has been spilled over the years in an effort to nail the taste of oysters. The essayist Michel Montaigne compared them to violets. Eleanor Clark mentioned their “shock of freshness.” M. F. K. Fisher was one of many to point out that they are “more like the smell of rock pools at low tide than any other food in the world.” To the French poet Léon-Paul Fargue, eating one was “like kissing the sea on the lips.” For James Beard, they were simply, “one of the supreme delights that nature has bestowed on man….Oysters lead to discussion, to contemplation, and to sensual delight. There is nothing quite like them.” Something about them excites the palate, and the mind, in a way that other shellfish don’t. You don’t see cookbooks devoted to scallops, and you’d never have found M. F. K. Fisher writing Consider the Clam.

 

Yet something about oysters resists every attempt to describe them. If we didn’t love them so, it wouldn’t matter, but there’s a tension and energy in the fact that we adore them, many others do not, and that we struggle to explain this mysterious love. The proliferating category of oyster adjectives—cucumber, citrus, melon, copper, smoke—is useful, but doesn’t cut to the core. At some level, it’s not about taste or smell at all. Because an oyster, like a lover, first captures you by bewitching your mind.

 

The Oyster Conversion Experience is remarkably consistent among individuals, genders, and generations. You are an adolescent. You are in the company of adults, among whom you desperately want to be included. You are presented with an oyster, you overcome your initial fear or revulsion, take the plunge, and afterward feel brave and proud and relieved. You want to do it again. Many authors have told their own version of the experience, including Anne Sexton in her poem “Oysters”: “there was a death, the death of childhood/there at the Union Oyster House/for I was fifteen/and eating oysters/and the child was defeated. /The woman won.”

 

Some pleasures in life are immediate. Ice cream, sex, and crack all plug straight into our limbic system and get those dopamine centers firing. We don’t need to think about whether we’re having a good time. In fact, no thought is required at all. Other pleasures sneak up on you. Poetry, cooking, cross-country skiing. They may even feel like a challenge at the time. Only afterward do you realize how alive and satisfied you feel. Oysters belong to the latter club.

 

When you eat oysters, you wake up. Your senses become sharper—touch and smell and sight as well as taste. You carefully unlock the oyster, then make sure it is good before eating it. Like a hunter, you stay focused, alive to the world and the signals it sends you. You are fully present and engaged, not watching football while absentmindedly slapping nachos in your mouth.

 

Many oyster lovers mention the importance of ritual: the shucking of the oysters; the anointing with sauces; the lifting and tilting of the shells; the drinking of the liquor before, during, or after; and then the laying of the downturned shells back on the plate. Done properly, ritual still serves its ancient purpose—to raise awareness. Like the Japanese tea ceremony, a good oyster ritual has a Zen spirit. It allows you to mask the world and live briefly in the here-and-now.

 

And, like the Japanese tea ceremony, it is art as much as consumption. Its sensual pleasures go beyond taste. There are the soft purple, green, and pink watercolors of the shell; the need to read its geometry in order to open it easily. And once open, there is the absolute contrast of the oyster and the shell. Such softness within such hardness.

 

Art is something we experience not to fill any basic needs but instead to learn about ourselves and our connections to the world. Food is rarely art. We eat to fill our bellies. We eat to sustain ourselves. We eat because we must. Oysters come pretty close to breaking this connection. No one fills up on them. They are taste sundered from satiation. We do not eat them to satisfy any needs—except for our need to experience.

 

That’s why, to me, there’s something distasteful in the stories of Diamond Jim Brady downing three hundred oysters in a sitting, of Brillat-Savarin watching his dinner companion polish off thirty-two dozen. Part of the pleasure in eating an oyster is paying attention to this other creature, respecting it. It’s a one-on-one relationship. By the time you have shucked the oyster, examined it, and slurped it, you have gotten to know that oyster pretty darned well. As with lovers, you can only shower that kind of attention on so many. (Continued below)

 

Above: Eventide Oyster Bar, Portland, ME, featuring Daisy Bay Oysters on ice from Prince Edward Island, Canada

Photo: ADRIENNE ANDERSON

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FROM TERROIR TO MEROIR

More than any other food, oysters taste like the place they come from. Oysters are creatures of bays and tidal pools and river inlets, of places where marine and terrestrial communities collide. While they are creatures of the sea, they draw their uniqueness from the land and how it affects their home waters. They have a somewhereness to them, like great wines, and in a mass-produced society where most foods don’t seem to be from anywhere, this makes them special. You can’t look at a grape and tell that it’s from Northern Chile. You can’t taste a supermarket ribeye and say, “Ah, yes, the grasslands of Wyoming.” But with an oyster, you can sometimes pinpoint its home simply by looking at it. With a little practice, you can often tell by tasting it. Think of an oyster as a lens, its concave shell focusing everything that is unique about a particular body of water into a morsel of flesh. That’s why not only do Florida oysters and Maine oysters taste different, but oysters in one Maine bay taste different from oysters in the next.

 

The wine term for this is terroir. On one hand, it makes perfect sense to speak of terroir with oysters, which exhibit their provenance so precisely. Yet, taken literally, it makes no sense. Terroir, after all, refers to terra firma, and oysters’ terra isn’t very firma. But it’s a term already familiar to most readers, and speaking of meroir would get you laughed out of most restaurants, so terroir it is.

 

So closely is an oyster’s flavor tied to its location that oysters are traditionally named for the place they come from. The East and Gulf Coasts, for example, have only one native species of oyster, Eastern, but it goes by many monikers: Pemaquid, Wellfleet, Chincoteague, Malpeque, and Cape Breton, to name just a few. On the West Coast, California’s Tomales Bays, Washington State’s Hama Hamas, and British Columbia’s Fanny Bays are all Pacific oysters, yet all look and taste different.

 

This emphasis on provenance is similar to that for European wines. Almost all white Burgundies, for example, are made from the Chardonnay grape, yet a Meursault tastes nothing like a Chablis or a Pouilly-Fuissé.  Place is paramount, and the names of both wines and oysters reflect that. Five species of oysters are found in North America, but hundreds of appellations. Each appellation produces oysters with distinct characteristics, due to the bay’s temperature, salinity, algae, tides, minerals, and many other factors, including the genetics of each bay’s population, the age of the oysters at harvest, and the techniques used to cultivate them. Some oysters are insipid, while others dazzle. Learning the geography of all these appellations takes a while, but that’s part of the fun!  With a little experience, you will soon be navigating oyster lists like an old pro.

 

THE FIVE SPECIES

The five species of oysters cultivated commercially in North America can be thought of as we do wine grapes: each has classic characteristics, though they can be expressed quite differently depending on location and growing conditions. The five:

Eastern (Crassostrea virginica)—large, firm, briny

Pacific (Crassostrea gigas)—large, soft, sweet, cucumber notes

Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea)—small, creamy, hints of melon

European Flat (Ostrea edulis)—medium, metallic, caviar and hazelnut

Olympia (Ostrea conchaphila)—tiny, coppery and smoky

 

These oysters stand in relation to one another a bit like wine grapes do. While their flavors, appearance, and quality will vary depending on where they are grown, they still have certain predictable characteristics. Understanding and describing this territory is a young and evolving art, and comparisons to wine grapes may help:

 

The Eastern is the Riesling of oysters. From the wrong place, it can be simple, one-dimensional, even almost flavorless, but when grown in great waters, it can achieve a brilliant subtlety and refinement, a transparency of sea and minerals and petrol that some consider unsurpassed. The Pacific oyster is more like a Sauvignon Blanc, less mineral but far more fruity and aromatic, often having an aftertaste of cucumber, seaweed, melon, or even bitter walnut. Like Sauvignon Blanc, it can exhibit wildly different personalities in different settings, with occasional strange and challenging flavors. (Cat pee, anyone?) The Kumamoto is the Chardonnay of oysters, buttery, round, and smooth, with all the fruit of Pacifics but none of the bitterness. Everybody likes Kumos, causing some oyster snobs to distance themselves from the oyster and the madding crowd, in search of more challenging and exclusive experiences, just as ex-Chardonnay drinkers have done. Eating the European Flat will certainly place you far from the crowd. Even most oyster lovers can’t stomach its fish-egg-and-metal flavor. For a wine equivalent, look to the tannic Barolo (Nebbiolo grape), complex, tarry, unapproachable. It doesn’t want to be your friend. A friendlier version, still metallic but sweeter, is the little Olympia, which we might compare to a Gewürztraminer: Unusual, mysteriously smoky and rich. (Continued below)

 

Above: Dr. Bill Walton, Auburn University, advising the Point Aux Pins oyster farmers on the Gulf Coast, Alabama

 

Photo: ADRIENNE ANDERSON.

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Above: Dave Cheney and fellow diver, Johns River, Maine, storing Belon oysters in submerged cages

Photo: ADRIENNE ANDERSON.

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Above: Eventide Oyster Bar, Portland, ME, featuring Daisy Bay Oysters on ice from Prince Edward Island, Canada

Photo: ADRIENNE ANDERSON.

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WHAT KIND OF OYSTER EATER ARE YOU?

Different oysters suit different occasions and different people.  If you haven’t yet been wowed by oysters, you may well have been dallying with the wrong ones. Maybe you hate the mouthful of salt you get with Eastern oysters and love supersweet Kumamotos. Maybe you like bold, gourmet oysters with brassy, lemony finishes. Or maybe that’s not you at all. Maybe, for you, heaven is a plate of petite oysters accompanied by Champagne, candlelight, and the perfect dinner companion. Don’t endure the duds in your search for a compatible oyster. Save yourself time, money, and heartbreak by picking your profile below, then finding your matches.

 

The Shrinking Violet

You’re not sure about this whole oyster thing, and need some convincing, preferably with the lightest-flavored, smallest, least intimidating oysters possible.

 

Beausoleils are the East Coast model, delicate, salty, with a fresh biscuit aroma. Many other New Brunswick oysters, such as La Saint Simons and Caraquets, also have a small size and clean finish. On the West Coast, Kumamotos are every beginner’s favorite oyster, and Kusshis are reliably small, pretty, creamy, and mild.

 

The Brine Hound

Bring on the salt! Chips, pickles, olives—you love ’em all. If you could drink seawater, you would.

 

Look for oysters grown in or near the open ocean. Maine and Massachusetts provide some of the briniest, with Pemaquids, Glidden Points, Wiannos, and Wellfleets leading the pack. Island Creeks, from Duxbury, can be extraordinarily salty, and Cuttyhunks come from an island off the coast of Cape Cod that has no rivers. Olde Salts, grown near Chincoteague Bay, are one of the few briny Virginia oysters. Pacifics tend to be less salty than Eastern oysters, but Snow Creeks fit the bill, and Willapa Bay is famous for its salty oysters. Bahia Falsas, from Baja California, may be the saltiest oysters on the planet.

 

The Sweet Tooth

Salt? Yuck! But there is nothing quite so divine as the creamy sweetness of a superplump oyster.

 

Forget Eastern oysters. The kind of sweetness you’re looking for can only be found in a Kumamoto—sweetest of the sweet—and some Pacifics. Totten Inlets are reliably sweet, Baywater Sweets amazingly so. Hog Island Sweetwaters, Nootka Sounds, and Chelsea Gems will deliver the goods.

 

The Grail Seeker

 Wellfleets? Westcotts? Been there, done that. You’ve had all the common oysters and want to taste new ones no one has heard of. And you’re willing to travel. 

 

If you haven’t yet had the unique Olympia, that should go to the top of your list. It doesn’t travel well, so you’ll probably need to visit Washington State. Colville Bays are easy to find in Prince Edward Island but rarely seen elsewhere. Sweet Drayton Harbor oysters aren’t sold commercially; you’ll need to visit the Community Oyster Farm in Washington State. Whale Rocks are rare Connecticut oysters from the Mystic River. Chiloes made some brief appearances in the United States but now are hiding out in Chile. To find the real grail, go to Brittany and get yourself a bona fide Belon. (Continued below)

 

Above: Maine Belons, one of rarest oysters in the world

Photo: ADRIENNE ANDERSON.

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The Connoisseur

 You want the best oysters in the world, price be damned. 

 

Tiny, intense Olympias are the demi-glace of oysters, a perfect reduction of tasty flavors. Penn Cove Selects and Hama Hamas are more satisfying in size, with the bright green flavors that mark the best Pacifics. Kumamotos have unmatched fruitiness. Westcott Bay Flats deliver a refined, metallic zing that can be found only in a European Flat. Among Eastern oysters, Colville Bays have full flavor and perfect salinity, Glidden Points are big and briny. For mineral-rich, savory intensity, Moonstones, Oysterponds, and Widow’s Holes are your best bets. Some feel that a Totten Virginica combines the best of both coasts in one oyster.

 

The Wild One

 

Forget those hatchery-raised wimps, you want a natural-set oyster that survived the one-in-a-million journey from egg to adult.

 

 

Olympias are natural-set—and native, of course. Hama Hamas are still grown from natural sets in Hood Canal. Most Apalachicola oysters are completely wild, born and raised in the flats of Apalachicola Bay and harvested with tongs. Gulf oysters are generally wild, as are many Malpeques, Caraquets, Tatamagouches, Bras D’Ors, Martha’s Vineyards, and Chesapeakes. But if the call of the wild is what you’re after, consider harvesting your own. Many state parks, particularly in Washington State, have oyster seasons.

 

The Wino

 

 Those potent, briny, musky oysters are as overblown as an Australian Shiraz. You like to savor oysters with wine, so you want subtle mineral flavors, not metal and salt and mud.

 

 

Kumamotos are Sauvignon Blanc’s best friend; their clean melon flavors bring out its fruit. Westcott Bay Petites and Stellar Bays are both creamy and mild, not too salty, with no clashing bitterness. Eastern oysters are tougher matches for wine, but buttery Watch Hills have a full-bodied flavor that can be terrific with sharp, flinty wines, and Rappahannock Rivers bring out the minerals in some white wines. Beausoleils have a supreme lightness that is heaven with Champagne. 

 

The Bold

 

 Bring on the tangiest, muskiest, biggest, most challenging oysters possible. You don’t scare easy.

 

 

Damariscotta Belons are your Everest. Snow Creek Flats are your K2. Any European Flat is going to test you. Large Pacifics can also have intense and exotic flavors, particularly those from southern Puget Sound. Skookums will push the musk as far as you want to take it. Hammersley Inlets aren’t far behind. Any extra-large oyster will deliver sheer chewing intimidation. 

 

The Clean Freak

 

  You prefer filter feeders from absolutely pristine waters. 

 

 

Two Canadian oysters from opposite ends of the country grow in national parks: Raspberry Points in Prince Edward Island National Park and Imperial Eagle Channels in Pacific Rim National Park. Nootka Sounds grow in an area of British Columbia less populated than Pacific Rim National Park. Drake’s Bays are screened from all of California by the bulk of Point Reyes National Seashore. Cuttyhunks live in solitary splendor on the deserted west end of Cuttyhunk Island, ten miles off the Massachusetts coast. 

 

The Jeweler

 

  

You eat with your eyes as much as your belly, and you love the gemlike shells of some oysters. 

 

 

Suspended culture—floating trays or lantern nets—is the best way to preserve the colors and patterns some oysters develop on their shells. Carlsbad Blonds display black-and-white fan patterns. Kusshis and Stellar Bays have smooth, deep, purple-black shells. Imperial Eagle Channels and Nootka Sounds, two oysters from West Vancouver Island, have art-deco swirls of pink, purple, and green. Oysters from Samish Bay, including Penn Cove Selects and Naked Roy’s Beach, have impressively fluted shells. 

 

The Minister of Silly Names

 

  

You’ll admit it; for you, half the fun is the goofy things oysters are called. 

 

 

Naked Roy’s Beach and Moonstone are named for nude beaches. Fanny Bays might as well be. Tatamagouche, Malagash Thrumcap, Nootka, and Hama Hama are just plain fun to say. Tomahawk has a certain retro charm. A Stingray is cool, a Kusshi is cute, and who could forget their first Carlsbad Blond? 

 

A Category fo All The Above

 

  

You’ll admit it; for you, half the fun is the goofy things oysters are called. 

 

 

So who out there is eating raw oysters? It isn’t the middle-management paper-pusher picking up a burrito on his way home. It’s the experimenters, the explorers, the risk-takers, the people who want to know the world and all the things it has to offer. Eating a raw animal pushes the envelope of what most Westerners consider normal. It’s borderline taboo, so only taboo-breakers need apply. Which makes raw-oyster-eating a beautiful selection process. Just go to an oyster bar, look around, and know that you are among the other sensualists, those who love delight and aren’t bashful about embracing it. 

A Note on the Author

 Rowan Jacobsen is the James Beard Award-winning author of A Geography of Oysters, Fruitless Fall, American Terroir: Savoring the Flavors of Our Woods, Waters, and Fields, and other books. He writes for Harper’s, Outside, Orion, Mother Jones, Yankee, and others, and his work has been anthologized in the Best American Science and Nature Writing and Best Food Writing collections. He lives in Vermont with a wife, a child, a dog, and a scruffy set of apple trees. Mr. Jacobsen’s article “Rare Apples Hiding in Plain Sight” appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the Social Register Observer. His book, The Essential Oyster, will be published this fall. 
Special thanks to food photographer Adrienne Anderson. Her fine work may be viewed at this website. 

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