Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Here's some help finding those oysters you can't remember

So many times people get stumped looking for that oyster they had the last time, looking for that experience they so fondly remember.  This guide is to help point you in the right direction.  Keep on shuckin.

Oysters, Tasting the Waters

Oysters have intimidated, tantalized, and enamored people for centuries.   They have made journeys up and down the social ladder throughout their edible lifetime, going from being the exceptional delights reserved for Roman Emperors to the cheap eats peddled to peasants and fed to migrant workers.  Almost wiped out across oceans everywhere, you will not find one bite now for less than a dollar and in some cases or varieties you won’t get to savor that exquisite morsel for less than four dollars a shot. 
How brave the first person must have been who succumbed to the temptation of an oyster.  Looking across oyster bars in every city you can point out the novices with the same nervous appetite in their eyes as they dip into the bi-valves world with their first tryst.  Many will shutter at the texture, the complexity of the flavor, overwhelmed by the power packed in such a small bite.  Most will get that tingle that runs from their lips over their tongue and electrocutes their bodies all the way down.  After trying to figure out what just happened, they will ask for another bite, anticipating the exciting magic that happens between the shells and eager to explore all the nuances each variety can deliver.    
Here is a short guide to prepare you for what to expect from the different species that you will most likely encounter in oyster havens across the world.  The names of the varieties will change, but there are some helpful characteristics of each species that can point you to the oyster experience you are looking for.  Remember that oysters reflect the flavors of the waters they inhabit.  That means oysters separated by only a mile of open water can taste entirely different in their subtle qualities.  As a general guide these flavor profiles will be helpful in preparing you for approaching oyster; as for the experience of tasting, well, each oyster is a once in a lifetime event. 

Maine Belon Oysters – Ostrea Edulis – These oysters are European Flat oysters native to Europe and were planted by scientists in Maine in the 1950’s.  The Belon name comes from France where the native oysters are no longer found.  The Maine Belons are wild caught and only about 5,000 oysters are harvested now, making them one of the rarest oysters in the world.  These oysters are not for the novice.  They are very strong in flavor and often dry and chewy.  Flavors to look for are copper, mineral, fish, and umami. 

East Coast Oysters – Crassostrea Virginica – East Coast oysters range from the Gulf of Mexico to the upper reaches of Canada’s Maritimes.  Typically virginicas grown in southern waters are softer in flesh, larger in size, and milder in salinity.  They tend to have a buttery mouth feel and subtle sweetness.  Virginicas found in more northern waters tend to have a crispy texture, higher salinity, and are usually full of complex mineral flavors.  Many of the virginicas found north of Massachusetts tend to have a bright lemon burst and a vegetable finish reminiscent of chewing on celery.   

Pacific Oysters – Crassostrea Gigas – Pacific oysters are fast growing oysters found along the West Coast from Mexico to British Columbia.  The shells are usually fluted and just about all are farm raised; gigas seed is originally from Japan.   Most gigas will offer a small amount of brine when compared to vriginicas and instead deliver a mad scientist’s dream of assorted, complex flavors ranging between lemon, apple, melon, steel, seaweed, algae, cream, and butter.   Many oysters from this species will begin with algae or mineral and finish with melon or cucumber.  They are best during the fall and early spring when they are feeding heavily and their meat is plump, full, and white.  Due to spawning, during the summer months the flavors could be muted and meat soft. 

Kumamoto Oysters – Crassostrea Sikamea - Kumamoto oysters are Japanese imports farmed in the northwest United States.  They are great oysters for beginners due to their small size and sweet flavor.  These oysters are deep cupped, small, and their shells are fluted with beautiful curves.  They smell and taste like honeydew melons and are best served in the fall and early winter months.  With no bitterness, Kumos are a great oyster to start the night off with. 

Olympia Oysters – Ostrea Conchaphila – These tiny little guys are the only native West Coast oyster and are very rare in most oyster bars.  Only a couple of companies continue to grow the small oysters, it takes around 4 years to get them to that small market size.  Olympia oysters tend to be similar to Belons in flavor, very metallic and fishy.  They tend to have a smoky copper aroma and taste and usually finish with hints of seaweed and sardine.  They are not for everyone, but are so rare and tiny, you should give one a try if you find it.  They were James Beard’s favorite oysters.  Did I mention they were tiny?

When tasting oysters try to give them a chew.  This opens up all the flavors they have to give you.  When you chew you open the door to their world and get a taste of what it is like to live and breathe under the sea.  You may be tempted to dollop generous amounts of sauce on your oysters before eating, but every once in a while give them a try naked.  Let the oysters talk and tell you their stories of what its like braving the turbulent nature of the worlds oceans.  Oysters are a fruit produced by the complex intertwining webs that constitute their environment.  Their flavors are a testament to what is at work in the invisible world beneath the surface. The end result is an experience that we share with oyster alone, an experience that can’t be duplicated in the kitchen or in nature.  

Monday, October 3, 2011

Harpooning Swordfish

“Well it was a real good life. Harpooning and sword fishing, it was enjoyable, it was. The odds were against you for catching him because first you had to see him and then you had to harpoon him and if he didn’t jump or run you might get the iron in him and then a shark might get him or he might pull the iron out. So it was exciting. It was great to see them…I mean, they’re beautiful fish in the water and it was just a great way of life…”  - Louis Larsen, retired Fisherman, MA

It’s hard to believe that in a world where fishing means taking the latest technology out onto the biggest boat and dropping the longest line with the most hooks, only fifty years ago men were tracing steps to the end of long catwalks and stalking huge swordfish, with only a harpoon in hand and steady nerve.  There were no lines baited with thousands of pounds of mackerel.  This was before sharks and other by-catch animals like tuna died unceremoniously by the hundreds of thousands.  It was hunter and prey, the same way it had been since 2000 B.C.  It was a primal art and the fishermen were artisans. 

Every summer into fall, the swordfish would come close enough to view from Point Judith, Block Island, and other North Atlantic Maritimes.  Sometimes as early as May the season would start and go into October and November.  Harpooning swordfish was a way of life for these small villages and with the use of the long line not only did the fish go away, but also the communities disappeared.

The swordfish story though has taken a turn since the 1990’s.  After fisheries were put on hold and the ‘Give Swordfish a Break’ movement actually made a difference, the fish have since returned.  Albeit not to their once prominent numbers, but measures have been put into place to ensure their survival.  Still there is no fishery for swordfish that equals the harpoon industry for its stewardship of the species. 

There are some harpoon boats still leaving the summer and fall harbors of the North Atlantic, only to return after short trips.  They will go out and bring back the highest quality swordfish days and sometimes weeks sooner than any of the giant longliner boats.  The fish that they bring back will be enormous fish, at least for these days, 200 lbs and up.  They will not hear of any rats or pups, common names for juvenile swords.  You see, a sword does not spawn until after it is 5 years old.  They need to be well over 100 lbs to make sure this has happened.  Harpooners get to select the fish they strike.  There’s no ghost hook floating on the bottom blindly.  There’s no by-catch getting snagged and hauled above to the boat, only to be cast over the side as the waste of a neglectful enterprise.  These fishermen stand only yards away, with their will and some luck, taking swordfish out of the water, one at a time.

In the fall and winter swordfish that is available at the market comes from longliners because harpooners have only a few months to get out there, and even then they are subject to the weather.  During these few months it’s always exciting to support these men and the ideas they represent: the idea of leaving fish out there for the next year, the idea of respecting your prey by facing it, looking into its eyes, and meeting it head on.  The idea that emptying the ocean is like taking something special away from the world and your children.

It is something great to see harpoon boats going out to meet the swordfish one by one, just as they have for thousands of years.  As a result of the product they produce, the care that they take, there is no better swordfish on the market and it makes these months the best time to eat swordfish.  The price may be a little more for the bigger harpoon fish than the sometimes smaller line fish, but for these small villages still sending boats out before the sun is up, they will invest a lot more just to get to do it again, one more year.  I would too.