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.  

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