A Dozen Oysters You Should Know
To be a full-fledged ostreaphile—an oyster lover—you can’t just pound Kumamotos or Wellfleets all the time. You need to explore the full range of styles and varieties. Different oysters, after all, work best as beer accompaniments, culinary stars, or exotic curiosities. This alphabetical list of twelve prominent varieties provides a good representation of the classic types.
(roll over oysters for larger view)
These small oysters are grown in floating trays in the harsh New Brunswick climate. Always petite and clean-flavored, in classy black-and-white shells, Beausoleils make ideal starter oysters, with the delightful yeasty aroma of Champagne or rising bread dough.
Néguac, New Brunswick
Belon or European Flat
No oyster comes close to the power of the European Flat (often called Belon, after the famous French oyster of the same species). It is brassy, in every sense of the word. Brassy because it tastes like metal, and because it is shamelessly bold, and because when it hits your tongue it slaps you awake like the opening blast of a bugler’s reveille. Try one if you can—just don’t make it your first oyster.
Light is a term often ascribed to PEI oysters. Sometimes it’s a negative, indicating a lack of body and flavor. Sometimes, as with Colville Bays, it means transcendent. Colville Bays have plenty of body but also an addictive lemon-zest brightness. They are the oyster most likely to make you order another dozen. The dusky jade shells, when piled high, achieve the luminosity of moss on a rain-forest stump.
Souris River, Prince Edward Island
Native Americans ate Damariscotta River oysters for a millennium, as the hill-sized middens along its upper banks confirm. The extremely cold, salty water produces slow-growing oysters with fantastic texture and brine at the upper end of the register. These are the soft pretzels of the oyster world, chewy and salty and heaven with a cold beer.
Damariscotta River, Maine
Artwork for CHOW by Bryan Christie Design
This is an excerpt from Rowan Jacobsen’s A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America, Bloomsbury USA (September 4, 2007). Copyright Rowan Jacobsen.
An amazing amount of ink has been spilled over the years in an effort to nail the taste of oysters. The essayist Michel de 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 accepted. 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 felt. 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.
But What Does an Oyster Taste Like, Really?
To understand the nuances of oyster flavor, it’s necessary to unlearn the bad culinary habits America has taught us. Oysters don’t taste like bacon double-cheeseburgers. They don’t taste like Chinese barbecue. They don’t even taste like grilled swordfish. They don’t cater to our basic childhood preferences for sweet and fatty tastes, as so much contemporary food does. They are quietly, fully adult.
If you like sushi, then you are well on your way to liking oysters. Sushi has surely been a factor in the current oyster renaissance. It got a whole generation of Americans comfortable with the idea that their seafood need not be cooked, and that strong flavors were not automatically better ones.
Texture is a big part of sushi’s appeal, and so it is with oysters. They are firm and slippery at the same time. Or should be. The farther south you go and the warmer the water gets, the softer the oyster becomes—listless, as M. F. K. Fisher put it. An oyster from very cold water, on the other hand, can be described as crisp or crunchy.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves, because oyster flavor, like perfume notes, comes in three stages, and texture is part of stage 2. The first stage involves salt, the second stage body and sweetness, and the third floral or fruity finishes.
Salinity is what hits immediately when you tilt an oyster into your mouth. It can be overwhelming, unnoticeable, or anywhere in between. Oyster blood is seawater, more or less, so oysters take on the salinity of their environment, which can range from 12 to 36 parts per thousand (ppt). In the role of primordial bar snack, to accompany a pint of lager, a fully saline oyster can be great. Crisp, crunchy, salty—all the same adjectives that typify a bag of potato chips can likewise apply to a plate of Maine oysters. But if you plan to have more than a few, you may soon feel like a kid at the beach who has gulped too much seawater. Salt overload. It’s worth pointing out that salt and acid cancel each other on the tongue, so a squeeze of lemon or a touch of mignonette will substantially reduce the impression of salt.
Oysters with very low salinity, on the other hand, can taste flat, like low-sodium chicken broth. We have grown accustomed to a certain level of salt in almost all our food. People who grew up eating low-salinity oysters, however, prefer them, insisting that too much salt masks the buttery seaweed tastes that make oysters unique.
Most people prefer the midrange of salt. Such oysters provide plenty of taste interest up front, but allow the body and finish of the oyster to come through.