The Taste of an Oyster

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Kumamoto oyster

California, Oregon, Washington, and Mexico

The oyster that put the fruit back in fruits de mer. Kumamotos are famously melon-scented, sweet, and firm, with none of the bitter or muddy aftertaste that makes some oysters challenging. Closely related to the Pacific oyster, which also was imported from Japan, Kumos stay small and deep-cupped, and are revered by beginners and pros alike.

Moonstone oyster

Point Judith Pond, Rhode Island

Some of the most savory oysters in the world come from a geographical arc running from the eastern end of Long Island, along the ragged Rhode Island coast, to Block Island, Cuttyhunk, and Martha’s Vineyard: the line marking the terminal moraine of the most recent glacier. Along that arc, mineral-rich waters produce salty oysters with unparalleled stone and iron flavors, of which Moonstone is the reigning king.

Nootka Sound oyster

Nootka Sound
West Vancouver Island, British Columbia

An oyster from pristine waters. Ain’t nothing on the Pacific side of Vancouver Island except orcas, sea lions, shellfish farmers, and the occasional kayaker. You know these oysters are clean, but clean waters do not necessarily make light-flavored oysters. Art-deco–patterned, lavender-flecked Nootkas, in fact, taste strong, with hints of muskmelon and a flavor of cold, slightly sweet raw milk—animal, but good.

Olympia oyster

South Puget Sound, Washington

The only native West Coast oyster, once found from Baja to British Columbia, but now harvested commercially only in southern Puget Sound. These tiny celadon lockets hold delightful treasures: miniature oysters redolent of morels and butter and celery salt. Maddening to open, and maddeningly good.

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Artwork for CHOW by Bryan Christie Design

After the initial sensation of salt, you will sense the body of the oyster. For this, you will have to chew. Some squeamish eaters don’t like to chew their oysters. I’m sorry, but chewing is where all the toothsome pleasure of the oyster comes out—the snappy way it resists your teeth for just a moment before breaking, like a fresh fig. Chewing also begins to release an oyster’s sweetness.

Like the Japanese tea ceremony, a good oyster ritual has a Zen spirit.

In wine terminology, body refers to the way a flavor fills the mouth, and that’s an important part of the pleasure of an oyster, too. Some just seem to vaporize. Others are dense with sweetness or savory richness. This doesn’t always correlate with size. A tiny Olympia has plenty of body, while a large Gulf oyster can leave your mouth with very little sensation other than a compelling need to swallow. But, in general, a larger, older oyster is more likely to have a full body and an interesting palette of flavors.

Those flavors will be encountered during the third and final stage—what is generally known as the finish. These are the impressions that linger after you have chewed and swallowed, and sometimes they are truly surprising. Cucumber is the flavor most frequently cited, by which people mean the fresh, green, slightly bitter flavor of a garden cuke. Melon is another common note—not surprisingly, since cucumbers and melons are in the same family and share some aroma compounds. Of the oysters I’ve tasted, only Kumamotos have a true, sweet honeydew note. Many Pacifics have a hint of melon gone murky, as if you stored cantaloupe slices and sardines in the same refrigerator container. Some have a delicious finish that people call watermelon, but it’s really the spicy, herbal taste you get from watermelon rind—unmistakable, but quite distinct from the taste of watermelon flesh. One of my favorite descriptions of oyster aroma comes from Luca Turin, the perfume expert, in The Emperor of Scent, and it isn’t even describing an oyster. It’s Calone, a molecule developed by French perfumers in the 1960s and described as “oysterlike.” Turin, on the other hand, labels it “halfway between the apple and the knife that cuts it, a fruity turned up to a white heat.” That nails the aroma of Pacific oysters.

All the fruity flavors ascribed to oysters belong to Pacifics and their little cousin the Kumamoto. Eastern oysters taste of the salty sea and various minerals, not fruit. Olympias and European Flats taste metallic and smoky. There are also various nutty, buttery, musky, algal, fungal, citrus, seaweed, black tea, and grainlike flavors that turn up in particular oysters.

Don’t expect to identify these flavors the first time you taste an oyster. Think of the novice wine drinker in Sideways who, when asked to describe the flavor of a wine, says “fermented grapes.” At first, oysters taste “oystery.” But the more you taste them side by side, the more obvious the differences become. A world of wild and fascinating flavors opens up.

The Importance of Season

The first Tatamagouche oyster I ever had was lousy. It had a big barnyard flavor, and I regretted having choked it down. After that I steered clear of Tatamagouches for a while. But then I was with some friends, and they were eating Tatamagouches and didn’t look miserable, so I tried one. It was fantastic—plump, juicy, salty, and sweet with nutty petrol notes.

While it is possible to generalize about the taste of an oyster from a particular body of water—eat enough Hama Hamas, for example, and you will start to recognize certain shell patterns and flavor notes—any single oyster can deviate significantly from the norm. It may be noticeably different from its neighbor only a foot away, due to either genetic or environmental differences. It is an individual creature, and there is always some excitement and mystery as you unveil it in all its half-shell glory.

This is different from wine, where the grapes are all harvested in the fall, and the entire year’s harvest gets mixed together. There can be considerable variation from year to year, but within a vintage each bottle holds the same mix. But every oyster is its own entity, and oysters are harvested to order. They will vary in flavor and appearance through the course of a year, depending on water temperature, algae availability, spawning, and other factors.

Enjoying a wine at its peak is like robbing a slow-moving train: You know when it will arrive, because of previous trains that were on the same schedule, so it is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. You won’t always time it right, but your odds are pretty good. Catching an oyster at its peak is more like trying to shoot a bat: There are short-term cycles and longer arcs, and it requires some skill and faith and luck. But when you hit it, you are giddy with excitement.

Every oyster is its own entity, and oysters are harvested to order.

The biggest factor is season. The same oyster will taste different throughout the year. Those Hama Hamas, for instance, will taste sweet and salty in fall, buttery and fresh in spring, when months of rain have swelled the Hamma Hamma River, and thin and salty in summer, after they have spawned. (Some growers, in an effort to achieve product consistency, will “follow the salinity”: upriver during droughts, down toward the sea when rivers are full. This only works if your oysters are in portable cages.) Chances are, the main difference in my two Tatamagouches was season.

Many oysters are referred to as sweet. No, oysters are never going to make it onto the dessert course. Sometimes sweet in regard to oysters is a euphemism for “not salty.” It sounds better than calling an oyster “bland.” But some oysters have a discernible sweetness, and most people, but not all, agree that a sweeter oyster is a better oyster. And sweetness is driven by season.

Next page: That “organ meat” flavor

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