As you’ve probably read in the latest issue of SeaFood Business Magazine, the oyster business is in flux. The winter harvest – the centerpiece of the bivalve calendar – has become part of a year-round cycle thanks to commercial shellfish farms. Still, just because you can get an oyster in summer doesn’t mean you should. Spawning oysters are fattier and less flavorful, fine for anyone who is trying to look cultured on a first date, but inadequate for connoisseurs who like to, you know, taste their food.
Which means now is the time to hit the raw bar and time to bone up on our boneless, bivalve mollusc friends.
While there are five species of oyster (Pacific, Atlantic, Kumamoto, European Flat, Olympia), an oysters distinction these days lies in its terroirs—the immediate environment in which an oyster is grown. Characteristics that affect an oyster’s taste include water temperature, depth, salinity, and surrounding sea-life. As with varieties of wines, an oyster’s name (Bluepoint, Wellfleet) comes directly from the area in which it’s harvested (off Blue Point on Long Island, in the bay off Wellfleet, Massachusetts). The question is where on the map your saltwater allegiance lies.
There are hundreds of options so let us help you out. One of these choices will suit you just fine.
Bluepoints are New York standbys, first devoured by hungry Manhattanites in the early 19th century. Though the initial rush depleted the massive local oyster bed, most mollusks harvested today from the Long Island Sound still bear that name. Bluepoints are known for a mild flavor and regular appearances on happy hour menus. They’re good, but more of a pop hit than a deep track.
If Bluepoints are the house wine, cheap and good enough, then consider Kumamotos the Sauvignon Blanc: crisp, fruity, and a little sweet. Originally brought over from Japan, these little oysters - small in diameter and deep, like a cup - are grown all along the east coast, from Baja to Puget Sound. If you don’t feel a need to innovate, stick with Kumamotos, the little, sweet, oyster that doesn’t disappoint. (It’s also possible to eat them without slurping or baring your teeth, which has its advantages.)
Glidden Points are quality pieces, as satisfying as objects as they are to eat. Of course, it’s all about the terroir: Gliddens are grown 40 feet below the surface of Maine’s frigid Damariscotta Bay for four years. Their shells have a heft and density that only slow-grown, coldest-water oysters possess, and their shells are a dapper black-and-white unobscured by algea, which doesn’t grow that deep.
These ocean gems come from Long Island’s Southold Bay and are grown by Karen Rivara, an oyster farmer and founder of the Naonk Aquaculture Cooperative, which is hoping to sell over a million oysters this year. Though close to the famous Bluepoint, Peconic Pearls are smaller batch, more flavorful oysters with a briny, strong celery flavor (paradoxical as that may sound).
The bay formed by the bulge of the Florida panhandle is brackish, which keeps out many saltwater predators as barrier islands protect local beds from chop. This ecosystem is ideal for oysters, who can thrive and grow plump. As if by table-top osmosis, Apalachicolas are known for having the smooth-salt flavor of other southern treats like bisque and corn bread.
Photos by Rick Poon / Getty Images