For pure enjoyment, oysters require little more than love.
By David Rosengarten
Photo by JD Havens
Food Styled by Lara Miklasevics
There is practically no food in the world that generates more passion, pro and con, than the simple oyster. Among the oyster-haters, you will find revulsion—a flat-out inability to believe that such a large percentage of the world’s population can allow these slimy things to slither down their throats. The oyster-party-poopers proudly stand with the British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, who, upon tasting his first oyster in America, remarked, “I feel like I’ve eaten a small baby.”
But you will find even more passion among the oyster-lovers, some of whom consider the oyster to be nature’s perfect food, and reserve a place on their hypothetical “last meal on earth” menu for an iced platter of raw ones.
The passion of the faithful doesn’t stop there, however. Once you get past the unanimity concerning the greatness of the crinkly bi-valve, the feeling really starts heating up. For oyster-lovers hold fiercely strong opinions on the question of where the world’s greatest oysters are found. Vitriolic debates can, and do, break out with regularity.
So many oysters, so little time. So many ways, even, to answer that question—for greatness in an oyster derives from many factors.
First of all, there’s the central issue of oyster species. Sure, you hear all kinds of oyster names, all the time, which would lead one to believe that there are hundreds of species out there: Hama Hamas, Bluepoints, Wellfleets, Quilcenes, Dabob Bays, Belons, and so forth. In reality, there are only five oyster species regularly consumed in the United States—and only two species make up the bulk of what we slurp.
The Big Daddy of American oysters is undoubtedly the Eastern oyster, known in oyster-speak as Crassostrea virginica. It is the oyster most frequently harvested along the Atlantic seaboard from northeastern Canada to Florida; whether you’ve got a Bluepoint or a Wellfleet, you’ve got an Eastern oyster. It is also the chief type of oyster harvested in the Gulf of Mexico, which means it’s the New Orleans oyster as well. How does it rate among oyster-lovers? I know Long Islanders who swear it’s the greatest oyster in the world. To me, it’s on the bland side, often needing a squirt of lemon juice or even cocktail sauce to perk it up.
Less bland, to be sure, is the main oyster of the West Coast: the Pacific oyster, or the Japanese oyster, officially known as Crassostrea gigas. It is harvested in enormous quantities along the West Coast, from British Columbia down to Washington and Oregon, and even farther south into California. It has a taste you cannot miss: “Fruity,” is the usual word, but I think one should specify watermelon rind, even cucumber, when describing a Pacific oyster. Like most oysters of the world, it comes to the market with the name of the specific cove, inlet, or body of water that is its source.
Our West Coast is famous for two other oyster species as well, though they are harvested in much smaller quantities. One is the Kumamoto, officially crassotrea sikamea, which, until just a few years ago, was considered a Pacific oyster. It is smaller, however, than most Pacific oysters, and with a much deeper shell; I also find it more regularly creamy than Pacific oysters. So I think the taxonomists got this one right.
There’s no question that the Olympia oyster, the only oyster native to the West Coast, is a separate species. Ostrea lurida is tiny, only about the size of your thumbnail, with a lovely earthy-briny-metallic taste.
The fifth oyster species that’s regularly available in America, Ostrea edulis, is now farmed on both American coasts, east and west. Many consumers know it as a Belon-style oyster, because it is the same oyster grown along the Belon river in Brittany and served by the bushelful in Parisian oyster bars. This one too really stands out: almost circular in shape, with a much flatter shell than all the other oysters. It was the great oyster of the ancient world in Europe, and is still appreciated there for its briny, coppery character—though it can be richer in texture than other oysters, not always a good thing.
So which ones should you buy, and what should you do with them, if you’re hankering to serve oysters at home? First of all, you must make sure that the oysters you buy are fresh. You can always tell if an oyster’s fresh when it’s open: It’s wet, sitting in liquid, plump, not pulled back from its shell. But when the oyster is closed, you can’t see that. So what I always do is ask the fishmonger to open one or two for me. If he’s not amenable to doing that, I buy a couple, and ask him again to open them.
To oyster-lovers, the greatest thing you can do with oysters….is nothing! Raw and simple is the way of the fanatic. Many eat raw oysters with absolutely no accompaniment, except wine. Some squirt a little lemon juice on each opened oyster. Some go so far as to dab each oyster with a mignonette sauce, which is a simple mixture of red-wine vinegar and finely chopped shallots. To the true oyster freak, cocktail sauce is unthinkable. Following French tradition, bread (usually dark) and butter are served on the side.
If you serve oysters this way, and if the oysters are good, they will remind you of the first time you were tumbled by an ocean wave and an alarming amount of salt coursed through your mouth and nose. But it’s not alarming any more. It’s brilliant. It’s barely congealed sea water, turned into something you can eat.
White is Right for Oysters
It is extremely easy to conceptualize my perfect oyster wine; it isn’t always easy to find it.
Wine is the “sauce” I like with my oysters; I want the wine to impersonate lemon juice in every possible way. I want it to be electrically crisp and acidic, so it cuts through the salt of the oysters. I want it to be low in alcohol, because wine that’s above 13% alcohol often tastes harsh next to salt. I want it to be dry as as a bone, because sweetness in a wine inappropriately covers the earthy, briny oyster flavors.
I’m sure there are some “interesting” red-wine matches out there, but I always think white for oysters. I think Muscadet, particularly if it’s from a crisp vintage. I think dry and crisp Sauvignon Blanc, which means that most of the Sauvignon Blanc I drink with oysters comes from the Loire Valley. Unfortunately, Sancerre has gotten a little richer and sweeter these days, so I look for alternate appellations like Quincy and Reuilly. I also think dry and crisp Alsatian Riesling, or dry and crisp Riesling from Germany.
I do not think about white wines with oodles of fruit—those flavors never seem right to me next to the minerals of oysters. For my oysters, I seek out the most earthy, minerally wines I can get my hands on.
And then I drink them in big, cold gulps.