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The Marvelous Mollusk

Dana Nigro
Posted: February 3, 2000

Fall is here, so if you've been waiting all summer to enjoy oysters again, it's time. Actually, you didn't have to wait in the first place. Tastes columnist Sam Gugino says you can forget that old rule about only eating oysters in months containing the letter "R".

It used to be a good idea to avoid shellfish in the warm months, when oysters spawn and are less appetizing. But now oysters are being brought into the United States from new sources, such as the Southern Hemisphere, where June through August is winter, and remote areas in Alaska and Canada, which only thaw out in the summer.

Oyster farmers have been seeking out these locations for oyster beds, so they can offer consumers new taste options. Just like fine wine, oysters have their own sort of terroir, and those from the Gulf of Mexico taste different than oysters from Maine or Canada.

Types of Oysters
Also much like grape varieties, native species of oysters are often brought elsewhere to be farmed, making oyster nomenclature a bit confusing. Although there are many different kinds of oysters, the following are the five main species grown in North America:

Atlantic or Eastern: This indigenous American oyster can be found from Prince Edward Island in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The shape of its shell ranges from round and flat in the Atlantic Ocean to oblong and deep-cupped in the Gulf. Eastern oysters are somewhat fatty, with a sealike flavor that ranges from mildly to very salty. Many types are named after where they are found, such as the Chincoteague, from Chincoteague Bay between Virginia and Maryland; the Apalachicola, from Apalachicola Bay in Florida; the Malpeque, from Prince Edward Island in Canada; and the Wellfleet, from Cape Cod, Mass.

European: Native to Europe, this oyster is also farmed in California and Washington. Plump and juicy, the European oyster has a flinty or metallic flavor, with less briny tang than its Atlantic cousins. The best known example is the Belon of Brittany, also called a European Flat.

Pacific or Japanese: Originally from Japan, this oblong-shaped oyster is also widely farmed in California and the Pacific Northwest. It has a meaty texture, but those farmed in the Northwest tend to be milder than those from California. Some examples include Hog Island, Hama Hama, Samish Bay and Totten.

Kumamoto: A subspecies of the Pacific oyster, the Kumamoto's small size and sweet flavor make it one of the most popular oysters today. It's a good starter for raw-bar neophytes.

Olympia: Indigenous to the West Coast, this species is related to the European oyster. Even smaller than the Kumamoto, the Olympia is prized for its robust, metallic flavor.

Buying and serving
Look for oysters with shells that are tightly closed and not damaged. (If some of the shells are open, tap on them and if they close immediately, those oysters are still good.) Store oysters as close to 32 degrees F as possible, but don't put them on ice, in water or seal them in a plastic bag. Instead, put them in a shallow bowl and cover with a moist towel or damp seaweed to prevent them from drying out. If the oysters are very fresh, they can last a week or more under these conditions.

Opening oysters, or shucking them, requires the proper tool, and a little finesse. First, you need a sharp shucking knife with a sturdy handle and preferably a finger guard. Clean the oyster shells, using a stiff brush and water to remove seaweed or sediment. Before cutting, protect your hands with a napkin or rubber gloves. Insert the tip of the knife into the hinge that holds the top and bottom shells together, turn the knife, pop the oyster open and remove the top shell. Then, slide the knife under the oyster and cut through the foot, or muscle, to remove it for eating. Try to keep the liquid inside, also called liquor, from spilling out. Some consider it the most important part of the experience.

Oysters can be eaten raw, roasted, steamed, fried or added to soups and stews. Oysters for cooking, especially those to be fried, should be at least medium in size. But almost any oyster that can be gulped down in one swallow is a candidate for eating raw. Many fanatics believe raw oysters should be accompanied by nothing more than a squeeze of lemon. Others prefer sauces, such as the classic mignonette sauce of minced shallots, freshly cracked black pepper and equal amounts of Champagne vinegar and white wine. Classic baked oyster dishes include favorites such as oysters Rockefeller, oysters Bienville and oysters casino.

For a few other serving suggestions, try some of editor at large Harvey Steiman's recipes:

Wine Matchng
Crisp white wines -- such as Chablis, Muscadet and Sancerre -- are the traditional matches for oysters and other shellfish. Conventional wisdom says that wines with high acidity pair well with seafood -- kind of like squeezing on a few drops of lemon to enhance the dish.

But you might not want to drink an entire glass of lemon juice with your dish. Oysters can make very crisp wines feel even more so, making tart wines unpleasantly sharp. But they can add a pleasant lift to more supple wines. The key is to look for a balanced wine, so the food pairing is more likely be balanced as well.

Look for a wine that finishes clean and does not have a lot of oak or sugar. Some of Sam Gugino's top recommendations are New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Portuguese vinho verde, dry Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, unoaked Chablis and blanc de blanc Champagne. Other Sauvignon Blancs, such as those from California, Australia and the Loire, work well too. You might also want to try Pinot Gris from Oregon, Pinot Grigio from Italy or Pinot Blanc from Alsace or the United States.

Of course, beer is always a popular alternative, but we won't get into that here.

To learn more, read Sam Gugino's articles on oysters:

  • Sept. 15, 1999
    Boom Time
    Forget the Dow -- keep your eyes on oysters to see how the markets are doing.

  • Sept. 15, 1997
    Aw Shucks
    Considering all types of oyster, the mollusk that's now for all seasons

    For more of Sam Gugino's food articles, check out the Tastes archives.

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