The Mystique of Oysters
Marie Antoinette loved them. Abraham Lincoln loved them. And I love them. That’s the thing about oysters–you’re totally smitten, or not at all. There’s nothing halfway about it. Prized as pearl producers and cherished by connoisseurs, these succulent morsels have seduced Roman emperors, kings, and other food lovers through the ages.
Consuming oysters, some sources say, can elevate one’s mood and boost mental energy. Then there’s the Casanova connection. History’s legendary lover apparently considered oysters to be the ultimate aphrodisiac. Their alleged powers for enhancing romantic prowess add to the mystique of these marvelous mollusks. Credit the Greeks for leaving a legacy inspired by their goddess of love.
Like the Greeks, we enjoy this delicacy with wine, but pairing the two presents a challenge. From the first teasing taste to lingering after-flavors, oyster types offer varied nuances. Champagne remains a classic choice. Seafood expert Jon Rowley suggests dry, crisp, clean-finishing white wines. Depending on the oyster’s natural briny, sweet, flinty, creamy, or tangy taste, consider a Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, or dry Chenin Blanc.
Purists prefer oysters au naturel, presented on crushed ice and served simply. Others cheer the culinary versatility of oysters–from poached, fried, grilled, or baked to stewed, steamed, and roasted. And who can pass up that New Orleans original, Oysters Rockefeller?
I enjoyed my first Oyster Shooter (which soon led to my third) at a glittering Las Vegas restaurant. When it comes to oysters, it’s difficult to remain in control. But why bother? After all, they’re loaded with vitamins, not to mention protein, iron, calcium, zinc, and more. For a zesty treat like those at Montreal’s Maestro S.V.P. restaurant, slide an oyster into a shot glass, then add cocktail sauce, fresh horseradish and jalapeño vodka.
No longer limited to the r months (September through April), menus feature all-season oysters, thanks to the perfected science of aquaculture. During the summer season when some species spawn and lose flavor, opt for farm-raised oysters or those from the cooler waters of Canada and New England.
Although labor-intensive and costly, raising oysters from seed helps maintain consistency and quality. But, like many good things, oysters in the nude come with a disclaimer: Avoid them if you’re compromised health wise.
With more than a hundred species of oysters worldwide plus dozens of names for each, even the A-list covers a lot of water. The most preferred and expensive oysters, classified as fines de claires, come from growing the native European oyster in converted salt marshes called claires, loaded with minerals.
Brittany’s coveted Bélons, small, flat, and delicate, boast a unique nut-like flavor and cost more than twice as much as Pacific oysters, which dominate the European market. In the United States, Pacifics vary from inlet to inlet, but are usually plump and creamy with hints of cucumber or melon.
Vancouver Chef Scott Pratico calls Kumamotos “the Cadillac of oysters.” Delicate yet meaty, this small beach-hardened oyster grows slowly, making it one of the market’s more expensive ones.
Once prolific around Puget Sound, the Olympia has become a rare delicacy, especially beyond Washington. Olympia boasts a full flavor, robust and coppery. “They’re probably the most expensive oyster on the planet,” said a Washington restaurateur.
A perennial favorite, the Eastern seaboard’s Virginicas are treasured for their tantalizing oceanic tang. Like Pacifics, their myriad identities typically reflect their growing locations.
Virtually gone, Long Island’s famed Bluepoint has evolved into a name synonymous with this species.
Food and word lover Pat Conroy calls oysters from Apalachicola “cold and salty and Gulf-born and wonderful.” Everyone experiences oysters differently. Experts say it all ices down to your preference. But don’t decide too soon. After all, gastronomic research requires a certain commitment.