A little bit of Oyster history...
While oysters are now considered to be a delicacy, often associated with Champagne and caviar, they were once linked to the poor and working classes. These bi-valve mollusks are responsible for building New York City’s restaurant business. In the early 1800s their vast supply in the nearby waters made them a cheap food source for the working class. By the end of the century, six million oysters were shipped in and out of the New York City harbor.
As demand grew the introduction of foreign oyster species to these beds brought with them many diseases which eradicated most of the oyster population in the early 1990s. At this time the wildly popular food which was now low in supply, and as with all things that are high in demand and low in supply, prices began to soar. Suddenly what was once fit for a pauper was now fit for a Prince.
How Can I find a pearl in an oyster?
Only one out of 10,000 oysters will produce a pearl, those types aren’t bred for eating. Pearls are created when a foreign object enters the shell. The mollusk then naturally creates a substance that is comprised of layers of calcium and protein which covers the intruding particle. Over time it produces a pearl. Many such pearls are now created with human intervention - pieces of shells or beads are inserted inside an oyster. The natural process takes over from there.
Some Oyster Facts (Oyster 101)
- Each oyster has its own unique taste and texture depending on where it’s grown, how it’s grown, and other climatic factors.
- 95% of the oysters we eat are farmed
- Most are cultivated in a highly sustainable way.
- The oysters we eat are not the kind that grow pretty pearls. Pearl oysters are a different species thats closer related to clams.
- Raw oysters are good for you
- They are low in calories and fat, while packed with essential vitamins and minerals. Especially zinc! 6 oysters = 220% daily value.
Five types of oysters are harvested in the US
- Atlantic / East Coast native (Crassostrea virginica),
- Pacific / West Coast non-native (Crassostrea gigas),
- Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea),
- European Native / Flat (Ostrea edulis),
- Olympia / West Coast native (Ostrea conchaphila).
What is the difference between East and West Coast Oysters?
Different water & species result in different tastes. East Coast oysters tend to be more light-bodied, briny, crisp, buttery while West Coast oysters tend to be more medium-bodied, minerally, creamy, and sweet. But some may surprise you…
Tips when ordering Oysters
- Focus on 4-6 varieties at a time
- Ordering too many varieties gets a bit overwhelming on the palate.
- Get two of each
- Tasting two of the same oyster gives you a better sense of its flavor variations.
- Try comparing apples to apples (then apples to oranges, such as East vs West coast)
Oyster tasting is similar to wine tasting. You’re trying to absorb and appreciate the nuances in flavor and texture imparted by climatic conditions. The culmination of these effects is what oyster aficionados call “meroir.”
The 6 S’s of Pro Oyster Tasting
#1 SEE: Feast with your eyes! Study the shell, shape, color.
#2 SMELL: It should smell sea-breezy and sweet, not fishy at all.
#3 SIP: Sip the oyster liquor to get a sense of the salinity.
#4 SLURP: Shimmy the oyster meat loose, tilt the flat edge of the shell to your lips and slurp! Don’t discard the oyster liquor (faux pas).
#5 SAVOR: Chew a few times to get the full body taste; notice the progression from nose (salty) to body (sweet/flavors) to finish (lingering aroma).
#6 SHELL: Flip the shell over and admire the collaboration between nature & farmer.
All oysters fluctuate in taste and texture throughout the year. See how your impressions compare with mine!
For more Oyster information you must visit In a Half Shell, a wonderful website dedicated entirely to oysters and oyster tasting. Some of the above information was accrued from her site.
Below I've curated a few fun ideas to help you celebrate.
Don't forget to chill that Champagne!
Happy National Oyster Day... and Bon Appetit!