How else can you describe the delightful sensation of eating an icy cold oyster, briny and maybe with metallic or nutty overtones, and accented with lemon or maybe a splash of a sauce?
Looking at an oyster bar menu, you’d think there were dozens, if not hundreds, of species of edible oysters, but there are only five. Like grapes, oysters develop and taste differently depending on where they were grown. The chemical composition of the sea water, salinity, and temperature are among the factors that cause a particular bed to have its flavor and shape nuances.
All oysters which humans eat fall into one of these groups: Atlantic (bluepoints, Malpeques, Gulf oysters), Creuse (Europe and the Pacific Northwest), Belon (flat shaped), Kumomoto (tiny Japanese oysters now a mainstay in the Pacific Northwest) and Olympia (also small, the indigenous oyster of the Pacific Northwest).
Another mistaken notion about oysters is that they should only be enjoyed during the R months. This used to be true due to the deterioration in flavor and texture during the summer spawning months, not to mention unreliable refrigeration and spoilage in hot weather. The latter is no longer an issue and the spawning problem has been corrected by highly controlled oyster farming. Some oysters are now bred to not spawn at all.
A few hundred years ago, oysters were so common that everyone residing near the ocean ate them. Then the natural beds, including New York Harbor, one of the world’s largest at the time, started to falter. By the time the Titanic sailed 100 years ago, they were offered only on the first class menu: plain and a la russe (dressed with with vodka and horseradish).
As the United States was growing westward, oysters were an important food shipped by train from places like New Orleans and the Chesapeake Bay, either tightly packed in barrels (oysters in the shell keep well for a long period of time) or shucked and either chilled or canned.
Two old fashioned oyster delicacies are stew (oysters poached in butter, milk, cream and a little Tabasco) and pan roast (stew plus Worcestershire sauce and paprika served over a toast square). New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar still makes these dishes in the same steam heated, 1 – 2 portion pots used 100 years ago.
Fried oysters are another decadent treat, especially when tucked into a po’boy sandwich eaten while strolling New Orleans’ French Quarter.
Oysters Rockefeller (baked with a thick sauce, greens and spices) is probably the best known of the hot oyster dishes, but there are countless others, Bienville (richer sauce, mushrooms, shrimp and cheese) and Suzette (bacon, green and red pepper, a little like clams casino) among them.
Every oyster lover has their preferences. My favorite is the flat Belon, unfortunately the most expensive and hardest to find here in the United States, but the most flavorful. I like medium sized oysters the best; giants are just as tender and tasty, but a little unwieldy to eat. I’ll take oysters from as far north as possible, finding those from Southern waters to be less flavorful.
Then there’s the debate about garnish: cocktail sauce or lemon or mignonette (shallot/vinegar sauce, very popular in France) or maybe a few grains of caviar. I’ll take lemon any day.
Special plates are made for serving oysters on the half shell, indented to keep the shells from sliding around. A plate with a reasonably high rim, covered with crushed ice from the fish market, works just fine. And there are oyster forks, a nicety but certainly not a necessity.
All oysters can make pearls by building a smooth surface around a particle irritating it, but those that make jewels are not eaten by humans. Tales of finding valuable pearls in oyster bar orders are urban myths.