Monday, December 5, 2016

Hodgepodge 37/365 - Oysters

Since David was otherwise occupied on my birthday, and the two days before, with his chorus's winter concert, we went out Thursday for a quasi-birthday dinner. (Though it didn't occur to me that that was his intention until we were driving home. He can be pretty subtle. Or maybe I'm just dense.)

One of the "small plates" we ordered was a half-dozen raw oysters, with jalapeƱo cucumber dipping sauce. Very nice! When we asked what kind of oysters they were, the server said Hood Canal. I had never heard of Hood Canal oysters, and that got me wondering about the different types there are. So here are my findings thanks to Google. (In what follows, I quote liberally from the website About Food: "Guide to Oysters." I could just send you to that website to read, but I'm regurgitating here so that I can learn, plus I've got a few bits of my own to add.)

Apparently there are five species of oysters harvested in the United States. The various subsets derive from where they live, what they filter, how they are handled. (The more I read about oysters, the more they remind me of wine! Terroir, baby.)

The Hood Canal oysters from the other evening are Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas). They are small and sweet, with a distinctly fluted, sharply pointed shell, and are the world's most cultivated oyster. "Today Pacifics are usually named after where they are grown, such as Totten Inlet and Fanny Bay, but some are trade names such as the justly well-known Sweetwater oyster from Hog Island Oyster Company."

And then there are Kumamotos (C. sikamea), "small, sweet, almost nutty oysters characterized by their deep, almost bowl-shaped shell. They spawn later and in warmer water than other oysters, so they remain firm and sweet well into summer months. Kumamotos are widely cultivated in Japan and on the West Coast of the U.S. The name is so valued that Kumamotos are always labeled as such, although some places will also specify where they are from."

I spent a couple of weeks recently on Cape Cod, and there I was treated to the delicious Wellfleet oysters, the different strains of which from various parts of Wellfleet Bay aficionados are able to distinguish. Me, I just thought they were darn good oysters. Wellfleets, along with bluepoints, malpeques, and beausoleils, are all Atlantic oysters (C. virginicas), as are 85 percent of the oysters harvested in the U.S. (including the Gulf of Mexico). "True bluepoints are raised in Long Island's Great South Bay, where they were first found. Today, 'bluepoint oyster' is often used as a general term for any Atlantic oyster served on the half-shell."

Ostrea edulis, or European flats, "are often called Belons. While Belons are, indeed, European flats, not all European flats are Belons (Belons must be grown in the Brittany region of France). Once the most common oyster in Europe, Europeans are increasingly appreciative of Pacific oysters, while Maine and Washington State oyster farms are increasingly charmed by European flats. European flats are characterized by their smooth flat shell (no surprise there!) and lovely seaweed and sharp mineral taste. They have a meaty texture and, for those used to different kinds of oysters, almost a crunch to them." I know I've eaten oysters in Europe, but that was before I realized there were all these different kinds, and . . . they tasted like oysters. Next time I'm over there, I'll pay closer attention.

And finally, there are Olympia oysters, or O. lurida/O. conchapila. "Olympias make the tiny Kumamotos look like giants, often coming in about the size of a quarter. They are the only oyster native to the West Coast of the U.S. Their popularity in San Francisco during the Gold Rush almost wiped them out, and they were believed to be extinct for decades. Wild populations still exist, however, and are strictly protected. Olympias at the market and in restaurants are cultivated, mostly in the Puget Sound and British Columbia. Olympias are sweet, coppery, and metallic."

I always enjoy the presentation of oysters on the half-shell, dedicated forks at the ready, all neatly arranged just so on a bed of rock salt (though once ☜ they were served on crumpled Kraft paper). I love the briny taste and slippery texture of a small oyster. (I am not crazy about the big ones: too "fatty" or something.) And the inventive sauces. Now that I know there are all these variations, I am going to try to ask more questions. Maybe I'll learn something.

Six years ago, we had the pleasure of going out with the owner of the Morro Bay Oyster Company, Neal Maloney, and tasting oysters pulled straight out of the water. I'll end with a few photos from that delightful day.

The oyster farm
Oysters being grown in mesh bags
Neal serving up
Oh, and in case you were wondering: pearl oysters are in entirely different families than edible oysters. But that's a story for another day.

1 comment:

  1. So the old saying an oyster is an oyster is an oyster is not true, eh?