Our rich and fabled history with oysters goes back to the earliest natives, the once cheap and plentiful supply is returning--no longer cheap, but certainly plentiful with greater variety than we've seen in decades.
"The variety has been out there for a long time--it's the distribution and increased awareness of what's available that has changed," said Ian Jefferds, general manager at Penn Cove Shellfish, a producer and distributor in Coupeville, Wash.
Demand has resulted in more types of oysters being made available to food service and retail stores, he said.
"As consumers and chefs travel and experience what truly fresh oysters are supposed to taste like, the more demanding they are to their suppliers to provide the same levels of quality," Jefferds said.
Location, location, location
Often named for their place of origin and not their species, oysters listed on the board at an oyster bar can be somewhat confusing. But given that there are only five species of oysters from North American coastal waters, it's really more a challenge of geography. Knowing your islands, bays and rivers can help.
In simplest terms, there is the Atlantic, or East Coast oyster, found from Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. For eating raw on the half shell, the colder, northernmost waters offer the best examples with the longest season, while the warmer Gulf waters offer the weakest sampling, only to be eaten raw in winter and generally better off cooked even then.
Atlantic oysters are almost always named for where they are harvested. The crisp, clean-flavored Malpeque, for instance, is from Malpeque Bay in Prince Edward Island, Canada.
Then there are the Pacific oyster and the Kumamoto, both originally from Japan, that now grow from the Pacific coast to Alaska. The Kumamoto (named after a Japanese city) is especially delicious, small and deep cupped, holding a nice shot of sea water. The Pacific oyster is also usually named by location, such as the minerally Westcott Bay from Washington.
The growing oyster fishery in the Pacific Northwest has added much variety to the market, making Seattle, as David Rosengarten writes in "The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook," "the new epicenter of American oyster-eating, and the source of America's finest oysters."
The European flat oyster, the most famous being the Belon from France, has now been transplanted here on both coasts.
And finally there's the very tiny, quarter-sized Olympia with the big-sized flavor from Washington State, often limited in availability.
"Oysters differ tremendously in size, plumpness and taste," author Joan Reardon wrote in "Oysters: A Culinary Celebration." "Because an oyster pumps more than a hundred gallons of water a day ... and assimilates mostly sodium chloride and minerals, it will taste of salt and metals. Its taste will be a concentration of its last habitat."
Temperature also affects an oyster's flavor and the colder the water, the better.
But the key to great oysters is freshness. Whether dining out or buying for home, it's best to go where the oysters have a lot of turnover.
Fish houses and oyster bars stretch throughout the area, from Porter's Oyster Bar in Crystal Lake down to Tin Fish in Tinley Park through the dozens of seafood restaurants in the city and suburbs, where you'll find growing selections of oysters on the half shell.
But shells are even popping at unexpected places. Boka in Lincoln Park, for instance, featured oysters right from its opening. As co-owner Rob Katz said, "We've had them since day one, and they'll be here until day end."
A native of British Columbia, Katz is quick to point out the restaurant's "strong coastal influence." And while he keeps the selection small--three or four varieties of the best Northern oysters--the thing is: they sell.
"They're very, very popular. We have to get them every single day. Every day we'll run out," Katz said. "And that's the way we want it."
Though it's nice to have a restaurant do all the work, oysters have become a somewhat pricey treat. Buying for home can save some money but, again, you'll want to look for the stores that move them. They can range in price from $1 to $1.50 each. (Shucked oysters are often sold by the pound.)
Dirk Fucik, owner of Dirk's Fish on Clybourn Avenue, sells a lot of oysters and keeps a fine selection on hand. Fucik offered a quick tour of the day on display: "These are Dabob Bay, out of Washington, and Fanny Bays. Malpeques here, from Prince Edward Island. And we always carry a staple, like this Virginia oyster."
"The difference is where they're grown," he said. "Certain areas, different bays with little nooks and crannies, all have their different flavors and nuances."
A Kumamoto from Dirk's, for instance, from Chapman's Cove in Washington, had a noticeably different flavor than the Kumamotos at Boka, which came from British Columbia. Dirk's Washington oyster exploded on the taste buds, an immediate hit of bright, minerally copper and twang of ocean brine. The flavor hung there, as if in the air, and gradually gave way to a slightly fruity finish.
"It's one of my favorite oysters," Fucik said. "It really reminds you of the ocean. You really think of the Pacific Northwest when you eat one of those."
And almost as if on cue, as the flavor was slipping from salty to sweet, he called the play by play, "And they've got that almost fruity aftertaste. We used to call 'em `Watermelon' oysters, because of that nice after-flavor."
The Kumamoto from British Columbia at Boka had a more subtle mineraliness, with its initial snap of salty brine and a more pronounced fruity after taste. Both oysters were sensational, in the literal sense, and I wouldn't think of eating them any other way than freshly shucked and unadorned.
Are oysters aphrodisiacs, as they're fabled to be? Tiny love bombs, conveniently wrapped in their own treasure chests? I'll leave it to you to conduct your own experiments.
But one point that suggests they might help your romance is the oyster's stellar nutritional profile. Low in fat, high in protein, a good source of vitamins A and E, and rich in a plunder of minerals, oysters are most definitely good for the body--which can only help a love life.
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Buying fresh oysters
Most important is freshness. Remember: oysters are alive. Be particular. Shells should be tightly closed with a clean, sea smell. If you are uncertain, look for a tag displayed where you can read the date of harvest. If an inexperienced fishmonger wraps them tightly in a plastic bag, be sure to poke some holes in it so the oysters can breathe. Set them on ice for the trip home. Store in the refrigerator, preferably out of the bag in a single layer, flat shell up. Place a damp towel on top. Do not submerge in tap water or keep sealed in any containment without air or they will die.
Of course, be careful. "It's a finesse thing more than a force thing," said Dirk Fucik of Dirk's Fish. Rinse oysters of any mud or dirt. If you have a large number, put them on ice in the sink. Place an oyster on an old kitchen towel, rounded shell downward to hold the liquid. Protecting your hand with a glove or a heavy towel, insert the point of an oyster knife between the hinge at the back of the oyster and gently wriggle and push the blade in place. Once you feel in, twist the blade and the oyster should `pop.' Slide the blade along the side, twisting again if necessary, and slide it along the top shell to cut the muscle and free the shell, leaving the oyster in place below. Pick out any bits of grit or shell. Set oysters on a platter of crushed ice, balancing each to hold its liquor. Serve with lemon wedges.
Any crisp, white wine works well. The more complex the oyster, the more important the wine choice. Sauvignon blanc, especially Sancerre, a muscadet or a dry Alsatian riesling are all good choices. A non-oaky chardonnay, like a good Chablis, works as well. Champagne almost goes without saying. But, as with everything, it's a formula for personal choice. With a big plate of milder Virginia oysters, go ahead and have a beer.
Are oysters safe to eat raw? The biggest risk of illness is caused by a naturally occurring bacteria in warmer coastal waters, with the vast majority of incidence occurring in the Gulf's warmer months, which can extend from March to November.
An FDA advisory notes that anyone with liver or kidney disease, cancer, advanced diabetes or any condition that compromises the immune system should avoid eating raw oysters.
Buy oysters from a reputable, knowledgeable purveyor or restaurants with good turnover. As Fucik noted, "With shellfish, they really monitor water quality. All these oysters have tags on them with the date of harvest and where they're from. If there's ever a problem, they can track it back to exactly where it came from."
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SEATTLE--One Washington and nine California white wines, including eight crisp sauvignon blancs, a dry chenin blanc and a light, refreshing pinot grigio, prevailed over 153 entries in the 2004 Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. Judged by writers, restaurateurs and retailers, the competition seeks to match West Coast wines and oysters. The winners:
N/V Barefoot Cellars Sauvignon Blanc
2003 Dry Creek Vineyard Dry Chenin Blanc
2003 Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc
2002 Honig Vineyard & Winery Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc
2002 Kenwood Vineyards Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc
2002 La Famiglia di Robert Mondavi Pinot Grigio
2002 Lake Sonoma Winery Dry Creek Fume Blanc
2003 Parducci Wine Cellars Sauvignon Blanc
2002 Robledo Family Winery Sauvignon Blanc
2002 Snoqualmie Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc
Published October 6, 2004