Satirist and author Jonathan Swift shrewdly surmised, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.”
Indeed, the first consumers of the briny, beachy bivalve were probably famished. But one slurp and they were pleasantly surprised. They swallowed another, and another, and, eventually, learned how to arrange them on the half shell on a bed of crushed ice accompanied by a bright mignonette sauce.
Man’s affinity for the oyster has placed it on menus everywhere from seafood shacks to fine dining establishments. And, the fact remains, people either love them or hate them; there’s no one on the fence.
Unlike Gertrude Stein’s famous rose, an oyster is not an oyster is not an oyster. Merroir (also meroir; “mer” for sea), borrowed from the term “terroir” in wine cultivation, drives the striking differences between and within growing regions. For example, an oyster from Oregon’s Yaquina Bay will carry distinctive differences from one grown in Washington’s Hood Canal. Tidal conditions, temperature, geography, nutrients and, not least of all, growing methods have profound impacts on an oyster’s shape, size, texture, taste and very survival.
Washington, Oregon and British Columbia are home to some of the world’s prime oyster-cultivation waters. Six Northwest oyster regions—Vancouver Island, North Puget Sound, Hood Canal, South Puget Sound, Washington Coast and Oregon Coast—account for the different characteristics of oysters grown in each. In these growing regions, oyster farms abound, and Washington State holds the title as having the largest production in the U.S.
The best way to discern the nuances in oysters and to discover your favorites—whether by variety or geographic location—is by comparison. Your laboratory? A reliable oyster bar with a reputation for shucking fresh, high-quality oysters.
Line up a variety to sample. If the selection is daunting, ask the server for a recommendation.
Like appreciating a fine wine, there are tasting tips for appreciating and comparing oysters. It’s best to sample without any sauces, squeezes or sprinkles. You want the pure, fresh, naked oyster on its shell with its liquor (the animal’s natural juices).
First, taste with your eyes. Take in its size and shape. Is it a large, intimidating-looking oyster? Is it small and compact? Is the shell, flat or a deep cup?
Next, perform the nose test. Is it odorless? Does it smell of tide flats or something else?
Now you’re ready for the taste test. Slurp the oyster and its liquor from the shell (it’s okay to make a slight slurping sound), but don’t swallow yet. Chew it a few times to evaluate texture (is it firm, creamy or somewhere in between?) and taste (briny, sweet, clean and crisp, minerally?) Does the flavor remind you of any other foods, such as cucumber? After you swallow, pay attention to any aftereffects on the palate. Does the flavor linger? Do you want another, or do you prefer to pass? After you sample several varieties, does a favorite emerge?
Down on the Farm
There’s a certain romance in visiting a Northwest beach piled with miniature mountains of oyster shells and redolent with the salty smell of tidelands. There’s no substitute for tasting oysters at the source and getting the chance to chat with oyster farmers about the cultivation process. You can even pack some oysters home, whether live in the shell or shucked, bottled and ready for the stew pot or frying pan.
Some of the best oyster farms offer a warm welcome and a tasty visitor experience. Here are three favorites:
Hama Hama, on Washington’s Hood Canal, is a 5th-generation, family-run oyster farm. Visit their outdoor Oyster Saloon next to the tide flats for grilled or raw oysters on the half shell, then stop by the store and take some home. Lilliwaup, Washington. hamahamaoysters.com
Taylor Shellfish’s Samish Farm, on Washington’s scenic Chuckanut Drive, offers a store where you can buy oysters and shuck raw or grill right on the beach in front of the oyster beds. Bow, Washington. taylorshellfishfarms.com
Oregon Oyster Farms, a 100-year-old farm located on Yaquina Bay, offers an onsite store where you can buy fresh Pacific oysters and ask the staff to shuck them for you. Buy a bottle of their homemade cocktail sauce to top your oysters before you slurp. Newport, Oregon. oregonoyster.com