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Ever wonder why a Malaspina oyster from near Vancouver Island might offer a flavor of artichokes with undertones of metals and salt, while a Maine Pemaquid smacks of cucumber?
Jay Shaffer, chef and host at New York's Shaffer City Oyster Bar & Grill, deconstructs what is served on the half shell: "The liquor in the shell conveys the flavor of the water where the oyster lives. What the oysters had for dinner flavors the meat."
Oyster culture is similar to viniculture in that location governs growth and taste. Most oyster larvae are nursery-raised—but only up to a few weeks. Nature takes over completely after farmers place juveniles in a bay or creek chosen for its nutrients, water temperature and salinity.
Is there a marine terroir? Robert Rheault theorizes that his Rhode Island oysters benefit from clay deposited in the last Ice Age: "Aminosilicate is a molecule similar to salt. Your tongue picks this up in minute concentrations. Our pond is fed by a stream and underground springs, but that fresh water is dwarfed by the twice daily tidal flush from the ocean. We also have a full-bodied flavor that is lacking in many ocean-reared cold-water salty varieties."
Rheault, who earned a doctorate in biological oceanography, gives his oysters a brand name: "Moonstones," after a nearby nude beach.
The Eastern oyster, crassostrea virginica, is called a northern salt when farmed off Long Island or New England. When the same species is cultivated in Virginia's York River, brininess is hardly apparent.
Just as grape varieties may thrive a continent away from where they originated, oysters can be successfully raised on the other side of an ocean. The sweet, half dollar—size Kumamoto originated in Japan and is farmed along with the native fluted shell Pacific oyster on the West Coast.
North of San Francisco, in Tomales Bay, Michael Watchorn farms Kumamotos, Pacifics and virginica. He describes his Hog Island Oyster Co. varieties as "slightly smoky, a little sweet and, because of the bay's freshwater flow, a little less briny."
"Brine is a robust flavor, and when you eat East Coast oysters, you're sipping on the sea," Shaffer explains. He contrasts the creamy, somewhat bland Atlantic meat flavor with the Pacific's: "A West Coast oyster is very powerful. There's a muskiness, an almost fishy-like taste."
Advice from oyster lovers: sip the liquor straight from the shell and hold the cocktail sauce.
Visit www.shaffercity.com, www.moonstoneoysters.com and www.hogislandoyster.com.