Oyster Lust

Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast wrote:

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to feel happy, and to make plans.

Oysters lead a pretty cushy life. Most oysters on the U.S. market — and many of the clams and mussels, too — are farm-raised. They’re grown in estuaries, those incredibly productive zones where nutrient-rich fresh and salt water meet and mingle. Oysters feed at their leisure, filtering up to eight gallons of salt water per hour to collect food; they simply relax and waits for the tide to bring the next serving.

Let’s talk about the “R” myth. Folklore says eat an oyster only in months with “R’s” in them, the cool months. In reality, an oyster’s entire reproductive cycle is based on water temperature – not mood. When the water gets warm enough, oysters become reproductive and spawny. So the key is purchase only oysters that are farm-raised off the sea floor, from certified beds and from waters that are 55ยบF or colder, no matter what month it is. This means in the summer get oysters from farther north where the water stays colder, such as the Powell River in British Columbia, and in the winter months get oysters from southern waters such as Tomales Bay in California.

Just like the influence of terroir in wine making, oysters of the same species can take on subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle differences when grown in different beds in the same area. The action of tides, salinity of the water, availability of food, presence of algae, the amount of fresh water coming into the salt water marshes and the mineral content are all contributing factors that cause differences in an oyster’s shape, color and flavor.

When purchasing live oysters, choose oysters that close tightly when handled. Avoid oysters that remain open or have damaged shells. Freshly shucked oysters will smell like the sea and the liquor will be clear.

Oysters in the shell will remain alive from 7 to 10 days when stored in the refrigerator at 35ยบF to 40ยบF. Store live oysters cup side down (flat side up) to keep them in their own liquor and covered with a damp towel. Live oysters need to breathe so never store them in an airtight container and never cover them in fresh water.

Shucked oysters are graded and sold according to size and range from the largest — called “selects” — to the smallest labeled “extra small”. Store fresh, shucked oysters on ice or in the coldest part of the refrigerator and use them within five days of purchase.

Figuring the hundreds of oyster varieties, each with distinctive characteristics and the fact that everyone experiences oysters differently, how do you choose a wine? Champagne or sparkling wine is the classic match and some say the perfect marriage. But I prefer something a little less subtle and a bit more risquรฉ, a chilled Muscadet is the way to go. Muscadet, whether called Melon here in U.S. or a true Muscadet from the mouth of France’s Loire river, offer a terrific price-value ratio.

The simplicity of a naked raw oyster with the crisp, clean slightly citrus profile of the wine makes it a perfect combination for a warm afternoon or a romantic night.

More on Sustainable Seafood and Oysters from GO network:
Sustainable Aquaculture
Choosing Healthy, Ocean-Friendly Seafood is a No-Brainer
Environmental Defense: Plenty of Safe, Eco-Friendly Fish in the Sea
Smart Seafood Choices
A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America

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