The Mighty Oyster in Our Fair City
Briny, juicy, sweet, and chewy. These are not the words I used to describe the first oysters I ever ate, nor those for years after. The words I used were: “salty, chewy mucus.”
Why did I ever eat a second? Mostly etiquette and love of socializing. There was a backyard party where the generous host had hundreds of his favorite oysters flown in from Maine. Everyone slurped them down, raw and grilled. There was plenty of beer so I swallowed my share and piqued my interest. When manners forced me to try more oysters in the 15 years since that backyard party, I slowly grew to love their texture—silky, creamy, and chewy all at once. I began to notice the variety of flavors—from copper to lemon to honeydew—and always briny.
The benefits of farming oysters
Oysters naturally live in estuaries, tidal creeks, bays, and sounds, in brackish to full seawater. Oysters spawn when waters are warm. Pregnant oysters are often creamier in texture and can be funky in flavor, which is why some people believe oysters shouldn’t be eaten in months that don’t have an “r” in them. They aren’t unsafe to eat in the summer, but many people who do simply don’t enjoy the flavor.
Most of the oysters we eat on the Pacific Coast are farmed. Farming methods fall into two categories: bottom and off-bottom culturing. In bottom culturing, oyster farmers “plant” oyster “seeds,” or young oysters, on the bottom of the bay, creek, sound, or estuary in the type of environment where oysters would naturally be found.
“The act of growing oysters has minimal impact on the environment. It requires no feed, supplements, or medications. The growing area is small considering the amount of protein produced. As filter-feeders, oysters naturally continuously filter and clean the waters in which they live,” says Rebecca Richards, an owner of the local Carlsbad Aquafarm, as well as Clausen Oysters in Oregon. Oysters then eat and live as they would in the wild, for the most part, until they are harvested.
Adult oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. This helps clean the water, especially of algae. In fact, the Billion Oyster Project aims to improve water quality and habitat in the New York Harbor by restoring 1 billion live oysters. Oysters are functionally extinct in the harbor. Oyster reefs that once inhabited the harbor not only filtered the water and decreased wave action, they provided habitat for fish, crabs, worms, barnacles, etc.
So many oysters, but just five species
While there are hundreds of oyster varieties, there are only about 70 edible species. Of those, only five are commonly farmed and sold in North America. Two are native to North America: Atlantic, found on the Atlantic Coast from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and Olympia (or Oly), found along the U.S. Pacific West Coast. Both are hard to come by. The Oly is smaller and takes longer to grow than do the nonnative species. Few aquafarms grow Olys and they’re more expensive than others by the pound. This is why you don’t often see them on San Diego menus. If you do come across these gems, try them. They taste like a Bloody Mary.
Of the other three species—European flat, Kumamoto and Pacific—San Diego menus regularly feature Pacifics and Kumamotos. With names like Kusshi, Sol Azul, Fanny Bay, and Kumiai, the Pacific varieties are named for where they are grown, as are the European flats. Kumamotos are sold simply as Kumamoto or Kumos.
As names change with location, so do flavors. The characteristic of seafood taste deriving from location has recently been coined “merroir” after the French terroir, which describes the way the flavor of wine grapes and some foods reflect the flavors of the soil in which they’re grown.
“It’s close to the same experience as with wine or beer. You pick up subtle differences based on the conditional variables of the growing region,” says Timothy Fuller, executive chef at Tiger! Tiger!, on eating oysters.
“The same species of oysters from Baja tastes more briny than those from British Columbia due to the growing waters,” says Dave Rudie, owner of Catalina Offshore Products. The Kumo, however, is usually sweet and less briny than the others. Pacifics will range in flavor from lemon to melon, from cream to copper, to any combination of these, depending on where they’re grown.
San Diego has few oyster farms. This is because “permitting and affordable coastal land is very difficult to attain in Southern California,” Richards tells me. And the farms in Northern California don’t distribute to Southern California, says Chef Michael Poompan, executive chef, Coronado Island Marriott Resort & Spa. “They’re sold locally in the region where they’re grown, so we don’t have access to them down here.” The most local oysters we can get in San Diego are the Pacifics and Kumos farmed in Baja or Central California. Carlsbad Aquafarm sells its oysters wholesale to Whole Foods, Sprouts Farmers Market and many California restaurants.
The Kumiai (a Pacific varietal) was named for the indigenous people who lived on the Baja California Peninsula, where they’re grown. They’re cultivated in Vizcaino Bay, which is about halfway down Baja and right near a biosphere reserve. The chilly and nutrient-rich waters they come from result in meaty oysters all year round. They have a strong briny flavor with a sweet ending. “It’s like swimming in the ocean with each slurp,” says Poompan. While many oysters require delicate toppings not to overpower the flavor, the Kumiai can handle stronger mignonettes and pairings with heavy beers.
What to look for in an oyster
As with any seafood, look for traceability when selecting. Does the fishmonger or grocer know where they were grown? Oysters are alive when sold and shucked and eaten raw. If you’re buying live, whole oysters, look for shells that are shut tight, or that close quickly when tapped. They should smell briny fresh and look clean. If you’ve ordered them on the half-shell, the oysters tend to quiver when you squeeze lemon on them—proof that the animal is alive.