Fall and winter are prime time to enjoy East Coast bivalves.
—by Jeanne O’Brien Coffey
You wouldn’t know it to gaze out over Duxbury Harbor, an hour south of Boston, but just below the surface millions of oysters are doing what they do best—feeding. All summer and into the fall, each bivalve sucks up about 50 gallons of seawater per day, filtering out tiny bits of algae and other excess nutrients, leaving the ocean water cleaner while plumping up for the winter ahead. The resulting shellfish are harvested by Duxbury-based Island Creek Oysters, to the tune of 100,000 or more each week—an instance where farmed seafood is really good for the environment.
It’s the same all along the East Coast, from New England down through the Long Island Sound and beyond: Oysters spend the summers storing up fat and sugar, becoming creamy and complex. As winter approaches, when chillier water makes the meat a bit more toothsome, it’s prime time for shellfish lovers.
Oyster flavors vary quite a bit, from sweet to bracing, and vegetal to briny.
“When you get into those first few weeks of cool days, that’s when you want to be eating shellfish,” says Jeremy Sewall, chef-owner at Row 34 and Island Creek Oyster Bar, a mini-empire of Boston-area restaurants that helped launch the cult of sustainably grown, carefully harvested oysters. “[At that point, oysters] have a nice, rich, complex flavor. Before the water gets too cold, when they shut down, they’re at their prime.”
Whether you’re enjoying a Row 34 from Island Creek; a Copps Island, grown off the coast of Westport, Connecticut; or a Fishers Island, harvested near the eastern tip of Long Island, all oysters follow that cycle. The other thing all East Coast oysters have in common: They are all the same species—the Eastern oyster, or more technically, Crassostrea virginica.
Despite all starting from the same seed, oyster flavors vary quite a bit, from sweet to bracing, and vegetal to briny. Connoisseurs call that variation in taste “merroir”—a play on the term terroir commonly associated with wine. The temperature of the water, growing methods, tides, and a host of other variables all affect the finished product.
It’s easy to taste that firsthand at Island Creek. The farm’s namesake oyster—prized by chefs like Thomas Keller—grows in the mud at the bottom of Duxbury Harbor, giving it a flavor that balances between briny and earthy, with a buttery richness. One of the farm’s other oysters, the Row 34, is grown just a few yards from the Island Creeks but in cages suspended in the water rather than planted loose on the harbor floor. This difference yields an oyster that tastes more of the sea than the earth—crisper, less creamy, and a bit brinier.
No matter your preference, there’s an oyster for you. More and more small farms are popping up along the Eastern Seaboard, each with a unique merroir, and serious oyster spots will stock a variety for exploring. Many consumers’ first oyster experience, however, is likely to be the ubiquitous Blue Point. Over the years, the name, which originated in Blue Point, Long Island, has come to represent oysters grown anywhere on the Long Island Sound, from Connecticut, across Long Island, and down to New Jersey and even Virginia. Because of that, the flavor and quality varies widely, says Julie Qiu, founder of the oyster appreciation website In A Half Shell and self-described oyster sommelier. “Blue Point oysters are everywhere, but it’s pretty hard to know exactly where any single Blue Point oyster is really from. Simply put, they are a commodity crop.” Because of that, she says, there’s a lot of variability in the salinity, flavor, and quality that you don’t experience with oyster brands that are trying to differentiate by quality and place.
In other words, if you truly want to learn about merroir, spend a bit more for an oyster with a distinct personality. And don’t be afraid to shuck them fresh at home. “Practice makes perfect,” says Sewall, who loves the bivalves in stew, baked, or slurped straight from the shell. “Get a bag of oysters and practice. Few things are more rewarding than being a really good oyster shucker.”
OYSTERS TO GO
Want to enjoy an oyster tour in your kitchen? Get an oyster knife and find a good instructional video on YouTube. Then order some oysters. Buying from any of these farms will set you on the path to shellfish nirvana.
Island Creek: Grown an hour south of Boston, these oysters have a strong salinity up front that gives way to vegetal, buttery richness and a long sweet finish, thanks to a life spent dug into the mineral-rich mud of Duxbury Bay. islandcreekoysters.com
Copps Island: Bottom-planted off the Norwalk– Westport island chain, these oysters benefit from shallow waters, swift currents, and a sandy bottom, which provide plump meat that is sweet and slightly briny. coppsislandoysters.com
Fishers Island: Growing in mesh bags suspended on lines in Block Island Sound gives these oysters a deep brininess, savory meat, and a crisp, bright finish. fishersislandoysters.com
COURTESY OF CHEF JEREMY SEWALL, ISLAND CREEK OYSTER BAR AND ROW 34
(makes 12 oysters):
12 large oysters (such as Island Creeks)
1 small leek, white part only, split lengthwise and washed
2 tbsp canola oil
½ cup diced, uncooked slab bacon
1 tbsp paprika
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup panko bread crumbs
1 tbsp chopped fresh tarragon
1 tsp grated lemon zest
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1–2 cups kosher salt for baking, plus more to taste
Freshly ground white pepper
• Shuck the oysters, saving the bottom shell and meat separately. Clean out shells and set aside. Refrigerate oyster meat in a bowl, covered with plastic wrap, until ready to use.
• Preheat a grill pan or sauté pan over medium-high heat. Brush the leek with a little bit of the oil and place both halves on the hot grill or sauté pan, flat side down. Cook for 1 minute, then roll onto its side; repeat twice to grill all sides. Leek should not be fully cooked but should have a little color from the pan. Cool slightly; slice into thin half circles.
• In a sauté pan, heat the remaining oil over medium heat, add the bacon, and cook until it begins to brown, four to five minutes. Drain off all but two tablespoons of the fat, and add paprika, leek, and garlic. Cook for two minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently, taking care not to let the mixture burn. Remove from the heat and fold in bread crumbs, tarragon, lemon zest, and lemon juice. Season with salt and white pepper.
• Preheat the oven to 400°F.
• Mix a little water into one to two cups of salt to make a paste. Mound the paste into a long, flat pedestal on a baking sheet. Place cleaned oyster shells on top of the mound. Place an oyster in each shell and spoon the leek mixture over the oyster meat so it’s completely covered.
• Bake the oysters for eight minutes, then turn the broiler on and cook for two more minutes.
• To serve, create small mounds of salt paste on a large serving platter and place baked oysters on top of them.