View Full Version : 'Erster' this one's for you!

Dave Fleming
12-11-2002, 11:08 AM

December 11, 2002
With Oysters, Lots of Names, Four Flavors

FOR some New Yorkers, the most heartwarming sight of the holidays isn't the perfect gingerbread house, plum pudding or potato pancake, but a pile of ice chips draped with seaweed and raw, gray, wet shellfish. For them, nothing is more festive than a platter of freshly shucked oysters. Indeed, the ritual presentation of the various accessories mignonette sauce, horseradish, Tabasco sauce, cocktail sauce, lemon wedges, crackers can make anyone feel like Diamond Jim Brady for about $20. But which oysters to favor this year?

"Our customers have become more and more adventurous," said Sandy Ingber, executive chef at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. "Ten years ago, we were lucky to have 10 oysters on the list. Now we often have over 25."

Suppliers are jockeying to meet the demand for "new" oysters, the ones with names that conjure up salt spray and sea breezes as you slurp. At Aquagrill in SoHo, you can practically hear the flap of the jib when choosing among varieties like Rumstick Point, Duck Island, Spinney Creek and Peconic Bay, along with 90 or so others.

Oyster-loving New Yorkers have readily taken to these exotic breeds. But are they any better than the old stalwart Blue Points and Wellfleets? Are there meaningful differences among Malpeques, Cuttyhunks and Saltaires? The answer, not surprisingly, is yes and no. But mostly no, on the basis of a series of undercover tastings at Manhattan oyster bars and conversations with shellfish professionals.

Oyster enthusiasts like to rhapsodize about flavor notes like melon, cucumber and copper. Oyster farmers insist that the water of their particular inlet off Long Island Sound produces flavors different from, and superior to, all others. The concept of terroir, borrowed from winemakers, is often cited by both groups as the key to oyster flavor; variations in plankton, the purity of source aquifers and water salinity are believed to create oysters that are richly characteristic of their undersea lives. But others are skeptical.

"There's an awful lot of fluff out there on the subject of oysters," said Jeremy Marshall, the chef at Aquagrill.

At the Pearl Oyster Bar in Greenwich Village, the owner, Rebecca Charles, serves only one kind of oyster each night, cheerfully dismissing the notion that Atlantic oysters differ radically in taste. Ms. Charles said her customers are "either surprised or crestfallen" by the lack of choice. "People have started to expect new oysters all the time," she said. "Why? Isn't life already confusing enough?" (She said she is particularly fond of Wellfleets.)

Whom to believe? "All the oysters in Long Island Sound in fact, all the oysters from Florida to Nova Scotia are essentially the same," Dr. Stephen Tettelbach, a professor of marine science and biology at Southampton College of Long Island University and an expert on shellfish aquaculture, said when I enlisted him to provide the hard facts on oyster physiology and nomenclature.

Dr. Tettelbach and his wife, Dr. Lisa Tettelbach, a marine biologist for the New York State Environmental Conservation Department, agreed to join me for part of an undercover tour of local oyster bars. After tasting 27 "different" oysters at five locations in Manhattan over the course of a couple of weeks, some shocking truths emerged (and some not so shocking).

Oyster menus notwithstanding, only four truly different oysters are available in New York City: the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), the Western oyster (Crassostrea gigas), the European or Belon (Ostrea edulis) and the Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea).

If tasting a variety of oysters is what you are after, spread the wealth by ordering a few of each kind. Helpfully, Kumamotos and Belons are almost always listed that way on menus. Kumamotos are reliably creamy and sweet; Belons are famously metallic.

Beyond that, it's location, location, location. Order four Peconic Bays, four Wellfleets and four Malepeques, and you'll taste three variations, running south to north, on the virginica theme. (There are some taste differences among virginicas, mostly variations on the theme of "briny" and "very briny.") But don't get too invested in the idea of one kind of oyster's having a certain flavor. The taste depends on factors of weather, geology, fertility and FedEx, some of which are more predictable than others. And freshness is the most important factor of all.

Whatever kind you favor, the oysters you eat probably had a sheltered upbringing. According to the Tettelbachs, wild oysters are increasingly rare, especially on the East Coast, where legendary oyster beds like Chesapeake Bay and the Great South Bay of Long Island are no longer particularly hospitable. Today, "wild" oysters appear when commercial growers or local authorities spread seedlings in a likely spot and hope for the best. These oysters can often be identified by their shells: they grow in huge clusters and, to be served on the half shell as "singles," have to be broken apart, leaving telltale fragments on the outside.

But most oystermen are now farmers rather than hunter-gatherers they cultivate individual oysters from seed. "It's like a stud program for oysters," said Steve Malinowski, the owner of the Fishers Island Oyster Company, where careful selection of parent stock has doubled the size of the oysters.

At most hatcheries, the seedlings spend the first weeks of their lives absorbing a rich diet of plankton and algae. These fingernail-size spat, as they are called, are transported to beds of shell or suspended in nets well off the bottom, where they might encounter predators or suffocating mud. They spend the next two to four years in the same spot, sucking in and spitting out up to 25 gallons of water each day.

These coddled morsels are often sold under a place name, like Hog Island, Spinney Creek or Block Island. Clearly, oyster fans are susceptible to strong whiffs of seafaring tradition. But the oysters may not have spent any time in those salty locales. The place names are also brand names of companies that raise shellfish, and it's not strictly necessary for the oysters to be grown in a particular spot to be sold under its name. While chefs insist that they and their purveyors are rarely guilty of deliberately giving misinformation, the fact is that there is very little regulation and a lot of confusion on the part of consumers.

Rarely are restaurant staff members of much assistance in this regard. At the Oyster Bar at the Plaza Hotel, when asked how a "Delaware" oyster could be from Washington State, a waiter replied, "They like to swim around." In fact, oysters are not mobile and can safely travel cross country only by airplane.

Just about every oyster menu in Manhattan offers Blue Point oysters from Long Island, without mentioning that the closest the oysters ever get to Long Island is the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound. In fact, a great majority of Blue Points are now raised in Connecticut.

The Blue Point, everyone agrees, is the most popular oyster in the New York region and also the most confusing. "Blue Points outsell all our other oysters by at least three to one," Mr. Ingber of the Grand Central Oyster Bar said. They are the only oysters whose name is protected by New York State law, which requires that any oyster called Blue Point must spend at least three months in the Great South Bay, on the southern coast of Long Island. But the law is routinely flouted, often by the elementary ruse of spelling the name "Bluepoint" or "Blue Points."

The "real" Blue Point oyster is an elusive beast, and it's about to become even more so. The last company to raise oysters in the Great South Bay was the Bluepoints Company, representing the end of a shellfish production line that began in 1664, when King Charles II first leased 12,000 acres of Great South Bay bottom to his brother James, the Duke of York. In June, over protests by the Sierra Club and many residents, the Bluepoints hatchery in West Sayville was finally leased to a developer, who plans to turn its shore-front site into condominiums, each with a boat slip.

Craig Strong, the hatchery manager and one of the company's last remaining employees, has been raising oysters on the waterfront site for 30 years. Even he says that the Blue Point oyster has probably reached its end. "We had such a beautiful, pure brood stock," he said ruefully. Mr. Strong is still tending his vats of algae, hoping to find some true Blue Point seedlings to nourish.

Blue Point loyalists might point an accusing finger at the distributors of the Kumamoto oyster, which was originally cultured in Japan and is now grown on the Pacific coast from California to British Columbia. It is New York's top up-and-comer and a favorite at fashionable spots like Nobu and Lot 61.

Dismissed as a "beginner" oyster by virginica lovers, the Kumamoto is rounder, creamier and smaller, with a noticeable cucumber flavor. David Pasternack of Esca, where Pacific oysters rarely make it onto the menu, diplomatically terms it a "neutral" oyster.

Still, Mr. Marshall of Aquagrill said that over all, "West Coast oysters are gaining." His customers, he said, now order slightly more Pacific than Atlantic oysters. West Coast gigas oysters like Fanny Bay, Hama Hama and Malaspina tend to be slightly less metallic and plumper than virginicas, he added, and are also increasingly popular.

The greatest test of the oyster lover is the super-metallic French Belon, with its distinct flavor of pocket change. The American Belon (also called a flat or European oyster) is milder, but it still has a strong suggestion of sea bottom. Add to that taste the fact that the American Belon grows to as much as a pound in size (extra-large Maine Belons are available at the Grand Central Oyster Bar for $3 each), and you have the perfect winter sport for New Yorkers: extreme oyster eating.

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[ 12-11-2002, 06:13 PM: Message edited by: Dave Fleming ]

12-11-2002, 04:30 PM
Eeww! Chacun a son gou.

12-11-2002, 05:21 PM
Speaking of LSD...

But, I hadn't realized how few oysters are "wild". So the Chesapeake's natural beds seem permanently blighted, it would seem.

I haven't had a good shucked oyster feed since I left Baltimore. Visiting a friend in Jacksonville FLA, ten years ago, the bars served small pale memories, from Appalatchicola (sp,) if memory serves.

Aqua culture! The world is a garden! If only we can figure a way to get so many of us into such a small space.

Memphis Mike
12-11-2002, 05:21 PM
I dunno about Cheezehead but I like em
wif horse radish, cocktail sauce and
lemon juice. Oh Yeah!

12-11-2002, 10:14 PM
Horse radish, cocktail sauce and lemon? Why bother with an oyster then? All you're tasting is the goop you put on them!