Explore the diverse range of flavors, textures, and places that characterize these delicious mollusks as we delve into the briny world of oysters. Every variety of oyster, influenced by its maritime origins, has its own distinct tale to tell, ranging from the buttery richness of Kumamotos to the sharp salinity of Wellfleets. Come along for a tour from the East to the West Coast, where you will experience the memorable Pacifics from California, the brazen and saline Blue Points of New York, and the plump and sweet Hama Hamas of Washington. This book will tantalize your taste buds and create a greater appreciation for the rich and delectable world of oysters, whether you’re an experienced oyster fan or a curious newbie.
Blue Point Oysters
As a member of the Crassostrea genus, the Blue Point oyster isn’t a true oyster— those come from the Ostreidae family. But the Blue Point is a bivalve mollusk, and we love to eat them on the half-shell, so you’d be forgiven for calling it an oyster. Everyone else does. Interestingly, the designation of Blue Point oyster is a legal one. In 1903, the New York legislature passed a law that required any oyster receiving the Blue Point moniker had to have spent at least three months in the Great South Bay. So technically, any oyster at all that stays in the bay for 90 days can be sold as a Blue Point. Unlike many oysters, the Blue Points come in many different shapes. They do not produce pearls.
Another bivalve mollusk, the Kumamoto oyster (Magallana sikamea) populates the Pacific Oceans around China, Japan, and Taiwan. They are popular as food, so farmers cultivate them around the globe, particularly on the United States’ West Coast and off of French shores, but they do not grow wild in those areas. They’re on the smaller side, but their salty taste has a sweetness. The Kumamoto shell is usually a fairly deep bowl. Since they’re small (usually no bigger than two inches wide) and not very salty, they often make for great oysters for a beginner to try.
The Pacific oyster is one of the most popular among seafood lovers. That popularity comes at a price, however. This oyster has a razor-sharp shell, and many an ocean goer has sliced her foot open on one of these guys. They are large (more than twice the size of the Eastern oyster, another hugely popular bivalve), and they grow quickly. Due to their broad appeal, they get farmed around the world. As adaptable oysters, they thrive in all sorts of climates, so they risk crossing over into being an invasive species. Again, they’re large, so Pacific oysters can quickly force smaller oysters out of their natural habitats.
Olympia oysters hew close to their namesake, populating northern Pacific waters, and have been farmed in Puget Sound for over a hundred years. As the smallest of all the North American oysters, the Olympia measures up to about an inch and a half wide. Fans of eating the Olympia point to its diminutive size as the reason its flavor is so bold. They’re pretty briny, and there’s a somewhat metallic taste to them, too. While still found on farm beds, Olympia oysters are rare in the wild, as they were subject to overharvesting in the 18th century, and the population, nearly driven to extinction, has had a tough time bouncing back. However, efforts are underway to help the oysters spread. We’re talking about wild Olympias— the farmed Olympias aren’t going anywhere.
Well Fleet Oysters
Wellfleet oysters hail from the Massachusetts area, and they share the same scientific name as the Blue Point: Crassostrea virginica. This is where New York’s laws come into play. Since the Wellfleet oyster most often occurs in Wellfleet Harbor near Cape Cod, it doesn’t spend any time in the Great South Bay, so sellers cannot legally label it as a Blue Point oyster even though it is exactly the same. Maybe not exactly. Since an oyster’s flavor is directly affected by its environment, you can usually taste the difference between Blue Points and Wellfleet. Not that one is bad, but you can tell they’re different even though they share the same genetic makeup.
Beausoleil (“beatuful sun”) oysters grow in Canadian waters near New Brunswick. They have a growth period of four to six years and enjoy those colder northern waters. Unlike many other oyster species, the Beausoleil does not live in a bed on the sea floor. In reality, most Beausoleils never come in contact with the sand. Instead, they float a little under the water’s surface to get as much sunlight and warmth as possible. A side effect of living the floating life is that their shells are almost always perfectly shaped. While you might find oddly-shaped Pacifics or Easterns, it’s exceedingly rare to find an asymmetrical Beausoleil. They bring a briny taste to the table in their 2.5-inch bodies.
By name, the Eastern oyster is one of the most popular globally. Their rough, irregularly shaped shells, though, will seem familiar to the oyster enthusiast. That’s because, by scientific designation, Eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica) are the same as the Blue Point and Wellfleet bivalve. The difference, of course, is in their location and the fact that no state legislative bodies have codified what people are allowed to call them. Eastern oysters grow in the Chesapeake Bay and down into the Gulf of Mexico. Like most everything else humans touch, the Eastern oyster was overharvested in the northeast, so their population is less than two percent of what it was when Christopher Columbus and his ilk showed up. There aren’t as many, but they’re still delicious.
Sydney Rock Oysters
The Sydney Rock is smaller than the Pacific oysters that grow somewhat near the Sydney Rock’s habitat on the Australian coast. They’re a bit smaller than Pacifics but are roundly praised for their complex flavors. While a Pacific oyster has a salty taste with a bit of creaminess, Sydney Rocks bring several different notes to the tongue. This may have to do with their smaller size, as smaller oysters have bigger flavors than larger ones. Sydney rocks were first harvested not for the dinner table but for the lime in their shells. Thankfully, someone decided to pop the leftovers from those shells into their mouths, and the need for lime suddenly seemed not all that pressing.
Belon oysters are pretty fragile, even delicate. For this reason, dragging the sea beds for them is impractical, as you can easily damage them. Since getting them is more labor-intensive, they are costlier oysters. And we should note that while Belon oysters grow around Maine and are quite popular there, a true Belon oyster comes from France’s Belon River. They wound up in the states due to what was thought to be a failure. Scientists brought some Belon oysters to Maine waters in hopes of getting them going but gave up when they thought there weren’t making progress. Belons grew wild in the Atlantic a decade later, and they’re pretty delicious even if they didn’t come from France.
Misty Point Oysters
Another Crassostrea virginica oyster, the Misty Point shares the same characteristics but hails from Virginia, usually from the Lower Chesapeake Bay. Farmed Misty Points live their lives on the float for uniform shells, a deep cup for the oyster meat to sit in, and shells without very many sharp edges.
There are six species of Pearl oysters, all part of the Pinctada genus. They are edible, but as their name implies, they get harvested for the pearls inside them. They form the pearls to cover over any irritants that get into their shells. Since the ocean floor is often sandy, many small particles could get in there. The Pearl oyster coats the irritant with calcium carbonite, and the buildup creates a pearl. Pearl oyster farmers often place a bead in the oyster to start the pearl creation process. Between all six species of Pearl oyster, they can be found in oceans worldwide.