To eat oysters better, treat them like wine – The Denver Post

By Melissa Clark, The New York Times

On a recent early evening at Maison Premiere, an oyster bar in Brooklyn, New York, I sampled five types of East Coast oysters, perched on a platter of crushed ice like briny gems. As I slurped each one, I noticed their individual charms: the minerality of the Moonstone, the fresh softness of the Onset, Colville Bay’s deep umami sweetness, the briny notes of the Malpeque, Violet Cove’s hit of seaweed and salt. Although these bivalves were all the exact same species — Crassostrea virginicas, also called the Eastern or Atlantic oyster — they were as distinct from one another as a buttery Napa chardonnay is from a crisp Burgundy Chablis.

In sommelier-speak, the expression of these differences is called terroir and reflects how factors like the environment, climate, geology, soil health, viticulture and weather affect the flavor and feel of a finished wine. For oysters and some other bivalves, including scallops, the term of art is merroir, a play on “terroir” that replaces the French for “terre” (land) with “mer” (sea). Learning more about it can deepen a seafood eater’s experience in the same way that understanding a little about terroir can help wine lovers better appreciate the pinot noir in their glass.

Krystof Zizka, the oyster buyer and an owner of Maison Premiere, said there was a big overlap between wine culture and oyster culture.

“The same kind of grape varietal can take on a completely different personality depending on where and how it’s grown,” he said. “It’s the same with oysters.”

But though there are thousands of wine grape varieties, there are only five oyster species raised in the United States, and of those, just three are largely available across the country. The Atlantic oyster is native to the East Coast, and the West Coast is home to the Pacific oyster and the Kumamoto oyster, two Japanese varieties brought over to repopulate areas that were overfished during the 19th-century gold rush. The last two species — the European flats (also called Belons) and the tiny, umami-laced Olympia oyster, native to the Northwest and cultivated there in small numbers — are rare finds. And just like with grape varietals, say, the way a cabernet sauvignon grown in Bordeaux has a completely discrete character from one grown in Napa Valley, an Atlantic oyster harvested in Maine is radically distinct from one harvested in Louisiana.

Wild oysters once grew thickly in U.S. waters, but centuries of overfishing, pollution and habitat devastation have thinned their population drastically. Today, more than 95% of all the oysters consumed in the country are cultivated on highly sustainable aquafarms.

It’s the interaction of aquaculture techniques and the environment that creates merroir, and both can significantly affect the final product.

Ryan McPherson, an owner of Glidden Point Oyster Farm in Edgecomb, Maine, can easily rattle off the elements of the Damariscotta River that contribute to its merroir, including the cold, pristine, brackish water; the abundance of plankton and algae that flow on the currents; and the silt on the river bottom

But what sets apart his (sweet, dense, stony) oysters from the (briny, slippery, mild) ones just 1,000 feet across the river at Mook Sea Farm is farming technique. At Mook, the oysters are suspended in cages that move with the tides, encouraging a clean flavor and slightly rounded shell that holds more of the oyster liquor. At Glidden Point, McPherson farms his oysters directly on the hard river bottom, which gives them a complex, minerally tang and contributes to the growth of a strong, consistent shell that doesn’t chip or splinter when you shuck it.

“Merroir is more than just about taste,” McPherson said. “Each oyster shell tells a story, like rings in a tree.”

At Hama Hama Co., a family-run oyster farm in Lilliwaup, Washington, the Pacific oysters are grown in Hood Canal, nestled alongside a Douglas fir-filled forest.

Adam James, one of the company’s fifth-generation co-owners, said that even the landscape surrounding the water could have a direct effect on the oysters.

“Oysters don’t just consume algae and phytoplankton, but also organic detritus in the water, like sea grass, elder leaves or, in our case, fir needles,” he said.

When describing his oysters, he reached for a vocabulary that was part sommelier, part sea dog.

At their best, he said, his Hama Hamas are “mild and clean, firm like an underripe peach, with a melon or cucumber finish that’s — what’s another way to describe crisp and fresh?” He took only a second before finding the right word, “it’s like a duck dive.”

James recommends slurping his oysters straight from the half shell while they are still raw, whole and full of life force. This is when their merroir is at its strongest and most vibrant.

And this is exactly how Aaron Waldman, the founder of The World’s Your Oyster Co., a Northeast oyster CSA, encourages his clients to savor the bivalves he distributes weekly across New York City.

“That briny liquid in a freshly shucked oyster shell is the seawater it’s been growing in,” he said, adding that those flavors aren’t nearly as apparent after a stint in the oven or on the grill.

In the same vein, he urges oyster-eaters to try them first unadorned before adding any mignonettes or cocktail sauces.

“A little lemon is all you need to cut the salinity,” he said, “this will give you the purest merroir experience.”

Although oysters are the seafood with the most obvious merroir, other sea creatures, like bay scallops and clams, can also express it, especially when they are eaten raw.

Togue Brawn, who owns Downeast Dayboat, a scallop purveyor, offers sea scallops that have been harvested in small quantities from different bays in Maine, each with a slightly distinct flavor and texture. They run the gamut from those soft and mild from Cobscook Bay, to funkier, firmer, salty adductors from Little Machias Bay.

Appreciation for the merroir of sea scallops is a recent thing, Brawn said. It can happen only with scallops caught on dayboats that stay in one location close to shore (not from the large fishing boats that travel miles out to sea).

“For decades in Maine, they’d truck their local scallops out of state and mix them in with the harvest from larger boats in federal fisheries,” she said. “It’s like taking a bottle of Dom Pérignon and pouring it into a vat of Barefoot Bubbly.”

Perhaps the best reason to consider the merroir of any ocean denizen is that eating it can transport you to a place beyond your plate, whether that’s a wild Pacific Northwest coastline fringed with firs, or a sandy Long Island beach in the summer. (Yes, you can eat oysters in the summer, but they are at their sweetest in the winter.)

Rowan Jacobson, who has written several books on oysters and the environment, said that eating a raw oyster is a uniquely visceral experience.

“So much of the food we eat has no somewhere-ness to it at all,” he said, “and especially in this age of disconnection, the desire to connect to the natural world is primal.”

Oysters, slurped raw from the shell, can be our bridge there.

As Jacobson wrote in his 2016 book “The Essential Oyster”: “Every oyster is a tide pool in miniature, a poem built on salt water and phytoplankton that nods to whatever motes of meaning shaped it. It is the sea made solid.”

And to Drink …

Oysters and dry, unoaked white wine have a special affinity. With unadorned raw oysters or oysters and mignonette, the classics — Muscadet, Chablis and Sancerre — are all wonderful. Albariño is delicious, too. I also love fino sherries with oysters, and if you like sake, junmai sake and oysters are terrific. People love oysters and Champagne, and I won’t tell anybody they’re wrong, but I’m not a fan. I find raw oysters can make Champagne taste metallic. The exception is oysters Rockefeller, which goes beautifully with Champagne and pretty well with the classics, too. Cocktail sauce with wine can be a bit odd. I don’t think these combinations would be bad, but I would consider a modestly sweet German riesling, to go with the sweetness in the ketchup. You might also try cold, straight vodka. — Eric Asimov

Classic Cocktail Sauce

By Melissa Clark

A combination of pungent horseradish and sweet ketchup make up the foundation of this classic cocktail sauce, which is seasoned with lemon juice, hot sauce and a dash of Worcestershire. Drizzle it on a shrimp cocktail or dab it sparingly on raw seafood. A little of this assertive mixture goes a long way.

Yield: 1 cup

Total time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup ketchup
  • 3 tablespoons prepared horseradish, store-bought or homemade
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco, plus more to taste
  • Dash of Worcestershire sauce

Preparation

1. Mix together all the ingredients in a small bowl until well blended. Taste and add more lemon juice or hot sauce as needed. Cocktail sauce will keep in the refrigerator in a covered container for at least 2 weeks.

Mignonette Sauce

By Melissa Clark

This simple recipe gives you a classic mignonette sauce for oysters, clams or other seafood, but you can play with the basic formula by changing the vinegar (try cider, malt, sherry, Champagne), swapping the allium (try leeks, scallions or red onion), adding a squeeze of citrus juice or stirring in some fresh herbs like tarragon or mint. Let the mixture sit for at least 30 minutes before serving, so the flavors can blend and the sauce can be at its tangy, peppery best.

Yield: 2/3 cup

Total time: 10 minutes, plus 30 minutes’ resting

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup finely minced shallots (from 1 to 2 shallots)
  • 1/3 cup red-wine or white-wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon coarsely ground black or white peppercorns
  • Pinch of sea salt

Preparation

1. Mix together all the ingredients in a small bowl or jar until well blended. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes before using. Mignonette will keep in the fridge for up to 1 month.

Oysters Rockefeller

By Melissa Clark

In this classic recipe, the Rockefeller name refers to the dollar bill-green color of the sauce — and its richness, as it’s loaded with butter, garlic, spinach and herbs. You can make the butter sauce up to three days ahead and store it in the refrigerator, then drop dollops of it on shucked oysters just before broiling. Watch the oysters carefully as they broil. You want the breadcrumbs in the topping to turn golden and the oysters to warm up slightly but not cook through. Serve these with forks on the side; all the hot, buttery sauce makes them too slick for slurping.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings (24 oysters)

Total time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

  • 8 tablespoons/113 grams unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 1 cup finely chopped baby spinach
  • 1 cup finely chopped parsley, leaves and tender stems
  • 1 large shallot, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely grated, passed through a press or minced
  • Pinch of fine sea salt or table salt
  • 1 lemon
  • Coarse, rock or kosher salt, or crumbled-up foil, for the pan (to stabilize the oysters)
  • 24 oysters, shucked

Preparation

1. In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the breadcrumbs and sauté until they are just a tiny bit golden, about 2 minutes. Stir in the spinach, parsley, shallot and garlic. Cook until fragrant, 1 minute. Remove from the heat and stir in a small pinch of salt.

2. Finely grate 1/2 teaspoon zest from the lemon and add it to the breadcrumb mixture. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze out 1 tablespoon of the juice; mix into the pan.

3. Heat the broiler to high. Fill a baking pan (or two) with a 1/2-inch layer of salt or line the pan with crumbled up foil (to steady the oysters so the juices don’t spill). Lay the oysters on top of the salt or foil. Spoon about 1/2 tablespoon of the sauce mixture on top of the oysters. Broil until just golden, 1 to 3 minutes. Serve hot, with a squeeze of lemon on top, if you like.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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