The Five-Minute Oyster Guide That Will Make You Look Like an Expert

Thanksgiving through New Year’s, oysters are at their plump, buttery best, which is why oyster guru Rowan Jacobsen recommends making them a big part of the holidays.

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Nov 19 2017, 3:00pm

In late fall, as water temperatures plunge in northern seas, oysters prepare to go into hibernation for the long, cold winter. Like little bears, they gorge themselves through the fall. Thanksgiving through New Year's, they are at their plump, buttery best, which is why oyster guru Rowan Jacobsen recommends making them a big part of the holidays. Here are six top picks from his new book, The Essential Oyster, that are at their prime right now.

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All photographs by David Malosh for The Essential Oyster.

Hog Island Sweetwater Tomales Bay, California Species: Pacific

Cultivation: Seed is grown in tumble bags on the northern end of Tomales Bay, near the mouth, then transferred to bags attached to off-bottom racks in the intertidal zone and harvested around one year of age.

Presence: Deep-cupped from its early months in the flip bags, but sporting a stylish frilly edge from its rack-and-bag finish. Slate black, deep purple, California cool.

Flavor: An intense mix of brine and honeydew nectar unlike anything else on the market. Sweetwater indeed.

Obtainability: The most famous and successful oyster in California history. Hog Island grows several million Sweetwaters per year. The only problem is that their own oyster bars (particularly the one at the Ferry Building, which singlehandedly unloads two million of them each year) absorb most of the production. For the Ur experience, head out to the self-serve picnic tables at their headquarters on Tomales Bay.

The oyster that would transform California was born in 1983, when the marine biologist and surfer John Finger, a rangy young guy with a pearl earring and sun-bleached hair, scored a five-acre aquaculture lease in Tomales Bay, north of San Francisco, directly atop the San Andreas Fault, where the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate continue to grind in opposition an inch or two per year. Oysters had been grown in Tomales Bay in the past, but no one in California had ever grown singles for half-shell service, and Finger suspected that was where the market was headed, with California increasingly hungry for anything fresh and local. Young seafood distributor Billy Marinelli agreed, and sold the first oysters Finger produced to Chez Panisse and Zuni Cafe—the two flagbearers of California Local. Grown using French-style racks and bags where the salty, nutrient-dense Pacific upwelled from the depths and funneled into skinny Tomales Bay and met the fresh waters of Walker Creek (referred to as "sweetwater" by the oldtimers), this oyster was a revelation of flavor and form. To set it apart from the old guard of oysters, he gave the oyster (and the operation) an intentionally quirky identity, naming it for a nearby isle where settlers used to corral their swine. (This inadvertently sowed much confusion, since other Hog Island oysters, undoubtedly named for the same reason, turn up in Maine's Damariscotta River, Virginia's Eastern Shore, and Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay).

Soon Finger brought aboard fellow marine biologist Terry Sawyer, and soon after that the two opened a retail spot near their farm. Customers were eating their oysters on the premises as soon as they bought them, so Hog Island added some picnic tables and began loaning out shucking knives. Some people wanted to grill their bivalves, so they added some Webers. Beer and wine followed, and suddenly Hog Island was the sizzling weekend destination spot in the Bay Area, and had inadvertently created the vertically integrated "bay-to-plate" model many savvy oyster farms now follow: Island Creek, Rappahannock River, Little Creek, Hama Hama, and even Taylor Shellfish have all gone to Hog-Warts.

Today, Hog Island farms 160 acres in Tomales Bay and is charging hard into Humboldt Bay. Hog Island also grows superb Kumamotos (in the southern, less dynamic part of the bay, confirming Kumies' contrary nature) and even some flats ("French Hogs"). For those, you'll need to make the piggy pilgrimage.

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Shigoku Willapa Bay, Washington Species: Pacific

Cultivation: Seed from Hawaii is grown out in plastic mesh bags attached to longlines that tumble up and down with the tides, reaching market size in 6 to 8 months.

Presence: Small, scooped, and slick, with Ridley Scott color palettes, these feel like they got beamed out of some Pacific Rim fusion future.

Flavor: Strong, clean cuke and salt, finishing with water chestnut and Jerusalem artichoke.

Obtainability: Shigokus are legion. Taylor Shellfish has installed 1,400 longlines in Willapa Bay, each holding 39 bags producing 150 mature oysters every six months. You do the math.

There are tumbled oysters, and then there's the Shigoku, tumbled with a vengeance by the angry Pacific as it pours into and out of Willapa Bay every twelve hours. In addition to the tides, Shigokus are shaped by the wind. Grown on the "Oyster Gardens," a flat expanse of fattening beds in northern Willapa Bay named by oystermen for its tonic effect on oysters, Shigokus are two miles due east of the bay's mouth, where wind and wave can work them like sandpaper. The choppy surface shakes the floats and the attached oyster bags up and down like a machine. It's a much higher-energy environment than, say, South Puget Sound, and the oysters become that much more manicured.

Taylor began playing around with the Shigoku in 2007, after noting the success of the Kumamoto and especially the Kusshi. They named it for a Japanese term meaning "ultimate," reinforcing the rule that small, cute oysters must be named like manga characters (a rule dutifully obeyed by Shibumi, Chunu, and others, yet flouted by Sea Cow). A storm-of-the-century obliterated that first experiment, but Taylor rebooted, and now they are cranking out picture-perfect Shigokus on a massive scale. I almost always use Shigokus when I lead tastings because they are such reliably charming companions, because they don't require much commitment, and because the tumbling process gives them a top shell that is pop-top easy to open. The ultimate zipless shuck.

Occasionally an oyster nerd will reject a Shigoku like an undersized bluegill. Fortunately for him (and yes, I do mean him), there is the Fat Bastard, a Shigoku that by design or neglect blew past the 2.75-inch specs and reached a jolly old 3.5 inches or so. Definitely a keeper.

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First Light Popponesset Bay, Cape Cod Species: Eastern

Cultivation: Seed is grown in trays staked to the intertidal flats of Popponesset Bay.

Presence: A perfect calcified Madeleine, one taste will whisk you away from the vicissitudes of life to a coastal scene outside of time and culture where you may hear the echo of great spaces traversed.

Flavor: Salty, savory, and bright as the dawn.

Obtainability: Distributed throughout Boston and Cape Cod.

How long has the Wampanoag Tribe been living off the tidelands of Cape Cod? Twelve thousand years, they'll tell you. Give or take. They call themselves "People of the First Light," a fitting name for the native societies who were the first in America to catch the dawn rising out of the Atlantic each morning. Of course, this also made them the first in the Northeast to encounter Europeans, which didn't go so well. After contact, a plague swept through the Wampanoag and killed almost all of them. By the time the Pilgrims arrived a few years later, the Wampanoag were down to a skeleton crew. Still, they made a big impact on the Pilgrims and helped them squeak through that first brutal winter in Plymouth. As one Pilgrim wrote to friends in Europe, "Oysters we have none near, but we can have them brought by the Indians when we will."

Eventually some of the Wampanoag descendants settled in Mashpee—on the underside of Cape Cod on Nantucket Sound—part of their traditional tribal lands around the lovely, leafy Popponesset Bay. In 2009, they decided to reclaim one of their traditions by cultivating oysters on five acres of the intertidal zone. First Lights capture the bright essence of saline Nantucket Sound and mix in a fresh Mashpee sweetness—a combo little changed from the oysters those hungry Pilgrims greedily received. Like other New England oysters, First Lights peak in flavor around Thanksgiving. Just saying.

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Island Creek Duxbury Bay, Massachusetts Species: Eastern

Cultivation: In spring hatchery seed (some from Island Creek's own hatchery) is started in upwellers beneath the dock of the Duxbury Bay Maritime School, then transferred to bags and cages in the bay's mudflats until they are about two inches long, then broadcast on the bay bottom in fall. Harvested the following August (18 months total, on average) by dredge (mostly) or hand-picking (during minus tides).

Presence: Classy, ridged shells of white, black, and golden brown, holding a mid-sized nugget of creamy white meat.

Flavor: A New England clam bake in a shell: quahog, lobster and sweet corn steamed in rockweed.

Obtainability: Ubiquitous. One of the most carried oysters in the United States, thanks to Island Creek's masterful consistency, distribution, and chutzpah. Keep your eyes peeled for Sweet Sounds, John Brawley's flock from near the Back River Marsh.

Skip Bennett grew up on Duxbury Bay clamming, hunting, fishing. His dad was a lobsterman, so he did some of that, too. Skip, who can trace sixteen different lines of his family back to the Mayflower, learned how to live off the bay when he was still a child, and by the time he was in his twenties he was making his living off it, too, gathering clams and mussels. In the late 1980s, he became one of the first clam farmers in Massachusetts. A hurricane had wiped out the bay's mussel population, and Skip had this sense that farming could support a more stable lifestyle. Hah! After three years, all his clams died of a parasite. He was all set to quit the bay and take a finance job in Manhattan when he decided to give oysters a shot, using his clam equipment. He became the first oyster farmer on Duxbury Bay, now much celebrated as one of the jewels of New England aquaculture, and his oysters took off. Fed twice daily by the cold, plankton-rich tides ripping in from Cape Cod Bay, one pound of oyster seed turned into more than 100,000 pounds of briny, three-inch oysters in a year and a half.

Having no distribution, Skip simply drove his oysters around to various restaurants. When the market softened after 9/11, he began cold-calling. He wandered in the back door of Le Bernardin and won over Eric Ripert. Farm-to-Table was just getting rolling, and chefs were thrilled to skip the middlemen. Thomas Keller adopted Island Creeks at Per Se. Soon the French Laundry piled on. The little Island Creek oyster truck became an iconic sight on Boston streets, as did CJ Husk, the Thor stand-in who drives it and has become a celebrity in his own right.

Today, Island Creek is a cooperative of ten farms in Duxbury Bay that use similar techniques and distribute their oysters together under the Island Creek banner. Island Creeks have supplanted Wellfleets as the definitive New England oyster, always clean, deep-cupped, and full of salt, always making that ale taste that much better. It actually annoys me how often Island Creeks are the best-tasting oyster in any mixed platter. It would be nice if more boutique options bested them, but no; like Hellmann's mayo, Island Creeks are kind of perfect. The company has now expanded to include a distribution arm, its own hatchery, a foundation that supports aquaculture initiatives in third-world countries, and two celebrated Boston restaurants: Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34.

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Belon (Maine) Maine Coast Species: European Flat

Cultivation: Wild-harvested by divers.

Presence: Compared to other oysters, Belons feel like the luxury model. Scalloped shells in Cartier colors and handsomely two-toned interiors, creamy belly and ochre mantle.

Flavor: Hazelnuts and anchovies fried in seal fat, with a squishy crunch like jellyfish salad. Is this good? Is it bad? I don't know; it's like a 19th-century Russian novel. The experience is profound, and you'll be proud to check it off your life list, though you may never have the fortitude to do it again.

Obtainability: Belons are plentiful in Maine; the issue is getting them to your plate. They must be hand-harvested by divers, hand-banded with rubber bands to keep their shells shut during transport, and hand-packed cups-down so they can survive a few days out of the water. Only a few distributors and restaurants want to deal with them.

In 1949, when Maine was oyster-free, a few dreamers in the Department of Sea and Shore Fisheries noted that, while Maine's water might be too cold to spawn the American oyster, it was right in line with the temperature of Northern Europe's waters, home to the European Flat. Since the Flat was the connoisseur's oyster (this was back in the day when everything European was ipso facto better), it would give Maine a unique high-end product. Oysters were imported from the Netherlands and planted in Harpswell, Boothbay Harbor, and a few other sites. Unfortunately, the Flats grew and reproduced slowly, proved virtually impossible to cultivate in aquaculture equipment, and were soon abandoned. Forsaken and forgotten, a few went native, breeding survivor stock. They laid low for several decades, then had their coming-out party in the 1980s, when a diver harvesting sea urchins near Harpswell blundered into a motherlode of Belons in rocky, subtidal habitat. Soon divers started finding them in similar spots all over the Maine coast. Like truffles, they have continued to resist cultivation efforts while flourishing in the wild. And they have become one of the most prized seafoods in America.

Yet not one of the easiest. If the Flats from Brittany's famed Belon River (the only ones with the proper right to the name) have a hint of metallic twang, Maine's are copper-plated monsters. Watch a newbie slurp one and you'll see what we mean when we talk about "Belon Face." I once volunteered on a NOAA research vessel in the Gulf of Maine, hauling up fish from hundreds of feet down; Belons always remind me of the smell of the net when it hit the deck. When you finally succeed in prying one open, it feels like you've unlocked the maw to some gaping underworld, freeing something imprisoned for centuries.

Here's a secret: Belons make the best fried oysters. With less water content and more firmness, they don't shrink as much and they crisp up beautifully.

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Wallace Bay Wallace Bay, Nova Scotia Species: Eastern

Cultivation: These grow wild for five years or so in the icy depths of Wallace Bay and are harvested by desperate men in masks and snorkels looking to make beer money.

Presence: Lots of lumpiness in the shells, befitting wild oysters, but they are always strong and shuckable. Many have a light green or pearlescent white patina on the outside and a yellow-purple nacre inside.

Flavor: Hits you with a one-two punch of salt and fish sauce, in that order. Can be gamy and tongue-coating, like intertidal mutton.

Obtainability: You're at the whim of the underemployed fishermen of rural Nova Scotia.

The seaside town of Wallace, Nova Scotia, is named for William Wallace, the thirteenth-century Scottish hero of independence who managed to thoroughly piss off the English for a few years before being captured, disemboweled, emasculated, beheaded, and quartered. Despite (or perhaps because of) the rough end, Wallace has been canonized as a Scottish hero of resistance, and I like to think the Wallace Bay oyster captures something of that never-say-die quality. One can almost hear it screaming "Freedom!" as it is shucked, eviscerated, dismembered, and displayed on ice.

The toughness comes from the wildness. These are oysters that have fended for themselves for years amidst the crushing ice of Wallace Bay. Their ancestors were almost certainly there before the British laid claim to New Scotland. Wallace Bay is a shallow finger of the Northumberland Strait that pokes eight miles into the red-soiled grasslands and spruce forests of Nova Scotia, ending in a National Wildlife Area. Well-protected and sandy-bottomed, it has always served up nice beds of bivalves, first for the Mi'kmaq, then the Acadians, then the Brits.

The flavor is positively gamy, like no farmed oyster I know. Why these should be so much stronger in flavor than PEI oysters, grown right across the straits, I have no idea, but something gets a bit more savage when you cross over to Nova Scotia. In the case of Wallace Bay oysters, think peat and lamb. And no, you wouldn't be aff yer heid to pair them with Scotch.

Rowan Jacobsen is the author of the new book, THE ESSENTIAL OYSTER: A Salty Appreciation of Taste and Temptation, available via Bloomsbury.

This first appeared on MUNCHIES in November 2016.