An Oyster for Everyone
While anytime is a good time for oysters, it’s the end of fall and the beginning of winter that marks their peak season. At this point in the year, all varieties are storing up extra glycogen to get through the coldest months, which means their flavors are at their best. We sought the advice of two oyster experts—Chris Sherman of Island Creek Oysters in Massachusetts, and Kevin Davis, chef and partner of Blueacre Seafood in Seattle—to compile a short list of some of the best varieties out there. From bold and briny East Coast staples to mild and sweet West Coast delicacies, the following picks are certain to provide you with exceptional oyster experiences no matter where you live.
Both Sherman and Davis agree that Kumamotos (found in Puget Sound, Humboldt Bay, and Baja, Mexico) are great oysters for a developing palate. They offer a sweet, fruity flavor with a smooth, buttery texture. Similarly, both experts agree that the European Flat or Belon (when speaking of the variety grown in France’s Belon River) should be reserved for those with plenty of oyster-eating experience. “They’re a veteran oyster-eater’s oyster,” says Sherman. “They taste similar to a Maine oyster at first, but as you continue to eat it you get this strong, coppery, metallic aftertaste and undertone. It’s almost like sucking on a penny. They’re really interesting.”
A Maine oyster, to be clear, is no different from a Cape Cod oyster in its flavor profile, which means it offers a strong saltiness up front that is followed, according to Sherman, by a “terroir-influenced middle section” with a “sweetness that comes at the end.” It should be no surprise that Island Creeks (farmed in Duxbury Bay, Mass.) are among Sherman’s favorite, but given the awards that they’ve won over the years, it’s safe to say that the buttery and briny bivalves are deserving of the praise. Wellfleet oysters, which are grown less than 20 miles away across Cape Cod Bay, deliver a light body and clean finish with lots of salt; Sherman says they taste “like chicken soup in a fresh, summery way.”
And then there are Moon Shoals and Beach Points, which Sherman says closely resemble West Coast oysters in how their flavors are delivered. “East Coast oysters are very segmented, but on the West Coast, you get all of those flavors in an oyster all at once. Oysters grown around Barnstable, Mass., are kind of tutti-frutti and sweet; there are some nice notes of melon and strawberry with a very strong, sweet finish.”
Similarly, the Pacific Northwest offers no shortage of variety. As Davis explains, Snow Creek and Otter Cove varieties, from the northern Puget Sound, will be “salty, lean, and crisp,” while Barron Point, Eagle Rock, and Hammersley Inlet oysters deliver tastes that are “milder and sweeter and buttery.”
One of Davis’s favorite oysters—but one that is very difficult to find—is the Totten Virginica, an East Coast species that has been grown successfully in the West Coast waters of the southern Puget Sound. “That’s the best of both worlds,” he says. “They have to be mature-sized, but when you have one of those, they’re bursting with flavor.” Another variety that he says is proving to be very popular is the Shigoku, whose name means “ultimate” in Japanese. These oysters deliver a light and clean taste with a balance of salt and cucumber freshness; they are, as Davis declares, “perfect.”
There are many more varieties, of course, but if Davis were to construct the ultimate half-dozen platter of Washington oysters, this is what he would serve: one Olympia (the only naturally growing oyster in the Pacific Northwest), one Westcott Bay Flat (similar to a Belon), one Shigoku, one Blue Pool (a bright-tasting example courtesy of the Hama Hama Oyster Company), one export-grade Barron Point (meaning it’s the ideal size and age), and one Kumamoto from Oakland Bay. “If you could ever get all of those on one plate,” he says, “it would be exquisite.”