Good Oysters Come From Clean Water—and Good Oysters Make Water Cleaner
“Two oyster questions for you: How are the varieties named? And aren’t most oysters farmed nowadays? I always thought wild seafood was preferable to farmed.”
What makes oysters so endlessly alluring, even provocative, is that they take on the flavor characteristics—sweet, briny, mineral, metallic, creamy, buttery, and so forth—of the waters in which they grow. Among the factors that come into play are season; the phytoplankton on which the oysters feed; and the temperature, salinity, mineral content, and tidal flow of their home waters. And that, in a nutshell—er, oyster shell—explains why each “variety” is named for the place where it’s harvested. This is not a new phenomenon; it dates back to the Romans, according to Robb Walsh, author of Sex, Death & Oysters: A Half-Shell Lover’s World Tour.
There are hundreds of oysters named for specific geographic locations, from Apalachicola (Florida) to Yaquina Bay (Oregon)—and among those oyster appellations, to adopt a wine term, there are often smaller ones based on the microclimate of a particular inlet or corner of a bay. And then there are the trade names given by the grower, which can be the same—or not. “For instance, Eld Inlet is the state of Washington’s designation for oysters from that area, but Taylor Shellfish [one of the most respected producers in the business] markets some oysters from Eld Inlet as ‘Maple Point oysters.’ ” Walsh reported. Why? Because it sounds better, silly.
Visual distinctions factor into the equation as well. Along Washington’s 70-mile-long Hood Canal, producers are trying to create their own unique oysters. “Some oysters are grown in the French style, in mesh bags set on racks anchored to the tidelands,” wrote Walsh. “Others are spread directly on the beach when it is exposed at low tide, with a net secured over the top to protect them from predators. Oysters grown in bags look different than oysters grown on the flats.”
“In the case of Totten Inlet, the trade name and the place name are the same,” the plant manager told Walsh. “But there used to be some bag-cultivated oysters from Totten Inlet that came out very delicate, with beautiful fluted shells. We called them ‘Steamboat Island oysters’ for a while.”
When it comes to trade and place names, most industry regulations have always been unwritten, and therein lies a problem. So-called Blue Point oysters are a famous example of this. These meaty, briny oysters used to come from Blue Point, New York, on Long Island’s Great South Bay. They were brought there from the Chesapeake by one Joseph Avery around 1812, wrote Walsh, and they became so popular that from 1817 on, the term was used to describe all the large oysters produced in the Great South Bay. “Legend has it that when sewage pollution ended oystering in the Great South Bay, the Blue Points were dredged up and replanted all over Long Island Sound so their strain could continue.” These days, Blue Points may come from Connecticut, New Jersey, or Virginia.
No matter what coast they’re from or what place or trade name they have, all oysters in the United States and Canada come from just five commercially raised species: Eastern (Crassostrea virginica), Olympia (Ostrea lurida), Pacific (Crassostrea gigas), Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea), and European Flat (Ostrea edulis). I’ve included the species names here because if you spend enough time shooting the breeze at oyster bars, it’s helpful to know that virginica or edulis isn’t the name of someone’s date. You’re welcome.
“An oyster doesn’t taste good because of a food scientist’s lecithin; it doesn’t taste good because of a winemaker’s oak chips; it doesn’t taste good because of the chef’s sauce. An oyster tastes good because at one spot in the natural world, something went right. A great oyster is an estuary flashing a thumbs-up sign,” wrote Rowan Jacobsen in A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America.
“Oysters are not mere avatars of their environment, either. They help create it,” continued Jacobsen. “Scientists refer to oysters as ecosystem engineers because they are the key to maintaining estuaries with stable bottomland, clear water, and a flourishing web of life. Supporting sustainable oyster production helps ensure the continuation of that community.”
These days, the vast majority of oysters are farmed, and although it may sound counterintuitive, that’s a good thing. Aquaculture—the fastest-growing animal food–producing sector in the world—gets its bad reputation from operations such as salmon and shrimp farms, which cause more problems than they solve. The nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich waste from fish farms, to take just one example, can produce smothering algae blooms that lead to “dead zones” along a coastline.
Oysters, on the other hand, do not need to be fed fish meal. They are filter feeders—that is, they obtain nutrients from phytoplankton in the water they take in through their gills. A mature virginica can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day; you can check out oysters’ filtering power in a time-lapse video on In a Half Shell, one of my favorite oyster websites. That’s the reason oysters are used to improve and restore the water quality of places such as New York Harbor through the Billion Oysters Project and the Hudson River Fund’s Oyster Research Restoration Project.
One link in the filterers-as-food discussion that typically gets lost in the shuffle is that those bivalves straining industrial runoff and sewage, for instance, are not the same ones that end up on that oh-so-collectible oyster plate you inherited from Aunt Margaret, or shucked, wrapped in bacon, and broiled for angels on horseback, a retro gem that deserves a comeback.
The oyster resurgence of the past few decades among consumers, restaurateurs, and growers could not have happened without stringent government regulations (our tax dollars at work), starting with the Clean Water Act of 1972. I, for one, have never met an oyster farmer who isn’t a fanatic about water quality. Tom Gallivan, who with his wife, Ann, owns Shooting Point Oyster Company on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, provides Nassawadox Salts and Shooting Point Salts to restaurants and oyster bars up and down the Eastern seaboard. To the Gallivans, like their neighbors, the great folks at H.M. Terry (who produce Sewansecott ocean salt clams and oysters) and J.C. Walker Brothers (who produce Seaside brand clams), controlling and protecting the pristine waters they farm is paramount. Hog Island Bay, for instance, which is in and around the 80-mile chain of remote, undeveloped barrier islands along Virginia’s Atlantic coast, is a designated United Nations Biosphere Reserve.
You can find interactive maps for exploring the oyster regions of North America or find favorites old and new at Jacobsen’s Oyster Guide, and there’s a wealth of information at In a Half Shell too. Me? I’ll be shucking my own at Little Creek Oyster Farm’s dockside oyster shack in Greenport, out on Long Island’s North Fork. Can I get anyone a beer?