Beautiful Bivalves

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Second of two parts. Read Part 1 here.

Oysters are terrific bivalves
They have young ones by the score
How they diddle is a riddle
They just keep on having more

Gourmets will wax poetic about great oysters, and why not? They are telling the truth. The most famous American oysters in the 19th century were the Saddle-Rocks taken from a rocky reef in the East River of New York where it meets the Long Island Sound around Little Neck Bay. They were huge and had a particular flavor. Twenty-five Saddle-Rocks could fill a bushel. By 1832, they died out because there were so few on this small exposed reef at low tide and the demand was ravenous.

Wellfleets: Ample Treasures

There are three oysters I rave about. First, Wellfleets. The oysters found in Wellfleet Harbor on Cape Cod are briny, plump, salty, ocean-tasting oysters. Wellfleets are for real oyster lovers; people who cannot get enough voluptuous salt-beauties. I also adore them in part because I used to dig them myself and that made them taste better.

Belons: Regional Treat

An authentic Belon oyster, which can come only from France’s Belon River in Brittany, is much respected because of its round shape and succulent buttery meat. Oystermen seeded the Belon in Maine waters in the 1940s, so it is possible to find them there, but technically they shouldn’t be called Belon. It is a great oyster for beginners.

Coffman Cove: A Chance to Savor

My third favorite oyster — one for the true oyster connoisseur because it is not common outside of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska’s Inner Passage — is the Coffman Cove oyster, sometimes called Canoe Lagoon oysters. These are plump, melt-in-your-mouth oysters, not briny, and they taste ever so slightly, but pleasantly, gummy. The Coffman Cove oyster sticks to the roof of your mouth, which is very pleasing as the flavor lasts. They are big, too.

The gastronomic oyster in its purest state is raw. If you are eating raw oysters I see no reason to garnish them with anything but a few drops from a lemon. I don’t fancy mignonette (vinegar-based) dressing. As the poet Charles Krumling (about whom I otherwise know nothing) wrote in 1910:

Don’t drown him in vinegar
or season him at all,
Don’t cover up his shining form
with pepper like a Pall,
But gently lift him from his shell
and firmly hold your breath,
Then with your eager tongue and teeth
just tickle him to death.

There can be no better advice on eating raw oysters.

What about chewing oysters? Do you chew or just swallow? It is not true that one does not bite into an oyster. Oysters should slide into the mouth from the shell with their liquor and then be caressed with the tongue and given three or four bites before swallowing. Little forks meant to pick the oyster up used in restaurants are fine, but letting them slide in from the shell is preferred because you capture all the juice.

The first oyster eaten alive and on its shell is a kind of gastronomic loss of virginity. The world’s greatest lover, Giacomo Casanova de Seingalt (1725-1798) believed that eating oysters were a spur to love and the analogies between the oyster and female genitalia have long rested on the symbolic comparison of the pearl nestled in the soft interior. For the male, although some report the smegma smelling like cheese, others report that it smells like oysters. Beyond visual or olfactory resemblances, the high zinc content of oysters is sometimes given as an explanation for these bivalves’ flair as an aphrodisiac — zinc deficiency in men can lead to impotence. That is all fun to consider as you eat oysters, or exchange them with your partner, but there is no good science on the matter.

Oysters cooked should be barely so. The pictures show you what the oyster should look like. If an oyster does not close its shell, it is dead, so pass those by. While learning how to shuck oysters, my former brother-in-law once asked me how he could tell whether an oyster was no good. At that very moment he opened a dead one, his head jerked back from the odor, and he said, “I guess that’s how.”

 

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Oystermen in Drummer's Cove, Wellfleet, on Cape Cod. Clifford A. Wright


Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.

 

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