“Oysters are the canaries in the coal mine,” a fourth-generation oysterman once told me as we slogged across the mud flats of Willapa Bay in Washington. The grower was giving me a tour of his vast oyster beds that emerge as if by magic during every low tide. Oysters can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, and the quality of the water they process affects their health … and their flavor. Healthy oysters mean a healthy environment, and when they struggle, they can indicate something dire for the habitat as a whole.
The oyster I swallowed had the precise taste of a clean, deep breath of Pacific Ocean air. It was what a gorgeous coastal landscape photo might taste like were it a flavor of ice cream. I understood why M.F.K. Fisher wrote that they were, “more like the smell of rock pools at low tide than any other food in the world,” and why that is a good thing. Then as I grew to understand that these creatures seemed specifically designed by nature, a benevolent creator or both for the task of pairing with splendid wines, I was hooked.
The only thing that remained was how to open the damn things. If you’re daunted by the process as I was, then this quick-start guide to oysters and wine will help you find, pair, unlock and swallow a magical taste of the marine environment, and then chase it with a sip of the best flavors that terrestrial geography has to offer.
Where to find oysters
You can find them at your local supermarket seafood counter. You buy them live, but given the complexity of unlocking them from their secure and encrusted boxes, how do you tell if they’re fresh and have been handled with care?
“Look for a place that sells fresh fish,” says Jaret Foster, chef/owner of Oyster Social, a pop-up mobile raw bar in Portland, Oregon. Look for a counter that sells fish that look and smell fresh, with no fishy odor or bruised flesh. Whole fish should have clear eyes and bright red or pink gills. If the owners take pride in their fish, then the odds are good they’re selling quality oysters.
Restaurants and seafood purveyors buy oysters in mesh bags that are marked with the date of harvest and the location. Ask to see the tag and snap a phone picture for reference. Like great wines, oysters taste like where they come from, so explore the regional differences. The Pacific Northwest, the Atlantic and Gulf are three broad domestic regions to check out, and there are dozens of locales nestled within these.
Finally, shells of fresh oysters should be sealed tight. No gaps or openings. A good proprietor won’t sell you oysters with open shells. If they’re difficult to open, you’re on the right track. This, of course, presents another problem that we’ll tackle later.
Gather the gear
If you’re serving oysters raw, you can do the work of opening them for your guests or share the fun. A good oyster knife is critical, but a screwdriver will work in a pinch (and the experience will drive you to find a good knife all the sooner). Crushed ice is important: From the moment you buy them at the market to when they’re waiting to be shucked and served, oysters should always be kept cool or on ice. Carry a small cooler bag to the market with you. Your vendor will provide the ice.
Mignonettes — fresh dressings — should be prepared in advanced and ready to roll. They can be as simple as lemon juice or your own creative dressing. A dish towel will help you hold the shell and protect your receiving hand from the dull knife blade. Work gloves on your receiving hand are an option to help you grip the shells, which can be both jagged and slippery.
Add a cutting board and a glass of wine and you’ll be geared up to swallow some sea.
A note on mignonettes
A good mignonette, a sauce or condiment for your oysters that is usually made fresh, can heighten the experience. I recommend avoiding jarred cocktail or hot sauces until you get a handle on the flavors of these slippery little critters as these sauces can overwhelm the freshness, but there’s no reason not to prepare some creative mignonettes. Recipes abound that feature rice wine vinegar, shallots, ginger, juniper, cucumbers, lime and more. A pair of options are included below.
Foster follows the rule of always eating the first oyster of the meal unadorned to experience its inherent flavor grounded in the region where it comes from.
And when it comes to oysters and wine, mignonettes are optional. In fact, a good wine sipped as a chaser can be considered a sort of mignonette in and of itself, and you may pick your wine style specifically for this task.
Find the right wine
If you’re eating the oysters unadorned, then a bracing Alsatian-style Riesling is hard to beat. The eye-watering brightness and acidity can act as a dressing. At a recent oyster workshop led by Oyster Social’s Foster, Jess Pierce of Brooks Winery presented the guests with a selection wines ranging from magnificent dry Rieslings to Pinot Gris and dry Muscadet.
“Oysters show their terroir well, so why not pair them with wines that do the same?” Pierce said as she poured wines framed by views of the vineyards where they were grown. More and more domestic producers are making Rieslings and Gewürztraminers in the dry, acidic Alsatian style, though they’re far from the only wine options.
Champagne and sparkling wines provide a lively way to begin any meal, and their acidity and effervescence complement the fresh earthy, tidal flavor of oysters. A transparent Chardonnay that really shows its minerality, like Chablis, is another great match. Laura Anderson, who runs Local Ocean Seafoods, known for its hyper-fresh menu and location directly across from the fishing fleet in Newport, Oregon, likes to pair half-oak, half-steel Chardonnays from Oregon’s Ribbon Ridge AVA: “I look for a crispness and minerality to balance with the wildness of the oysters,”she says.
The old saw is to drink white wines with shellfish, but there’s no need to limit yourself. Reds can work just fine. A light, slightly under-ripe Pinot Noir from a cool year in Oregon, New Zealand or Burgundy won’t break the bank and a bright, tart swallow is the perfect way to chase a glistening mollusk down your gullet.
Other reds to try include a cru Beaujolais or Gamay. Look for wines from places by the ocean, like Sicily,” Pierce says. Locals there drink their local reds and whites alike with menus largely driven by the sea.
Finally, it’s always good to look to the classics. M.F.K. Fisher claims that an Alsatian Pinot Blanc is the perfect wine match in her gorgeous treatise on bivalves, “Consider the Oyster.”
The art of the shuck
So you’ve got the gear, found your oysters and bought the wine: Now how do you unlock the things without slicing off a thumb or crushing the shell and spilling the flavor-infused liquor?
1. Wrap your passive hand in the dish towel. A glove will improve your grip. Oysters have a top and a bottom, so you want to hold the cup-side facing down.
2. Locate the hinge at the back of the shell if you can’t find a seam along the side. Insert your oyster knife into the hinge and twist like a key. It’ll take a try or three, but you should be able to create a gap and slowly work the two halves of the shell open by twisting the knife and working around the edges.
3. After pulling the top off, slide your knife along the roof of the top shell to cut the oyster’s adductor muscle.
4. Try not to spill the “liquor,” the silky juices inside the shell that pack much of the flavor. You’ll want to swallow that with the oyster.
5. Don’t worry about chips, cracks and bits of shell … you’ll make a mess, especially at first. Practice and plan to spend time tidying up. Study the process by hitting YouTube or state wildlife and extension offices in places where oysters are grown. They all offer plenty of advice to help get you started.
That’s pretty much everything you need to get started with oysters and wine. They’re both amazing natural products that have an unmatched ability to express flavors from where they are grown. Eating a clean, flavorful oyster is a small sort of tribute to ocean health. It is my hope that these tips lead you more quickly to your own oyster epiphany so that you aren’t required to pull on waders and slog after a spry oysterman through the drizzle … mud sucking at your boots until your hips and back ache, the stiff bay breeze whipping you … before you can appreciate the full glory of these tasty little bivalves and begin to care about where they come from.
More from Zester Daily:
Classic Mignonette Sauce
–Enrique Sanchez, chef, Local Ocean Seafoods
Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters
1 tablespoon course ground black pepper
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1/2 cup sparkling wine
Salt to taste
Simmer wine in a saucepan to cook out alcohol; take off heat and stir in rest of ingredients; taste, salt, chill, serve.
— Jaret Foster, chef/owner, Oyster Social
Yield: One cup of sauce, enough for 5 to 6 dozen oysters
1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons yuzukoshō (Japanese fermented chili-citrus paste, available at Asian grocers)
2 tablespoons finely diced daikon radish
Combine all ingredients in a quart jar and just before serving shake well to emulsify; keeps well in the refrigerator for two weeks to a month.
Main photo: Oysters on ice with lemon. Credit: Copyright Serhiy Zavalnyuk/Thinkstock