In the early 19th century, oysters were cheap and mainly eaten by the working class. In New York, oystermen were skilled cultivators of their beds, which provided employment for hundreds of workers and nutritious food for thousands. Eventually, rising demand exhausted many of the beds. To increase production, they introduced foreign species, which brought disease, and when combined with erosion and other environmental factors, most of the beds were destroyed by the early 20th century. This scarcity increased prices, converting them from their original role as working class food to their current status as an expensive delicacy.
The old adage says to never eat oysters in months without an “R” in them, primarily, the warmer summer months—May through August. If you are a fresh oyster lover and haven’t had nary a one since last April, you should know the old saying is a myth whose basis in truth is that oysters are much more likely to spoil in May, June, July, and August. Plus, the summer months are the time of year they devote their energy for reproduction and become less meaty and less tasty. During summer or spawning season, the oyster becomes slimy and milky. They are still edible but the taste and texture are quite unappealing.
Since September is the first month with an “R” and it has been designated National Oyster Month, and, if you’ve been paying attention, oyster season has already begun on the Shore, with both Asbury Park and Red Bank hosting oyster festivals.
So, what is it about these little bivalve critters that people love so much?
Well, oysters are an excellent source of zinc, iron, calcium, selenium as well as Vitamin A and Vitamin B12. Oysters are low in calories; one dozen raw oysters contain approximately 110 calories, and are considered the healthiest when eaten raw on the half shell.
Okay, you’ve probably heard oysters are considered to be an aphrodisiac. That “myth” may not bee too far from the truth, American and Italian researchers found oysters were rich in amino acids that trigger increased levels of sex hormones and the high zinc content aids the production of testosterone.
Contrary to popular opinion, not all oysters are created equal (there are several species of oyster) nor do they all taste the same. Some are brinier, some are creamier, some are leaner, some are fatter, and some even have a “fruity” taste, vaguely suggestive of cucumber and melons. Some of the differences in taste have to do with the species, but it primarily has more to do with the temperature of the waters in which they are harvested; as well as the oyster’s fabled muscle, which constantly opens and closes to allow a flow of water and nutrients.
Perhaps the best known oysters in this area are East Coast Bluepoints (although Bluepoints technically come only from New York’s Long Island). These oysters can be found from Nova Scotia all the way down to the gulfstream waters of Florida and Texas. Northeast coastal oysters tend to have a longer shaped shell and belong to the Crassostrea virginica family. You will find these oysters are leaner in meatiness, with a moderately briny, salty, steely flavor, delicious for eating raw or with no more than a squeeze of lemon or splash of Mignonette sauce (a blend of fresh chopped shallot, mixed peppercorn, dry white wine and lemon juice or sherry vinegar).
In restaurants and markets these oysters are commonly sold by their points of origin—such as Long Islands (the original Bluepoints), Wellfleets (from Cape Cod), Delawares and Bristols (Maine). You might even find oysters that are similar to these from the coast off Eastern Canada sold by place names such as “Novys” (from Nova Scotia), Malpecques (Prince Edward Island) and Caraquets (New Brunswick).
Due to their lean and minerally taste, the easiest wine match for Northeastern oysters is probably any bone dry white with perceptively minerally or flinty qualities: ideally, the pure Sauvignon Blancs from France’s Loire River, most commonly bottled as Sancerre or Pouilly Fumé, and sometimes as Cheverny, Quincy or Menetou-Salon. Two good choices to look for are:
Chateau de Sancerre Sancerre this has the typical Sauvignon Blanc nose with floral accents and smokey, flinty nuances. The flavors are crisp and fresh with distinctive, subtle citrusy fruit.
Pascal Jolivet Chateau du Nozay is one of the most storied properties in Sancerre. This wine combines minerality, softness, roundness, generosity and exotic fruit making it a wonderful accompaniment to fish, seafood, white meat (chicken, veal) and goat cheese.
While they are certainly acidic enough, Sauvignon Blancs of New Zealand and California are not quite as ideal since they tend to be fruitier and not as stony, minerally or flinty in flavor. One of the best and lower-priced alternatives to Loire River Sauvignon Blancs is from the Western Loire Valley around the city of Nantes: the light and crisply dry Muscadet Sèvre et Maine such as the Chereau-Carre Chateau de Chasseloir Muscadet Sevre-et-Maine Sur Lie. It is a mouthful, but what a delicious one with its lemon peel, honeysuckle and mineral flavors. With its nice tangy finish, this $10 wine a fine companion to shellfish and oysters in particular. You may have to search a little harder to find it locally, but it is a true delight.
Other great French classic choices include Chablis such as Olivier Leflaive Chablis AC Les Deux Rives. The signature cuvée Chablis is an outstanding value true to the character of Chablis with all of the mineral and flint characteristics of a more expensive Chablis. Or you can try a Joseph Drouhin Vaudon Chablis Premier Cru with mouth-filling white peach, tangerine, lemon, and minerals flavors. This is an affordable 93 point Premier Cru white Burgundy that is just lovely.
If Chablis is a little above the price range, a white Burgundy such as Macon Villages or Pouilly Fuisse could be just right. The Louis Jadot Macon – Villages 2010 is quite lively, dry and easy to drink. It is a charming fruity wine with a floral scent and a hint of lemon. Drink it chilled with a range of foods including hors d’oeuvres, oysters, fried or grilled fish, sea food, goat’s milk cheese or poultry.
Joseph Drouhin Pouilly-Fuisse 2009 has floral and fruity aromas dominated by almond and ripe grapes. This wine is refreshingly pleasant, ethereal in its lightness and marries well with hors d’oeuvres, delicately flavored charcuterie, oysters, mussels and any other shellfish.
If you don’t want a French wine. look for a wine with the word trocken (“dry”) or halbtrocken (“half dry”) on the label. These white wines are made from Germany’s Riesling grape, which can retain a zesty, slatey-mineral flavor. At only 9% to 11% alcohol, these Rieslings sweep across the palate like a light, lilting, perfumey breeze, sweetening the taste of oysters with their natural lemon-lime acidity. One inexpensive bone-dry Riesling to look for is the Selbach Riesling Dry (Fish Label), from the Mosel region of Germany. The little orange-red fish on the label is there to show it pairs well with seafood. The flavors are classic: bright and fresh green-apple with a long and tart dry finish.
Other good choices for long and lean Northeastern oysters are Spain’s flowery and flinty dry whites made from the Albarino grape like: Paco & Lola Albarino 2010 from Rias Baixas. This wine is clean and textured with an exotic palate of pineapple and mango intermingled with refreshing citrus flavors amplified by minerally accents. This is a silky-smooth, full-bodied wine with a long, lingering finish.
Where Paco & Lola is full-bodied and seductive, Burgans Albarino borders on opulence. It has a lovely bouquet of white flowers, hazelnut, peach pit, and mineral with a surprisingly complex palate for the price.
The lean, briny oysters of the Northeast, however, are not to be confused with those of the decidedly warmer South East and Gulf Coast waters — where that muscle is most put to work. All that exercise makes the American East and Gulf Coast oysters the leanest in meatiness, with less of that creamy, fruity taste savored by true-blue oyster lovers. Florida’s Apalachicolas and Mississippi’s Emerald Points are not only leaner, but also duller, flabbier or “swampy” tasting — better suited for use in cooked oyster dishes like: Oysters Rockefeller; oyster po’ boys or stuffed into “carpetbagger” steaks, than eating raw.
The oysters found off the Western coasts of Canada and the American Northwest, in the coldest waters, live a more contented life, working that muscle much less and thereby developing a plumper, juicier, fruitier taste mingling with more distinctively briny, flinty flavors. These little guys would love to be paired with a Jorge Ordonez Botani. Botani is moscatel from Andalusia, Spain and this delightfully aromatic white displays a nose of mineral, spring flowers, acacia, and a hint of tropical aromas. Although the aromatics suggest sweetness, the wine is very dry, and very fruity. There are citrus and fine herbaceous notes and an unexpected mineral edge that is so refreshing. The finish is exceptionally fine and lingering and fresh.
Remember the bivalves are available all year, but they’re best eaten in the colder months from September to April and, like fine wine, raw oysters have complex flavors that vary greatly among varieties and regions: sweet, salty, earthy, or even melon. The texture is soft and fleshy, but crisp on the palate.
When buying oysters, avoid ones that are open or don’t close right away after you lightly tap them on a surface. That means the oysters are dead. Make sure live oysters smell like the sea and prepare them your favorite way.
So, whether you have them raw, steamed, fried, baked, stuffed or made into a sandwich, or topped with Tobasco sauce, cocktail sauce, butter and lemon, garlic or vinegar, oysters are always satisfying. Most people either love them or hate them, but they’ve definitely got something going for them if they’ve been around for so long.