So, at the behest of some customers I've chatted with over the past few months, I've decided to start a blog on Oysters, more specifically Oysters in San Francisco. I'm relatively new to this city and got a job as a local shucker. There's a lot of ignorance in this crassostrea culture, and I've found that many people are excited and intrigued to have a little light shed on it.
To begin, the food culture that exists in SF is like none other I've encountered. So many people conscious of where their food comes from, how it's raised, seasonality, sustainability, etc. It's almost overkill and annoying when you hear people trying to "one-up" each other on the authenticity or conscience-clearing nature of their most recent culinary adventure. Come on. Nobody likes Granolas. But, I must say that it's refreshing to be able to discuss food history, politics, and sustainability with the average individual in this city.
With this fortunate situation, it's very easy to engage people with the idea of Oysters. "Do you like wine tasting?" I don't have a response for the bar-pariah who says no (I'd be astounded if anyone ever does). Well, Oysters are like wines. You can take the exact same Pinot grape, grow it in Napa and Australia, and get to completely different products. Terroir, right? The grapes take on the flavor of the land. Oysters are exactly the same. You take the exact same species, grow it in different waters, and the taste is completely different. Odds are, when you go into a raw bar, there are only two, maybe three, different species of oysters. This is even true of a bar that carries twenty different varieties. We only eat 6 different species of oysters, primarily the first two.
Virginica - standard East coast oyster i.e. a Blue Point, Malpeque, Wellfleet.
Gigas - standard West coast oyster (imported from Japan a century ago) i.e. Miyagi, Hood Canals, Fanny Bay
Sikemea - your beloved little gem called the Kumamoto (I'm sure you're all familiar)
Conchaphila - the elusive Olympia, only Pacific Native American oyster still alive today. SF Bay was covered in them before the 49ers over-fished them in a few decades.
Edulis - those beautiful, flat shell, strongly flavored Belons
Saccostrea - Rock Oysters from Australia and New Zealand. Very difficult to find.
So, when you're eating a Hog Island Sweetwater from Tomales Bay next to a Fanny Bay from British Columbia, you're eating the exact same oyster. The larvae was exactly the same when it was planted, just raised in a different area. Thus, the flavors are immensely different. A true example of the unadulterated flavors nature has to offer us. Oysters are one of those last little food bastions, fending off the high fructose corn syrups and MSGs of the appalling American diet at the gates. Get out and enjoy the natural tastes that the ocean has to offer and put away the Individually Quick Frozen Tortilla Crusted Tilapia (you should actually stop eating Tilapia all together. I'll explain later.)
I figured I'd give a few Oyster Eating Guidelines as the finish of my first post. Admittedly, they're your oysters when you eat them, so enjoy them however you choose. However, your paying 3 dollars for just a little bite. Why wreck the subtle flavors you've just purchased.
1. NO COCKTAIL SAUCE OR HOT SAUCE. Yes, if I'm sitting down to 2 dozen of the exact same oysters, I like hot sauce as much as the next guy. But time after time I see people drop $36 on a plate of mixed oysters just to ruin it with these culinary assassins. You wouldn't put ketchup on a New York Strip or chew Dentine while tasting a 2006 Toulouse Pinot Noir.
2. JUST A LITTLE BIT OF ACIDITY. A touch of the house mignonette or a little lemon can bring out a lot of the flavors of the oysters by beginning to break down it's proteins and cut the salt. I do not prefer, but it can be nice while still allowing the oyster's flavor to come through. Just a drop, don't drown it.
3. DON'T DUMP THE LIQUOR. Time after time, I see people tilting their oysters to dump the liquor (juice inside the oyster) out before eating. It's baffling, and I have no idea where people learned to do so. This is the essence of the water the oyster is from. Together, the oyster flesh and juice give you a true merroir (flavor-of-the-sea) experience of the oysters home. Independent of one another, you're going to lose the whole experience.
4. CHEW YOUR OYSTERS. So many times the only response people have to tasting an oyster is "Oh, very salty." Well, if you shoot it down the back of your throat and just taste the liquor it's sitting in, then yes, all you will taste is salt. The depth of flavor in oysters is not released until you give it a few chews. You'll be surprised when that salty Drake's Bay oyster finishes with hints of crisp lettuce and bitter herb.
5. BE ADVENTUROUS. So many people come in and order 12 Kumamotos over and over again. That has to be boring. I get it, they're good. But do you only order vanilla ice cream or only eat california rolls? If you do, then you're probably the person that flippantly disregards guideline #1 and I'm not sure how you got to my blog in the first place. Order and try as many different oysters as you possibly can. Yes, you'll dislike some. But, often, you'll find a little gem that you would have never tasted if you'd stuck to your standard order. (Just a few weeks ago I introduced my sister to her new favorite oyster). When I go out for oysters, I order every single one that I do not recognize or have never tasted.
Follow these guidelines and I guarantee your eyes will open to the wonder of oysters. You'll come to appreciate them much more than you ever had. I think that's enough for my first post. Plenty more to come on specific oyster bars, drink pairings, new favorites I've just tried, and some other random mulluscophilia.
The SF Oyster Nerd