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What do oysters taste like? That’s a surprisingly complicated question.
An amazing amount of ink has been spilled over the years in an effort to nail the taste of oysters. The essayist Michel de Montaigne compared them to violets. Eleanor Clark mentioned their “shock of freshness.” M. F. K. Fisher was one of many to point out that they are “more like the smell of rock pools at low tide than any other food in the world.” To the French poet Léon-Paul Fargue, eating one was “like kissing the sea on the lips.” For James Beard, they were simply “one of the supreme delights that nature has bestowed on man. … Oysters lead to discussion, to contemplation, and to sensual delight. There is nothing quite like them.” Something about them excites the palate, and the mind, in a way that other shellfish don’t. You don’t see cookbooks devoted to scallops, and you’d never have found M. F. K. Fisher writing “Consider the Clam.”
Yet something about oysters resists every attempt to describe them. If we didn’t love them so, it wouldn’t matter, but there’s a tension and energy in the fact that we adore them, many others do not, and that we struggle to explain this mysterious love. The proliferating category of oyster adjectives—cucumber, citrus, melon, copper, smoke—is useful, but doesn’t cut to the core. At some level, it’s not about taste or smell at all. Because an oyster, like a lover, first captures you by bewitching your mind.
The Oyster Conversion Experience is remarkably consistent among individuals, genders, and generations. You are an adolescent. You are in the company of adults, among whom you desperately want to be accepted. You are presented with an oyster, you overcome your initial fear or revulsion, take the plunge, and afterward feel brave and proud and relieved. You want to do it again. Many authors have told their own version of the experience, including Anne Sexton in her poem “Oysters”: “there was a death, the death of childhood / there at the Union Oyster House / for I was fifteen / and eating oysters / and the child was defeated. / The woman won.”
Some pleasures in life are immediate. Ice cream, sex, and crack all plug straight into our limbic system and get those dopamine centers firing. We don’t need to think about whether we’re having a good time. In fact, no thought is required at all. Other pleasures sneak up on you. Poetry, cooking, cross-country skiing. They may even feel like a challenge at the time. Only afterward do you realize how alive and satisfied you felt. Oysters belong to the latter club.
When you eat oysters, you wake up. Your senses become sharper—touch and smell and sight as well as taste. You carefully unlock the oyster, then make sure it is good before eating it. Like a hunter, you stay focused, alive to the world and the signals it sends you. You are fully present and engaged, not watching football while absentmindedly slapping nachos in your mouth.
Many oyster lovers mention the importance of ritual: the shucking of the oysters; the anointing with sauces; the lifting and tilting of the shells; the drinking of the liquor before, during, or after; and then the laying of the downturned shells back on the plate. Done properly, ritual still serves its ancient purpose—to raise awareness. Like the Japanese tea ceremony, a good oyster ritual has a Zen spirit. It allows you to mask the world and live briefly in the here and now.
And, like the Japanese tea ceremony, it is art as much as consumption. Its sensual pleasures go beyond taste. There are the soft purple, green, and pink watercolors of the shell; the need to read its geometry in order to open it easily. And once open, there is the absolute contrast of the oyster and the shell. Such softness within such hardness.
Art is something we experience not to fill any basic needs but instead to learn about ourselves and our connections to the world. Food is rarely art. We eat to fill our bellies. We eat to sustain ourselves. We eat because we must. Oysters come pretty close to breaking this connection. No one fills up on them. They are taste sundered from satiation. We do not eat them to satisfy any needs—except for our need to experience.
That’s why, to me, there’s something distasteful in the stories of Diamond Jim Brady downing three hundred oysters in a sitting, of Brillat-Savarin watching his dinner companion polish off thirty-two dozen. Part of the pleasure in eating an oyster is paying attention to this other creature, respecting it. It’s a one-on-one relationship. By the time you have shucked the oyster, examined it, and slurped it, you have gotten to know that oyster pretty darned well. As with lovers, you can only shower that kind of attention on so many.
To understand the nuances of oyster flavor, it’s necessary to unlearn the bad culinary habits America has taught us. Oysters don’t taste like bacon double-cheeseburgers. They don’t taste like Chinese barbecue. They don’t even taste like grilled swordfish. They don’t cater to our basic childhood preferences for sweet and fatty tastes, as so much contemporary food does. They are quietly, fully adult.
If you like sushi, then you are well on your way to liking oysters. Sushi has surely been a factor in the current oyster renaissance. It got a whole generation of Americans comfortable with the idea that their seafood need not be cooked, and that strong flavors were not automatically better ones.
Texture is a big part of sushi’s appeal, and so it is with oysters. They are firm and slippery at the same time. Or should be. The farther south you go and the warmer the water gets, the softer the oyster becomes—listless, as M. F. K. Fisher put it. An oyster from very cold water, on the other hand, can be described as crisp or crunchy.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves, because oyster flavor, like perfume notes, comes in three stages, and texture is part of stage 2. The first stage involves salt, the second stage body and sweetness, and the third floral or fruity finishes.
Salinity is what hits immediately when you tilt an oyster into your mouth. It can be overwhelming, unnoticeable, or anywhere in between. Oyster blood is seawater, more or less, so oysters take on the salinity of their environment, which can range from 12 to 36 parts per thousand (ppt). In the role of primordial bar snack, to accompany a pint of lager, a fully saline oyster can be great. Crisp, crunchy, salty—all the same adjectives that typify a bag of potato chips can likewise apply to a plate of Maine oysters. But if you plan to have more than a few, you may soon feel like a kid at the beach who has gulped too much seawater. Salt overload. It’s worth pointing out that salt and acid cancel each other on the tongue, so a squeeze of lemon or a touch of mignonette will substantially reduce the impression of salt.
Oysters with very low salinity, on the other hand, can taste flat, like low-sodium chicken broth. We have grown accustomed to a certain level of salt in almost all our food. People who grew up eating low-salinity oysters, however, prefer them, insisting that too much salt masks the buttery seaweed tastes that make oysters unique.
Most people prefer the midrange of salt. Such oysters provide plenty of taste interest up front, but allow the body and finish of the oyster to come through.
After the initial sensation of salt, you will sense the body of the oyster. For this, you will have to chew. Some squeamish eaters don’t like to chew their oysters. I’m sorry, but chewing is where all the toothsome pleasure of the oyster comes out—the snappy way it resists your teeth for just a moment before breaking, like a fresh fig. Chewing also begins to release an oyster’s sweetness.
In wine terminology, body refers to the way a flavor fills the mouth, and that’s an important part of the pleasure of an oyster, too. Some just seem to vaporize. Others are dense with sweetness or savory richness. This doesn’t always correlate with size. A tiny Olympia has plenty of body, while a large Gulf oyster can leave your mouth with very little sensation other than a compelling need to swallow. But, in general, a larger, older oyster is more likely to have a full body and an interesting palette of flavors.
Those flavors will be encountered during the third and final stage—what is generally known as the finish. These are the impressions that linger after you have chewed and swallowed, and sometimes they are truly surprising. Cucumber is the flavor most frequently cited, by which people mean the fresh, green, slightly bitter flavor of a garden cuke. Melon is another common note—not surprisingly, since cucumbers and melons are in the same family and share some aroma compounds. Of the oysters I’ve tasted, only Kumamotos have a true, sweet honeydew note. Many Pacifics have a hint of melon gone murky, as if you stored cantaloupe slices and sardines in the same refrigerator container. Some have a delicious finish that people call watermelon, but it’s really the spicy, herbal taste you get from watermelon rind—unmistakable, but quite distinct from the taste of watermelon flesh. One of my favorite descriptions of oyster aroma comes from Luca Turin, the perfume expert, in “The Emperor of Scent,” and it isn’t even describing an oyster. It’s Calone, a molecule developed by French perfumers in the 1960s and described as “oysterlike.” Turin, on the other hand, labels it “halfway between the apple and the knife that cuts it, a fruity turned up to a white heat.” That nails the aroma of Pacific oysters.
All the fruity flavors ascribed to oysters belong to Pacifics and their little cousin the Kumamoto. Eastern oysters taste of the salty sea and various minerals, not fruit. Olympias and European Flats taste metallic and smoky. There are also various nutty, buttery, musky, algal, fungal, citrus, seaweed, black tea, and grainlike flavors that turn up in particular oysters.
Don’t expect to identify these flavors the first time you taste an oyster. Think of the novice wine drinker in “Sideways” who, when asked to describe the flavor of a wine, says “fermented grapes.” At first, oysters taste “oystery.” But the more you taste them side by side, the more obvious the differences become. A world of wild and fascinating flavors opens up.
The first Tatamagouche oyster I ever had was lousy. It had a big barnyard flavor, and I regretted having choked it down. After that I steered clear of Tatamagouches for a while. But then I was with some friends, and they were eating Tatamagouches and didn’t look miserable, so I tried one. It was fantastic—plump, juicy, salty, and sweet with nutty petrol notes.
While it is possible to generalize about the taste of an oyster from a particular body of water—eat enough Hama Hamas, for example, and you will start to recognize certain shell patterns and flavor notes—any single oyster can deviate significantly from the norm. It may be noticeably different from its neighbor only a foot away, due to either genetic or environmental differences. It is an individual creature, and there is always some excitement and mystery as you unveil it in all its half-shell glory.
This is different from wine, where the grapes are all harvested in the fall, and the entire year’s harvest gets mixed together. There can be considerable variation from year to year, but within a vintage each bottle holds the same mix. But every oyster is its own entity, and oysters are harvested to order. They will vary in flavor and appearance through the course of a year, depending on water temperature, algae availability, spawning, and other factors.
Enjoying a wine at its peak is like robbing a slow-moving train: You know when it will arrive, because of previous trains that were on the same schedule, so it is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. You won’t always time it right, but your odds are pretty good. Catching an oyster at its peak is more like trying to shoot a bat: There are short-term cycles and longer arcs, and it requires some skill and faith and luck. But when you hit it, you are giddy with excitement.
The biggest factor is season. The same oyster will taste different throughout the year. Those Hama Hamas, for instance, will taste sweet and salty in fall, buttery and fresh in spring, when months of rain have swelled the Hamma Hamma River, and thin and salty in summer, after they have spawned. (Some growers, in an effort to achieve product consistency, will “follow the salinity”: upriver during droughts, down toward the sea when rivers are full. This only works if your oysters are in portable cages.) Chances are, the main difference in my two Tatamagouches was season.
Many oysters are referred to as sweet. No, oysters are never going to make it onto the dessert course. Sometimes sweet in regard to oysters is a euphemism for “not salty.” It sounds better than calling an oyster “bland.” But some oysters have a discernible sweetness, and most people, but not all, agree that a sweeter oyster is a better oyster. And sweetness is driven by season.
Ask an oyster farmer what makes his oysters sweet and he will say glycogen—the starch that oysters store as an energy supply. Ask any food scientist, and she will tell you that glycogen is tasteless. It might add body to an oyster’s taste, but not sweetness. How to explain this disconnect? Well, starches are long chains of sugar molecules. Glycogen is made from glucose—the same kind of sugar we use in our muscles for energy. So while glycogen itself is tasteless, it can be broken down so that its glucose molecules fit snugly onto our taste buds that detect sugar. Voilà, sweetness! Our saliva is filled with enzymes that break down food (that, in fact, is saliva’s job), and oysters themselves have enzymes that will start to break down their tissue once they are dead. The question is this: How much time does it take?
Most people don’t chew their oysters long enough to get more than a whisper of sweetness on the finish. If you have an oyster fat with glycogen, and you chew a lot, you can get some real sweetness. But chewing an oyster twenty or thirty times is kind of like brushing your teeth for five minutes—it may sound like a good idea, but few of us are willing to do it.
A second source of sweetness in oysters may be glycine, the substance that gives shrimp and crab its sweetness. Glycine isn’t a sugar, but it’s one of several amino acids (protein building blocks) that taste lightly sweet to us. We may even have separate taste receptors for it.
An oyster stores food in two ways. In the fall, as the water cools, it eats as much food as it can, transforming that food into the glycogen that will keep it fueled through the dormant winter months when it doesn’t feed. An oyster in December will be at its fattest, and then will slowly thin through the winter as it lives off its reserves. By April, it is pretty thin. But then the water warms up and swollen rivers pour nutrients into the estuaries, fueling the spring algae blooms. The oyster feeds again, but this time, instead of storing its food as glycogen, it stores much of it as lipids—fat—which is necessary for producing sperm or eggs. It will taste buttery and rich for a brief time, until those lipids get converted to sperm or eggs, at which point it develops more of an “organ meat” flavor. (Some people like the taste of a spawny Eastern oyster. Nobody can stomach a spawny Pacific.) Depending on the warmth of the water and the type of oyster, spawning can take place anywhere from May to August. In the Gulf of Mexico and other points south, where cold water is not an issue, and where there is plenty of plankton year-round, oysters never go dormant. They will often spawn in sporadic trickles over months, rather than in a single spurt. They also don’t need to store much glycogen, so they never get as firm and fat as a cold-water oyster in the fall.
When an oyster is full of glycogen and lipids, it looks plump and creamy white or ivory. That’s what you want to see. It will taste firm, springy, and delicious. Transparency is a sign of a lack of glycogen—either it recently spawned or it just survived a long winter. At that time, it will taste like little more than a bag of saltwater. If it looks veiny, with bluish or whitish channels through the flesh, that’s a sign that it’s getting ready to spawn and is filled with gamete, not glycogen. Prick a spawny oyster and its liquid will look milky. Eat a spawny oyster and it will burst in your mouth like a greasy raw egg yolk.
On rare occasions, the water an oyster feeds on is so dense with a particular algae that it turns the oyster liquor blue, green, red, even gold. American restaurants don’t bother trying to serve these, especially the reds, which make it look as though the shucker has cut himself. The enlightened ostreaphile, however, knows that the famous Marenne oysters of France are finished in shallow saltwater basins dense with a blue navicule algae that turns their liquor and their mantles green and gives them a singularly rich flavor. No doubt exotic flavors lurk in the blue, red, and gold oysters, too, but don’t expect a wave of interest in the States. If you are French and you get a green or gold oyster, you squeeze yourself for joy, thank the gastronomic gods for delivering such a prize, and dig in. If you are American, you call the HazMat squad.
Not everyone prefers the algae-plumped oysters of spring and fall. A cadre of contrarians favor thin ones. Judy Rodgers, for example, of San Francisco’s Zuni Café, says, “I know I like ‘leaner’ oysters—literally, not full of food, stored as creamy glycogen, which is chemically equivalent to cornstarch. Leaner oysters have clearer, smaller meat and bright flavor notes, and they don’t coat your mouth.”
What Rodgers may be responding to in leaner oysters is umami—a fifth category of taste, separate from the familiar quartet of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Umami is perhaps best described as savory. It’s what makes chicken broth, soy sauce, and anchovies taste delicious. As with the other four tastes, we have taste buds specifically tuned to umami. If you love tea and tomatoes, you love umami.
The term umami comes from the Japanese word meaning “the essence of deliciousness.” Most eaters would have no quibble with that claim. Free amino acids, especially glutamate, are responsible for umami. Since amino acids are the building blocks of protein, umami tends to be found in abundance in meat and fish products that are cured, aged, dried, or otherwise abused so that their protein breaks down into its constituent amino acids. Parmesan cheese, Prosciutto ham, and smoked salmon are umami powerhouses. So are oysters. When an Olympia or European Flat is compared to caviar or anchovies, that’s the umami talking. When a Moonstone oyster is called brothy, that’s umami. A thin oyster may not have much sweet, starchy glycogen, but it can still have plenty of umami.
We don’t yet know what factors influence umami content in oysters. One may be minerals and metals. Ions of certain metals are known to break apart molecules in food. The most famous example of this is the copper kettles used to make Comte, Gruyère, and other cheeses, because the copper breaks the milk fat into delicious flavor compounds. Similarly, cast-iron pans and clay pots have long been known to impart good flavors to certain foods. Oysters are high in copper, iron, and other metals, and extraordinarily high in zinc (by far the highest of any food), so perhaps something similar happens in them.
One surefire way to increase umami in oysters is to let them sit in the fridge for a while. At 40 degrees Fahrenheit, they are dormant, but metabolizing ever so slowly, digesting their fats and glycogen in the effort to stay alive. As they metabolize without oxygen, they develop more propionic acid (found in milk and charcoal) and more amino acids—more umami. So an oyster that’s been out of the water for a week will be more savory, and have different flavors, than one that was pulled out that day.
For most people, that isn’t enough of a reason to let oysters sit. Virtually everyone agrees that an oyster pulled straight out of the sea tastes better. Freshness, in fact, is the single most important factor. To get that fresh sea taste we all covet, the oyster’s liquor must still be seawater, still alive and vibrating with microscopic life. After a couple of weeks, that liquor has been through the oyster a few times. It ain’t bad, but it ain’t seawater.
This is an excerpt from Rowan Jacobsen’s “A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America,” Bloomsbury USA (September 4, 2007). Copyright Rowan Jacobsen. It was originally published on our site on September 6, 2007 and has been updated with new formatting, links, and images.