All things being equal, all oysters are not the same. The taste, texture, appearance, and general je ne sais quoi of any given oyster varies greatly depending on what kind you’re eating (which is determined by where they come from) and even when you’re eating them. So below, allow an expert to acquaint you with a dozen types of oysters worthy of your attention. At the very least, you’ll get to vicariously appreciate their quirks.
Open UpHow to Shuck an OysterOysters, of course, are as iconic as they are polarizing; for every person who shivers in delight when a soft, slippery shot of brine slides down their throat, at least a dozen more shudder in disgust. According to most in the know, you’re meant to chew at least a couple times (otherwise, can you even taste what you’re eating?), but an oyster shooter is the only way some can stomach them. While cooking oysters makes them not only acceptable but extremely appealing to plenty (just witness the enduring popularity of oysters Rockefeller), certain connoisseurs of the raw bivalve often turn up their noses at even simply barbecued oysters.
They’re on a level with lobsters as far as associations with romance and special occasions, and Valentine’s Day in particular, but for most, they are certainly more challenging to truly appreciate than “bugs” (which allegedly have similar levels of ardor-enhancing zinc as the more famously aphrodisiac oysters, in case you’re looking for an excuse to stop eating them on the half shell). Whether you already adore oysters and want to get more familiar with them, or you want to try to start appreciating the nuances of oysters au naturel, the poetic words of Rowan Jacobsen can help guide you. He wrote the actual book on oysters—two, actually—so you can trust him.
Following 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. Original artwork for Chowhound by Bryan Christie Design.
To be a full-fledged ostreaphile—an oyster lover—you can’t just pound Kumamotos or Wellfleets all the time. You need to explore the full range of styles and varieties. Different oysters, after all, work best as beer accompaniments, culinary stars, or exotic curiosities. This alphabetical list of twelve prominent varieties provides a good representation of the classic types.
Néguac, New Brunswick
These small oysters are grown in floating trays in the harsh New Brunswick climate. Always petite and clean-flavored, in classy black-and-white shells, Beausoleils make ideal starter oysters, with the delightful yeasty aroma of Champagne or rising bread dough.
No oyster comes close to the power of the European Flat (often called Belon, after the famous French oyster of the same species). It is brassy, in every sense of the word. Brassy because it tastes like metal, and because it is shamelessly bold, and because when it hits your tongue it slaps you awake like the opening blast of a bugler’s reveille. Try one if you can—just don’t make it your first oyster.
Souris River, Prince Edward Island
Light is a term often ascribed to PEI oysters. Sometimes it’s a negative, indicating a lack of body and flavor. Sometimes, as with Colville Bays, it means transcendent. Colville Bays have plenty of body but also an addictive lemon-zest brightness. They are the oyster most likely to make you order another dozen. The dusky jade shells, when piled high, achieve the luminosity of moss on a rain-forest stump.
Damariscotta River, Maine
Native Americans ate Damariscotta River oysters for a millennium, as the hill-sized middens along its upper banks confirm. The extremely cold, salty water produces slow-growing oysters with fantastic texture and brine at the upper end of the register. These are the soft pretzels of the oyster world, chewy and salty and heaven with a cold beer.
California, Oregon, Washington, and Mexico
The oyster that put the fruit back in fruits de mer. Kumamotos are famously melon-scented, sweet, and firm, with none of the bitter or muddy aftertaste that makes some oysters challenging. Closely related to the Pacific oyster, which also was imported from Japan, Kumos stay small and deep-cupped, and are revered by beginners and pros alike.
Point Judith Pond, Rhode Island
Some of the most savory oysters in the world come from a geographical arc running from the eastern end of Long Island, along the ragged Rhode Island coast, to Block Island, Cuttyhunk, and Martha’s Vineyard: the line marking the terminal moraine of the most recent glacier. Along that arc, mineral-rich waters produce salty oysters with unparalleled stone and iron flavors, of which Moonstone is the reigning king.
West Vancouver Island, British Columbia
An oyster from pristine waters. Ain’t nothing on the Pacific side of Vancouver Island except orcas, sea lions, shellfish farmers, and the occasional kayaker. You know these oysters are clean, but clean waters do not necessarily make light-flavored oysters. Art-deco-patterned, lavender-flecked Nootkas, in fact, taste strong, with hints of muskmelon and a flavor of cold, slightly sweet raw milk—animal, but good.
South Puget Sound, Washington
The only native West Coast oyster, once found from Baja to British Columbia, but now harvested commercially only in southern Puget Sound. These tiny celadon lockets hold delightful treasures: miniature oysters redolent of morels and butter and celery salt. Maddening to open, and maddeningly good.
Samish Bay and Whidbey Island, Washington
Gorgeous, ruffled shells holding consistently plump, white oysters with black mantles. Penn Coves are multiyear winners of the West Coast’s Most Beautiful Oyster contest. They are a prime example of the “clean finish” style of Pacific oyster—light, salty, fresh, like a cucumber sandwich rolled in parsley.
Famous as a Chesapeake oyster river for centuries. Of the twelve oysters on this list, Rapps are the quietest. Extremely mild oysters, exhibiting a simple sweet-butter flavor, they are easily overshadowed by saltier or fruitier oysters, so they don’t fare well in tastings. But on their own, with the most evanescent of wines, they can be a delicacy itself—a lesson in the pleasure of minimalism.
Little Skookum Inlet, Washington
If Penn Coves exemplify the “light and lettucy” side of Pacific oysters, Skookums show Pacifics at the other extreme. These rich and musky oysters grow fat on the “algae farms”—mudflats—at the head of tiny Little Skookum Inlet, one of Washington’s oldest oyster sites. The brown and green algae that thrive on the mudflats, different from deep-water algae species, give Skookums an aroma of trillium and river moss, more earth than sea.
Totten Inlet, Washington
The oyster that begs the question: Nature or nurture? By nature, it’s a virginica, the East Coast oyster, celebrated for its superior texture. But it’s nurtured in the gentle algae baths of Totten Inlet, famous for producing full-flavored Pacific and Olympia oysters. The result is an unlikely yet dazzling mutt—fat and round on the tongue, but cleaner and more mineral than a Pacific. If you prefer the Totten Virginica to Pacific oysters raised in Totten Inlet, then chalk one up for the Eastern oyster. If you prefer Totten Virginicas to East Coast virginicas, that confirms Totten Inlet’s revered status.
This excerpt was originally published on our site as part of the multi-page article “The Taste of an Oyster” on September 6, 2007. We thought it was worth restoring and highlighting. Consider it a love letter to oysters, just in time for Valentine’s Day.
You can download the original oyster identification poster here (from Rowan’s site, OysterGuide.com).