How would you describe the flavor of a raw oyster?
Well, it’s hard to give a grand description because even though we’re talking oysters, there are so many variables that make them distinct from each other. From a textural standpoint, a good oyster is buttery and silky, with a nice pool of briny liquor in the shell. After that, everything depends on where the oysters are from.
How would you describe the flavor of a cooked oyster?
Flavorwise you’re looking at it being somewhat like what it tastes like in its raw state, but maybe with just a hint of bitter thrown in with the sweet and salt. The texture is entirely different – firmer. Cooked oysters are best when you’re serving them with something else, whether it’s a touch of lemon or sautéed with some shallots, garlic and wine. I love steaming them and dipping them into little bit of a garlic butter mix. Fried, you can't go wrong. I mean, there's just so many ways you can serve them.
As the flavors of the oysters can often be delicate, what do you feel is the best way to choose a flavor complement that doesn't overwhelm?
Well, it really depends on what you’re trying to accomplish overall. They’re most delicate when they’re raw, but that’s also where you’re looking at them being the star of the whole show. You want something that’s going to make it pop just a touch, like an acid. Mignonette, a hot sauce, a light squeeze of lemon – that’s all you really need, because you’ve already got the sweet and salty, and the acid cuts straight through that. When you get into the more aggressive cooking methods, whether it's stewing or a doing a po' boy with fried oysters, that's where it can handle a little more heft and some robust ingredients.
How would you say environment overall affects the flavor of oysters?
An oyster is defined 100% by where it’s grown. Here in the Chesapeake, we’ve got a unique growing system—we’re on a peninsula only a few miles wide—so on one side we’ve got the bay, and the other we’ve got the open ocean. On our bay side the salinity – the amount of salt in our water – runs around 17 parts per 1000. Our seaside has salinities of about 32 parts per 1000. So, in the ocean it's essentially twice as much salt, which makes a difference, but it’s not the only thing that influences the flavor. A big part of it is diet, and the salinity has a lot to do with what’s growing in the water. You’ve also probably heard a lot about water temperature, which is true – a colder temperature usually results in a sweeter oyster, because different algae thrive in cold water than warm water. Our seaside is always colder, because the sun and overall temps can increase the temperature of a contained body of water like a bay far quicker.
How long does it take an oyster to mature?
That's very site- and technique- specific. For instance, our bayside site takes about two years on average to get the larger of the crop off, and at the seaside site is about one year, so twice as fast. A lot of that has to do with the fact that the water temperatures on the bayside get so hot in the summer –it basically mimics the air temperature –so if you have a week that's 90-degree weather, your water temperature is going to be near 90 degrees. What that does is hamper certain algae cells that the oysters feed on, so while they’re on a diet they get a bit lazy in the growing department.
What would you say is the difference between East Coast and West Coast oysters?
Well, again, it comes back to temperature. The West Coast (Pacific Ocean) tends to be a lot colder year-round, and that all comes down to ocean currents and ambient temperatures. They also have a completely different ecosystem, with different algae and other microorganisms in their water, plus varying salinity. They’re also using completely different species of oysters which thrive in that environment—often you can easily identify a West Coast oyster just by looking at the shell. Kumamotos are popular over there, which originated in Japan. They tend to be a little smaller, a little rounder.
Do you feel that farmed oysters are superior to wild forged oysters?
In a few ways, I would say, yes just because on a farm you really have the ability to control the size and shape of the animal. Customers like a nice three to four-inch oyster and that are uniform shape and size. When you’re out harvesting in the wild, you get a huge range of oysters: you could have a huge bed of year-old oysters, or you could be finding ones that are reaching the end of their life span. Aquaculture oysters offer a lot more consistency, as well as a traceable blueprint. We know everything about that oyster from its first day to the moment it’s harvested.
What should people look for when purchasing oysters from a vendor? Are there any questions that you ask to make sure that the vendor knows their product?
The one thing you could definitely ask, and every vendor should absolutely have on hand, is a shellfish tag. That will tell you the source, the actual company who grew it, the location in which they grew it, the harvest date, and sometimes temperature information on there to make that it was under temperature control. If you haven't bought oysters from a particular vendor before, make sure you ask for shellfish tag right off the bat.
You should also test one to make sure it’s been handled correctly: an oyster in temperature control will retain its fluid for a couple of weeks. If it’s dry, it’s been stored wrong, or been sitting around for a long time. I don't let my direct customers keep them after two weeks – I'll take them back and replace them. That’s what a good vendor should be doing.
The other obvious thing, if you’re shopping at the fish market, is to make sure none of them are opened. If they're laying there gap up, they'll only last a day, if they’re edible at all. Even if they're closed, you could pick up two and have a healthy oyster in one hand and an oyster that's dead or dying in the other. If you touch the two together, the dead one will have a hollow, knocking sound. If you’re grabbing a bag of them give it a light shake. If you hear a lot of hollow sounds, a good portion of those oysters are already past their expiration date.
If you're not lucky enough to live in the Chesapeake area, what's the best way to store and transport oysters?
Well, it’s critical that the oysters are temperature-controlled to 45 degrees all the time. I prefer to store them in boxes because when you're going to store in the walk-in, a box affords the ability to keep the fan from blowing on them and possibly accelerating the dehydration process on the oyster.
What do you feel is unique about the oysters that come from your neck of the woods, Eastern Virginia?
You have the two distinct flavors being on the Eastern Shore – the bay and the ocean on either side of the peninsula which is only several miles wide. The range of salinities can be huge, as we have in our company. You get more of a range of flavors down here as opposed to other regions, where they’ve got access to only one water source.
Even though we’re talking about a geographical region, it’s still a very nuanced thing. I mean, an operation only a few miles away from me could have a pretty distinct difference in flavor. The best analogy I can make is to think of it like wine. Two vineyards right next door to each other are still going to make very different wines, even though the scenery is more or less the same. When we’re talking about oysters at sea, a few miles could make a big difference in flavor thanks to a whole slew of variables.