Thursday, August 18, 2016

Awe, Schucks: An Oyster Tasting Guide

Awe, Schucks: An Oyster Tasting Guide

Natalie Simon, University of Florida

The waiter sets your glass of wine on the table. First, you check its color, opacity, and viscosity. Then, you gently swirl the wine in your glass and inhale the fragrance, searching for subtle notes of flavor. Are there aromatic hints of fruit, herb, or earth? Next, you take a sip, and your palate observes the wine’s subtle texture. Your taste buds detect the delicate changes in salinity, sweetness, or bitterness. Lastly, you make an inference of the wine tasting. Did you like the overall flavor profile of the wine, the texture, the uniqueness? Much like sommeliers (certified wine tasters) take the time to taste a wine, oyster connoisseurs take the time to appreciate the flavor nuances of the oyster in a half shell.

In the United States, five species of oysters are harvested for human consumption: The Atlantic or East Coast (Crassostrea virginica), Pacific or West Coast (Crassostrea gigas), Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea), European Native or Flat (Ostrea edulis), and the Olympia or West Coast native (Ostrea conchaphila). Sadly, none of these oysters produce pretty pearls but they are jam-packed with vitamins and minerals and are farmed sustainably! In fact, 95% of the oysters consumed worldwide are cultivated using aquaculture techniques, making them an ocean-friendly seafood choice. The health and environmental benefits, along with unique and distinct flavors have made the oyster a popular dish among food enthusiasts.

Oyster production occurs worldwide, including China, Australia, South Africa, France, Argentina, Mexico, United States, and Canada. While the same species might be grown in different places, the unique environmental conditions in each country vary biologically, chemically, geologically, and physically, resulting in diverse and unique flavor profiles of the oysters produced (Just like wine!). In North America alone there are 300 unique oyster varieties. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the immense selection available, focus on ordering a few oyster varieties, usually between 4 and 6, and make sure to order two of each. This will give you a better sense of the flavor diversities found in each oyster variety.

When tasting oysters, it is important to keep in mind that similarly to wine tasting, oyster tasting has its own etiquette for fully appreciating the flavors and textures cultivated by the oyster. First, look at the size and shape of the shell. Are there any grooves? Is it smooth or rough? What is the color of the shell? The color of the meat inside? Does the meat appear to be plump and juicy? Next, smell the oyster for an aroma. Does it remind you of the ocean’s scent? Is it sweet? Follow this by sipping the oyster liquor, which is the natural juice found inside the oyster. The liquor should not be rinsed or dumped out because it gives the taster a sense of the salinity or brininess. Finally, the moment we’ve been waiting for, slurp the loose oyster meat by tilting the flat edge of the shell to your lips and savor the moment. Chew the meat a few time to release its essences and give your taste buds the opportunity to get aquatinted with the aroma, texture, saltiness, and progression of flavors. You have now fully experienced what food critics call meroir, or the difference in flavor profiles due to growth in different geographical locations.  This means that even though the species of oyster is the same, the flavor profile could be subtly or drastically different depending on the environment it came from. If you ever taste an oyster and are at a loss for words to describe the flavor, try using Patrick McMurray’s Oyster Tasting Wheel!

So what are the possible flavors you could taste? Often times you hear terms such as oystery, salty, or fruity to describe the taste of an oyster. Some other terms include cucumber, melon, and honeydew notes.  When someone refers to an oyster having a cucumber finish they are referring to the fresh, green, bitter flavor. For example, fruity flavors are frequently used to illustrate the taste of Pacific Oysters and Kumamoto. Eastern oysters tend to be briny, crisp, buttery, and light bodied, whereas west coast oysters are minerally, creamy, sweet, and medium bodied. Particular oysters may also exhibit subtle notes of nutty, citrus, black tea, copper, and springy flavors.
Interested in developing and honing your skills as an oyster aficionado? Keep a record of your tasting in this handy dandy notebook!\  

Not so interested in eating raw oysters? Try Oyster Rockefeller! In this popular dish, the oyster is served in the half shell after being cooked and topped with various ingredients including spinach, parsley bread crumbs, cheese, bacon, and wherever your imagination takes you. Try this recipe and enjoy!

Are you a huge oyster enthusiast and want to learn more?! Check out these links:
• Real Life Oyster Connoisseur Julie Qiu:
• Oyster Variety Glossary:
• 7 Things You Need to Know About Oysters:

About the Author:
Natalie Simon is from the Jersey Shore and received her BS in Marine Biology from Stockton University. While working at Rutgers’s Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory as a hatchery technician, she found her love for oysters. Not long after, Natalie moved to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida (UF) for her Master’s degree in Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. Her research interests include cryogenics, germplasm preservation, and molluscan aquaculture. In her spare time, Natalie enjoys nature, coffee, Netflix and quality time with her bearded dragon, Hector.