This is the one thing almost every oyster bar does wrong

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This is the one thing almost every oyster bar does wrong


This is the one thing almost every oyster bar does wrong


The raw bar menu at Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston includes a handful of oysters from the Massachusetts coast and a couple from up in Maine. Just as at almost any other oyster bar, you can order your oysters according to their place of origin, as in, “I’ll have the Wellfleet Petite.” But one thing that makes Island Creek unique is that you can also order by producer, as in, “I’ll have Barb and Clint Austin’s oysters.” This might make Island Creek a rarity – but it shouldn’t.

As Rowan Jacobsen says in his book, The Essential Oyster, “Oysters are animals that farm like plants.” In this sense, oysters are like wine – and knowing who grew your oysters is as important as knowing who made your wine.

Oysters are typically identified by where they were grown, mirroring the European wine tradition of seriously considering terroir likening place to taste and method. Yet for some reason, while we care about who produced the vino that goes into our cabernet glass, we pay little attention to who grew the oysters we’re eating.

Oysters might be animals, but they do grow in a fixed location; they stick around the same spot for life, soaking up life force from nutrients that surround them. In the case of wine, terroir is comprised of the ecosystem in the soil, the sun, the weather and whatever the vineyard manager hands to the vines. In the case of oysters, having a sense of place relates to the unique phytoplankton the oysters pull in from the briny water where they are fixed, which is maintained by the oyster farm.

Farmed oysters are some of the best when it comes to flavor, as well as for our environment. When it comes to eating oysters, we rely on farmers for the hulking majority of our supply. This isn’t a problem when it comes to quality. As Jacobsen says, “this ain’t salmon.”

As oysters filter feed the nutrients around them, they not only take on the flavors of the sea, but also filter the water. “Oyster farms are considered the best thing you can do for coastal water quality,” says Jacobsen.

Wine and oysters, similar in their attachment to place and producer, also pair well together in terms of taste, smell and gastronomic experience. Jacobsen has a few educated suggestions for ideal matchmaking. “An oyster isn’t one thing,” he says, “they call out for different types of wine.” 

Chablis + East Coast Oysters

It’s not only Jacobsen that preaches the harmony of oysters and chablis, made from chardonnay grapes, this pairing is classic. Chablis vineyards are positioned in the northern part of the Bourgogne (Burgundy) region of France, which has limestone soil where ancient oyster shells and fossils of sea creatures have been found. Chablis typically exhibits what some describe as a mineral character. Sustainably-grown William Fèvre Chablis Champs Royaux 2017 is a round wine with delicate citrus flavors and balanced, supple minerality – the freshness pairs well with “briny, umami” oysters from the East Coast of the United States, such as Island Creek oysters in Duxbury, Massachusetts, which Jacobsen calls a “New England clambake in a shell.”

Muscadet + Pacific Oysters

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Wines of France’s Muscadet region (there are several sub-appellations) are made from the melon de Bourgogne grape. Melon de Bourgogne reaches its best expression when grown in the Loire, though it originated (as the name suggests) in Burgundy. With a crisp, light-to-medium body and lean florals and firm minerality, muscadet thrives on the western edge of the Loire Valley near and along the Atlantic coastline. Les Cilssages d’Or Muscadet Sèvre et Maine 2015 is aged sur lie, with delicate white flower aromatics balanced with a hint of mineral salinity – ideal with kusshi oysters from Vancouver Island which Jacobsen says are, “mild and salty, with a fruity green apple finish.”

North Fork Wine + North Fork Oysters

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“There’s really no place on earth where the local oysters and wine go together as well as the North Fork of Long Island,” writes Jacobsen in The Essential Oyster. In this we see the gospel of local food married to the novena of local wine: what grows together goes together. When it comes to Long Island’s North Fork in New York, the landmark in chenin blanc is Paumanok. Delicious with everything, the wine’s gentle hints at clean tropical aromatics make this wine a brisk partner for peconic gold oysters, which offer a “smoky iron tang” according to Jacobsen.

A Few Tips On Eating

Jacobsen calls oyster eating a “visceral, primal experience – without the challenge.” The authentic path is to eat the oyster as it is, which is hopefully fresh, alive and appropriately seasonal. Do chew a bit. The liquor (the fluid contents of the shell) is to be consumed with a sip, enjoyed as the gastronomic container for the life of the sea.

A dash of lemon, a few drops of mignonette: these are the essential recipes (if you will) for oyster preparation. “The French are horrified by the thought of cooking an oyster,” says Jacobsen, but he does include a few select chef-designed meals in his book.

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To make your own mignonette, Jacobsen suggests using rosé in the mix, and he nods to County Line Rosé from Sonoma’s Anderson Valley, which claims to be “bone dry and oyster inspired” (the winery suggests a pairing with kumamoto oysters). Just throw a cup of the rosé in a bowl with a minced shallot, a tablespoon of white wine vinegar and some freshly ground pepper to taste, then swirl it around, et voilà.


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