In humble oyster, 'flavor of life' Delight: For centuries, epicureans have paid tribute to this shellfish, whose taste captures the ebb and flow of life around it.

On The Bay

October 30, 1998|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

CHESAPEAKE autumns are most noticeably a time of flocking fowl, the blaze of turning leaves, schools of fattening fish bursting the surface; cool, crystal days and star-dazzled nights.

It all makes me hunger for the bay's less visible but choicest fall fruit, the humble, muddy oyster.

Of the estuarine smorgasbord, from sweet lumps of backfin crab and sauteed softies, to fresh broiled rockfish, fat cherrystone clams and roast canvasback duck, it is the taste of an oyster, raw and plump and glistening in its own liquor on the half shell, that I'd least want to do without.

In this, I am in good company. "Beneficent oyster all stomachs bless you," wrote the Roman Seneca; and the Frenchman Montaigne observed during a visit to Bordeaux in 1581:

The oysters "were of so high an order of taste, that it is like smelling violets to eat them."

The French know how to do justice to an oyster. The gourmet Brillat-Savarin wrote in 1798 of inviting to dinner a friend whose desire it was, just once in his life, "to stuff" on oysters:

"I kept him company to the third dozen," Brillat-Savarin writes. "He went on to the thirty-second [dozen], that is for more than an hour, for the maid opening them was not skillful."

The host stopped his guest just then, saying: "My friend, it is not your fate to stuff on oysters today. Let us dine. And he behaved with the vigor and bearing of a man only then starting to eat."

In her brief classic, "Consider the Oyster" (1988), the epicurean author M.F.K. Fisher delighted in the "crispness of flesh" of a prime raw oyster, and confessed:

"I have thought seriously about [oysters] while incendiary bombs fell and people I knew were maimed and hungry."

Eleanor Clark, however, best honored the oyster in her 1950s classic "The Oysters of Locmariaquer" (a great oystering area of Brittany).

"Music or the color of the sea are easier to describe" than an oyster's taste, she wrote. "It is a shock of freshness some piercing intuition of the sea and all its weeds and breezes remembering mermaids, or the sudden smell of kelp on the ebb tide something connected with the flavor of life itself."

She hinted at the oyster's fullest essence here, its quality as an integrator in its flesh, on both gustatory and ecological levels -- a fine-flavored lens, distilling whole regions into little gobbets of tonic.

Nearly from the time it is born, an oyster never moves; but it is constantly feeding by sucking water through its gills, to the point that the bay's original shellfish populations filtered and cleansed a volume of water equal to the whole estuary every few days.

To flourish, the oyster requires a combination of ocean water, for reproduction; river water, to dilute the ocean and ward off salt-loving oyster predators; and a diet of nutrients in runoff from the watershed lands of its rivers and from the sea.

"The fitness of the oyster for bringing back to us the mineral wealth which the rivers steal from our hillsides and meadows is so complete and admirable, so marvelous and instructive," waxed W.K. Brooks, the bay's first oyster scientist, in an 1891 text on the bivalve.

So it is that when you engage in "degustation" of an oyster (the French use that word, meaning "to savor," as opposed to merely consuming), you are really savoring the felicitous junction of vast natural systems, stretching from mountains to the sea.

You are also at the same time savoring something intensely local, tastes and qualities as intimately and pleasurably allied with a given place as the wine regions of France and California.

There was a day when discerning diners would ask pointedly for Lynnhavens (oysters from Norfolk), Cotuits (Cape Cod) or Blue Points (Long Island). As with wines, whether the regional associations are real, imagined or a mix of both, is not really the point.

I am always on the lookout for the perfect oyster, to the point I once boycotted a long-planned family trip to Normandy's battlefields to spend a day with French oyster farmers on the former D-Day seacoast.

Standing half a mile out in the ocean (40-foot tides make that possible), sipping the sharply salty little native oysters, Ostrea edulis, I was glad we won the war.

On another oyster foray to Willapa Bay, north of the Columbia River in Washington state, I "degusted" for a week among Crassostrea gigas, the Asian or Pacific oyster. Native to Japan, gigas is by far the world's most widely grown variety, even in France nowadays.

It is larger than Crassostrea virginica, the oyster of our East and Gulf coasts, including the Chesapeake. And fried, stewed, poached and steamed, I have to admit that it's as good as or better than our own.

But raw, it cannot compare -- even oyster growers on the West Coast admit it. As to where in the East holds the best tasting virginicas, I only have space enough to begin the debate.

M.F.K. Fisher liked hers best from Long Island. The best I can ever recall came out of the lower Patuxent River, so fat they were almost the color of cream.

Recently I traveled to Apalachicola, Fla., maybe the best place on earth for an oyster to grow. Bathed in the Gulf of Mexico and river flows that bring snowmelt from the Appalachians, the same species that takes two years or more to reach market size on the Chesapeake takes as little as seven months there.

It was summer, not the best time to judge, but I got this from David Jones, a third generation oysterman, on Apalachicola oysters in wintertime:

"So firm and fat, and of a certain size, so they just fit on a saltine; you put on just a drop of Tabasco, and it gets sometimes to where you just can't stop eating 'em and you just have to, at some point, go to sleep to stop."

Pub Date: 10/30/98

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