A few weeks ago my wife found an art school that had classes (i.e. babysitting) for kids from 6 to 8:30pm. Jackpot!! We dropped our 2 kids off and off we went on date night. Deciding where and what to eat, I was craving oysters. “What month is it?” My wife asked. “You only eat oysters in months with the letter R in it.” Asking my 7 year old for confirmation, we agreed that there is no R in May. It wasn’t the first time I had heard this claim, but it seems to contradict the fact that oysters are all over summer menus, not to mention have become my go to happy hour item. My wife and I disputed this for a few days, and when I mean dispute, I would say “how can that be” and she’d roll her eyes. While drizzling mignonette over a dozen oysters at the Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston, I reached out to ‘Oystress’ Dana Hale from Island Creek Oysters to get to the bottom of this claim.
SoFlaFoodie: Only eat oysters in the months of ‘R’ Fact or fiction?
Dana Hale: Fiction! There are a few different theories to how this legend became lore. Here are a few:
Back in the days with no refrigeration, it was best to avoid eating oysters in warmer months (May- August) because of the possibility of bacteria overgrowth. But now we have refrigerators. End of problem!
The warmer months (May- August) bring warmer water temperatures which makes oysters reproduce or ‘spawn.’ This thins their texture and turns the body a bit milky – edible but not palatable. These days, however, distributors can bring oysters from non-spawning areas to any place in the country. Again, problem solved!
Lastly, The warmer months can bring algael blooms (commonly known as red tide) to certain coastlines, and these blooms contain toxins which affect shellfish. The fact is, there is so much understanding, tracking and regulation of this phenomena that it’s a total non-issue. Done and done.
SFF: Are oysters seasonal?
DH: Yes! Despite the answers given above, oysters are seasonal creatures. They are, quite literally, what they eat – and the algae in the water that they feed off of changes every season with sunlight, temperature, salinity, currents and whole bunch of other subtle factors.
SFF: What gives oysters it’s flavor and size characteristics?
DH: There are five species of oyster grown in the US today, and that species determines some baseline properties for the oyster, including some of it’s sizing and flavor. I say ‘some’ because there are two other major determining factors. The first are the decisions the grower makes with the oyster. Do they chose to tumble it, reducing the shell size, increasing the cup size? How exact are they in what they harvest? Does every oyster have to grow to 4 inches or will they harvest them at 2.75? How do they plant them?
The second factor is one we call merrior, or the characteristics imbued by an oysters environment. What is the temperature of the water, how big is the tide? What is the mineral make-up of the water, what kind of algae thrives there? There are so many things that create a unique environment for the oyster, and because it filters roughly 50 gallons of water a day (one oyster, wrap your head around that!) it mirrors the water it lives in.
This is what makes it the ultimate geeky food product – the variations are endless, and can’t be reproduced in any other environment than it’s own.
SFF: When is the best time of year to eat East Coast or West Coast oysters?
DH: Every region has it’s ‘best times’ and that depends on the season. The best time to eat new england oysters is not the best time to east west coast or southern oysters. In the winter, I’d choose a southern oyster over a west coast oyster because the rainy season on the west coast can dilute some of their ocean flavor. In the summer, I’d chose a northern new england oyster over a southern oyster because the water is colder and the texture firmer. Generally speaking, the fall is a great time to eat any oyster – water temperatures cool down, leaving the spawning issue behind, and improving the texture of the meat. Coming off of summer sun, the oysters have had lots of opportunity to eat algae and fatten up. New england oyster farmers, on the other hand, prefer to fatten up in the winter months. It’s cold up here!
SFF: Although a matter of taste, what is the best cocktail/drink to pair with oysters?
DH: The best? Oh boy….where do I begin? Classic pairings include white wine and champagne, specifically wines from the Loire region of France like Sancerre and wines from the Burgundy region of France, like Chablis. These wines are literally grown on top of hills of limestone, clay and flint which lends them a naturally high acidity and minerality. These qualities blend well with oysters. There is the classic pairing of vodka with oysters – the vodka is crisp and clean and doesn’t overcome any of the oyster flavors. At Island Creek, there are so many pairings we love. From a nice cold pilsner, to an elegant sake, we have had it all. One house favorite is a really top notch bottle of tequila. A couple shots of that with a few dozen oysters and you can conquer the world!