I was an adult when I had my first oyster, though at 22 I was barely one. A local restaurant offered 50 cent oysters during weekday happy hours, and my friends and I started going because it made us feel like sophisticated high-rollers despite the fact that we were desperately broke (I couldn't even afford a glass of wine to go with them). But those first experiences awakened a lifelong love affair for the slimy bivalves, and I continue to seek them out at every opportunity. Especially Sweetwaters from Hog Island Oyster Co., the subject of this week's full review.
The more I write and learn about oysters, the more fascinating they become. Here are some of my favorite tidbits from my research over the years:
1. They taste like the place they come from.
You know how there are like a million different types of oysters at raw bars? There are actually only five edible oyster species (Pacific, Kumamoto, Olympia, European Flat, and Eastern) but their flavor varies so much depending on the place they're grown -- the merroir, as oyster nerds like to call it -- that a Pacific oyster from California can taste entirely different than a Pacific oyster from Washington. That's also why oysters are so often named after the geographic region where they're farmed. Except the Naked Cowboy, which is still my favorite name for an oyster ever.
2. The whole "months that end in R" thing is a myth.
Oysters spawn during the summer when the water temperatures are warmer, so the idea that you needed to avoid oysters in months that didn't end in the letter "R" was a handy bit of folk wisdom to keep people from getting sick in the days before refrigeration. These days, though, farmed oysters make up about 95 percent of the world's oyster consumption, and thanks to the wonders of technology, we can enjoy oysters year-round.
3. San Francisco Bay used to be coated with them.
In fact, the whole West Coast was blanketed with the tiny Olympia, the only oyster native to the Pacific west coast. But then the Gold Rush happened, and the local oysters that weren't consumed by hungry Easterners who'd come here to strike it rich were killed off by the silt runoff from the American river. Now they only exist in pockets in Washington and British Columbia. (For more on the Olympia, I highly recommend The Living Shore, food and environmental writer Rowan Jacobsen's slim volume about a quest for the oysters in B.C.)
4. They're great for the ecosystem.
Oysters are nature's water filters -- they filter the water around them for phytoplankton, and then pump it out cleaner. That's why they're so susceptible to pollutants, because they're essentially taking in poison along with nutrients. Oysters also stick to the same beds over generations, and their calcified shells form an aquatic apartment building for little sea creatures, which in turn feed growing salmon and other fish.
5. You can farm your own.
Out at Pickleweed Point on Tomales Bay, not far from Hog Island Oyster Co., aquaculturist Luc Chamberlain has opened a community oyster farm -- think of it like a pea patch of the sea. Community members pony up $100 and have the pleasure of raising their very own oysters from larvae to adulthood. The farm has also schooled local youth on the oyster farming process, which sounds like the best field trip ever. Interested would-be aquafarmers or visitors should check out the Facebook page.