Nearly four inches long, the "Sand Dune" oyster from Prince Edward Island was so plump, it was bulging out of its shell "like a large breast in a small brassiere," as Rodney Clark, the owner of Rodney's Oyster House in Toronto, put it. Intensely briny and wonderfully sweet, the big, fat, beige-colored oyster tasted like a big mouthful of salty butterscotch ice cream.
Clark, an oyster expert, had a lot to say about the oyster's reputation as an aphrodisiac, a subject that often comes up around Valentine's Day. Instead of the usual nod-nod, wink-wink, "let's just say" explanation most oyster authorities give, he launched into an embarrassingly detailed yarn about a hooker nicknamed "the cat woman." She came in all the time and worked the bar at Rodney's. After sharing some oysters with a guy, she would slip a hand into his lap and grope him. "It was quite a floor show for the people at the tables next to the bar," Clark recalled. "We finally had to ask her to leave."
Clark's restaurant has an artful collection of black-and-white bearded-oyster photos taken by famous photographers hanging in the men's room. Besides being an oyster expert, Clark is a former art student, and oyster-related erotica is one of his favorite genres.
Valentine's Day is one of the busiest times of the year at Rodney's. Oysters are to Valentine's Day what turkey is to Thanksgiving. And this Valentine's weekend may be the best time to eat oysters in recent American history. There are plenty of oysters on the market, and the recession is keeping prices low. While many restaurants reported dismal holiday sales figures, oyster sales were up.
"We have been riding an oyster high since the turn of the century, and the oyster business is still hot," says Sandy Ingber, head chef and oyster buyer at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City. "There doesn't seem to be a letdown in oyster demand." The busiest oyster bar in the country is buying extra supplies for Valentine's weekend — Ingber expects to sell around 10,000 half-shell oysters on Friday and Saturday alone.
On the West Coast, Bill Taylor, president of Taylor Shellfish in Shelton, Washington, says he can't produce enough oysters to meet the ever-higher demand. And on the Gulf Coast, Jim Gossen at Louisiana Foods in Houston reports holiday oyster sales were up around 25 percent over last year and orders for Valentine's Day are brisk.
Better enjoy it while you can. Marine biologists and oyster experts aren't so optimistic about Valentine's Day 2010. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike have limited the Gulf oyster harvest and damaged oyster reefs. And failures in West Coast hatcheries may be the result of an even more disturbing problem.
Ocean acidification is a worldwide phenomenon related to the accumulation of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The ocean absorbs the carbon dioxide, which makes the water more acidic. This increased acidity has myriad effects on ocean chemistry. Among other things, it retards the ability of marine microorganisms to turn calcium into shell. Ocean acidification has already been blamed for a slowdown in the creation of coral reefs. It may also be the reason that oyster larvae in West Coast hatcheries are dying before they form shells.
Oyster lovers could be in for a rough couple of years. When the current crop of mature oysters is sold out, predictions are there won't be enough new oysters to meet demand.
I wish I could tell you where to get a Sand Dune this Valentine's weekend, but you probably wouldn't think much of it anyway. That's because I visited Rodney's Oyster House in the first week of December, the absolute peak of the Canadian oyster season. By mid-December, Canadian waters get so cold that oysters stop feeding and the bays on Prince Edward Island freeze over. By February, the oysters have shrunk up in their shells.
If you want to eat great oysters, you need to check the weather report, Rodney Clark explained. You hear a lot about how the flavor of an oyster comes from the water where it's grown. But you don't hear much about how dramatically the flavor of every oyster changes with the weather. In fact, seasonality may be as important as geography when it comes to buying oysters.
At their peak of flavor, oysters are bulging with fat and completely opaque, Clark explained. To pluck them from the water at their maximum "ripeness," you need to understand the life cycle of an oyster. As the water gets colder in the fall, oysters fatten up with a carbohydrate compound called glycogen. To our palate, glycogen tastes like sugar. In the spring, when the water warms, the oyster slowly converts glycogen to gonad in preparation for reproduction. As it does, it begins tasting fishier. Then, in the early summer, the oyster spawns and loses much of its mass and nearly all of its flavor.
In far northern regions, oysters start tasting great in September. But when the water temperature goes below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in December or January, the oyster goes into a sort of hibernation and stops feeding until the water warms up again. Northern oyster experts talk about peak "shoulder seasons" of late November and early April. In between, during the January-to-March lull, Rodney's Oyster House shops for oysters farther south. In March of last year, Clark brought a couple of shipments of plump Gulf oysters to Toronto for the first time. In the summer, he buys winter oysters from New Zealand and Australia.
So what's the best oyster to eat right now? If the water temperature in Puget Sound holds, Valentine's weekend might be a great time to try the Totten Inlet Virginica (TIV), the hottest oyster in the country. Virginica is short for the Latin Crassostrea Virginica, the scientific name for the oyster that's native to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Virginicas are harvested from Canada all the way to Mexico. But, oddly, the Totten Inlet Virginica comes from Washington state.