11 International Oysters to Travel For in 2011
If you want to truly understand the essence of a place, then go in search for its oysters. These ancient creatures will reveal a lot about the world–from the subtle flecks of color in the shells to the way that they are devoured–the oyster evokes the hidden truth behind the land, water, and people. In the most eloquent words of a fellow ostreaphile at Travel + Leisure:
Rare is the culture that doesn’t love oysters. They are everywhere. But they’re also decidedly Somewhere: within its singular shell, each oyster carries its provenance like a fingerprint. Knocking one back is like mainlining the cove it came from. — Peter Jon Lindberg
During the last two months of 2010, I had the incredible opportunity to travel around the world for business. When I wasn’t working or sleeping, I was hunting for oysters. I succeeded in finding them in 10 of the 14 countries that I visited. In some places, oysters were easy to find. In others, it was nearly impossible. I tried over 30 new kinds of oysters and noted my very favorites. Keep in mind that most, if not all of these oysters are NOT sold in the U.S. market. The federal government currently has tight restrictions on oyster imports from outside of North America, which makes them a serious destination food. So here is my top 11 for 2011. If you love to travel, explore, eat, and savor, keep this list close at hand. Make the world your oyster too!
1. Tasmania from Australia: Raised and harvested from the land down under, these plump gigas oysters are deliciously creamy and adventurous in texture. The seaweed-flavored saltiness evokes an image of the majestic ocean with frothy white surf, and then it transitions into a gentle sweetness that leaves a clean, crisp aftertaste. They’re a substantial size, so if you’re a petite oyster eater, brace yourself. Their consistently bright and buttery flavors make it a staple among the “elites” (Belon, Fine de Claire, Gillardeau, Kumamoto) in the Asian market.
2. Namibian Pacific from Namibia: Exotic places produce exotic flavors. Thanks to the nutrient-rich waters of Walvis Bay, these African gigas oysters grow quickly to be lusciously plump. They aren’t very salty, but packed with other earthy minerals. A punch of copper-zinc-steel flavors will linger in the back of your throat until you take a few gulps (maybe a whole glass) of water. In 2008, repeat red tide events devastated the population, wiping out up to 80-90% of yields. Given the limited quantity and distribution, Namibia oysters are a rare treat for any adventure seeker.
3. Santa Catarina from Brazil: The quintessential Brazilian experience would be to have this oyster with a drizzle of lime, then followed by a sip of caipirinha. Sit back, relax, and your mind will go blissfully blank. Santa Catarinas are quite salty, which the lime helps to balance out. There’s also some rocky minerality and vegetal tones in the meat. At the time, I swore that it kind of tasted like bean sprouts (in a good way!) While Rio de Janeiro is a prominent coastal city, I discovered that the people there are surprisingly detached to shellfish and seafood. (Meat is the name of the game there.) I was only able to find a couple of places that offered oysters– one all-you-can-eat ordeal and another ultra high end seafood restaurant. Head south to Florianópolis, where oysters are king. That’s also where you’ll find the freshest Santa Catarina oysters around.
4. Kelly Galway from Ireland: The native Irish ostrea edulis (European flat) oyster is like the gregarious, bodybuilding uncle of the Belon. Its got a similar round discus shell, but 150% bigger than the biggest Belons that I’ve encountered. The adductor muscle is filled with soy sauce-like savoriness and is extremely large. In fact, it makes it look like the oyster is smiling like :-D. While I’m not the biggest flat oyster fan, I could eat two or three dozen of these Kelly Galways. They paired extremely well with a 2009 Rias Baixas from Bodegas Terras Gauda. The perfect time to enjoy these would be at the Galway International Oyster Festival in Ireland!
5. Sydney Rock from Australia: This Saccostrea glomerata oyster is a completely different species than any found in North America and lives everywhere around Australia and New Zealand. They are sturdy, adaptable and can tolerate a wide range of salinity levels. Their slender, cylindrical bodies are nestled in a sharply fluted shell with light-colored mantles that appear to be “shrunken” inwards– as if they were cold (brrr). Upon the first bite, the firm and elastic texture only adds to their tenacious reputation. These oysters can vary in taste, depending on where they are harvested in Australia. The ones that I tasted were earthy and pungent in flavor. They had a wonderfully nostalgic fishiness to them that reminded me of smoked or salted seafood.
6. Speciales Gillardeau from France: Considered to be the crème de la crème among French varieties, the Speciales Gillardeau has captured the discerning palettes of gourmands everywhere. This tender-bodied oyster is rolling with rich, broth-like savoriness that I immediately associate to really awesome miso soup. A smaller size will offer up even more vibrant flavors than larger ones. Don’t mistake them for the regular Gillardeau oysters– they are not quite the same. Gillardeau’s are not as sweet and complex in flavor. Though they may give off a nutty taste, which could be interesting to explore as well.
7. Fines de Claire from France: This is another favorite among Parisians and apparently throughout the world (I observed them being sold at fine restaurants in London, Brussels, Moscow, Dubai, Shanghai and Hong Kong). The elongated shell houses a slender and delicate body. The meat varies in saltiness, but possesses a crisp, fruity flavor. I’ve encountered Fine de Claires that have a melon rind finish. Fines de Claires must be fattened in a salty marsh bed (aka claire), where they will filter nutrient-rich water for a minimum of 2 months.
8. Jersey Coast from Jersey: Completely unrelated to the Jersey Shore or Snooki– there’s no need for that kind of a situation. (Bad pun, I know, but I couldn’t help myself). These deep-cupped oysters are from the little island of Jersey: a breathtakingly beautiful, environmentally-conscious, and culturally diverse place just north of the Normandy coastline. All Jersey oysters are harvested from the Royal Bay of Grouville, which gets a daily influx of some of the cleanest sea water in Europe. The meat is supple, crisp, and very savory, which was a bit addicting (kind of like like potato chips, but 2000% healthier!)
9. Senpoushi from Japan: At the Fish House Oyster Bar in Ebisu, a quiet neighborhood in Shibuya, Tokyo, a brochure of oysters from all over the country and world was bestowed upon me. Depending on the time of year, different varieties will be in season. It is challenging to experience the true essence of the oyster here due to Japan’s strict raw shellfish regulations. However, despite the post-harvest processing, the Senpoushi still managed to taste great. The body is long and shallow, while the meat is pleasantly creamy. It’s moderately salty and has incredible umami.
10. Bouzigues from France: Shellfish farming is a serious business in the Étang de Thau, the second largest lake in France. People produce both plates (edulis, flat) or creuse (gigas) oysters in the brackish waters. I tried the flat variety in Hamburg and was pleasantly surprised by its crunchy texture and fruity flavor. It had an aftertaste very much like watermelon rind– which was both unusual and refreshing. The best way to enjoy this oyster is to head directly over to Bouzigues and do an oyster tour and tasting.
11. Loch Ryan from Scotland: This oyster is intense in character and heralds from a historic maritime place. The Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-99 recorded that Loch Ryan “abounds with oysters of a most excellent flavour.” Today, both native (wild) and rock (farmed) oysters are harvested. These flat edulis oysters have a tangy, long-lasting metallic flavor that lingers in the back of your mouth. Smaller sizes are more potent in taste, while the larger sizes are more mild and sweet. Pair them with a full bodied white wine to enhance the taste of both.
Here’s a wrap up map that illustrates approximately where all of these oysters come from.
For more information about oysters around the world, check out some of these helpful articles/documents!
World’s Top Oyster Bars by Travel + Leisure
The Best Oyster Bars in the World by Journey Etc
Great Britain Oyster Tasting Guide (PDF) by Shellfish Association of Great Britain
Oysters of France by John McCabe