When it comes to ordering oysters in Europe, many of them are sold according to size. Unlike apparel sizes, the smaller the digit, larger the oyster (e.g., No. 00′s are the largest, followed by 0, 1, 2, etc. through 4 or 5). Naturally, the price increases as the size becomes larger. Different sizes also offer up their own distinct flavors and intensities. I’ve discovered that smaller sizes in general have much bolder, often hit-or-miss tastes whereas the larger sizes are less intense, but more well-rounded.
It is also typical for oyster bars in France, or in French-influenced areas such as Brussels, leave the lower adductor muscle attached. They claim that this allows for the oyster to stay alive and be served ultra-fresh. So before you try to just tilt back and slurp the oyster off the shell, make sure to detach it. The cocktail fork may feel clumsy, but it works. Alternatively, try the edge of a spoon.
For you Franco-ostreaphiles out there, be sure to check out this wonderful list of French oyster terms.
Normandy — Cotentin, France: deep-cupped, fat and meaty, slightly sweet, ripened cheddar cheese finish.
Creuse de Bretagne No. 5 — Brittany, France: small to med (1.5-2 inches), salty, rocky minerality, chewy dark beige meat
Prat ar Coum No. 3 — Brittany, France: firm white belly, soft and sweet, savory like miso soup, no liquor to be had
Saint Vaast la Hougue — Brittany, France: sharp and somewhat harsh brininess, adductor muscle was easily removed, slightly nutty, cuc finish
Belon No. 2 — Southern Brittany, France: a bold punch of salty savoriness upfront, followed by sweetness and metallic aftertaste (zinc); sweeter than the No. 5, but not nearly as strong on the zinc after taste. Petite and delicate meat, moderate salinity, metallic (coppery), woody and earthy
Belon No. 5 — Southern Brittany, France: This petite flat oyster had an incredibly strong zinc taste; the body was slightly chewy, which was enjoyable to work through
Fine de Claire — Marennes-Oléron, France: Long shell, delicate, white flesh, the salty taste reminded me of soy sauce
Pousses en Claire — Marennes-Oléron, France: Amazingly rich kelp flavors in a thinner meat; this oyster is quite rare/special.
Spéciales de Claire No. 2 — Marennes-Oléron, France: plump and succulent, sweet and a good balance of saltiness, earthy mollusk flavor
Gillardeau — Marennes-Oléron, France: this oyster was quite large, semi-salty, nutty, and clean.
Speciales Gillardeau No. 2 — Marennes-Oléron: large (3 inches), extremely savory, jelly-like texture, balanced sweet/saltiness, clean finish
Speciales Gillardeau No. 5 — Marennes-Oléron: aka “butterfly” oyster, super sweet, savory– miso/dashi flavors, beautiful white flesh
Perle Blanche — Marennes-Oléron, France: high salinity, often massive (nearly overflowing), crisp, creamy, sweet adductor muscle.
Speciales Vertes — Marennes-Oléron, France: deep-cupped, clean, semi-sweet, and wonderfully chewy and textured.
Bouzigues — Étang de Thau, France: flat, chewy like a grape, delayed saltiness, taste of watermelon rind.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover the sensational oysters of Ireland while traveling abroad. Ireland produces both flat (“Belon”) oysters and Pacific oysters. To learn more about Irish oysters, check out this site. My favorites are actually the Kelly Galways.
Kelly Galway — Ireland: flat shell, firm texture, rich & smooth, soy flavors, metallic finish
Donegal — Ireland: farmed gigas, creamy white meat, earthy and slightly nutty, soft texture
Galway Bay — Ireland: salty splash, pronounced steely-mineral flavors, jelly-like body, savory finish of seaweed
Tryana Bay — Ireland: a delicious saltiness that leaves the mouth craving for sweet, seaweed flavor, slightly nutty (cashews?)
There are a ton of fabulous oyster varieties from the UK and I was only able to try a handful while visiting London. The Shellfish Association of Great Britain has put together a fantastic oyster tasting guide that can help you on your UK oyster conquering quest.
Loch Ryan No. 3 — Scotland: flat shell, bold and long-lasting metallic (zinc?) taste, abrasive finish
Loch Ryan No. 1 — Scotland: sweeter and milder than No. 3, slightly crunchy, miso soup aftertaste
Colchester — Great Britain: highly salty, mushroom and herb flavors, meaty and chewy texture
Maldon Rock — Great Britain: ultra deep-cupped, rocky taste, slightly muddy, soft crunch
West Mersea No. 2 — Great Britain: flat shell, firm texture, burst of mineral flavor, salty ham finish
Whitley Bay — Great Britain: meaty but soft, balanced salinity, broth-like savoriness, slightly metallic
Jersey Coast — Jersey: deep-cupped, fantastic salty/umami aftertaste (like potato chips)
The oyster industry in the Netherlands is quite a bit smaller than other European countries, so it was rare to find oysters from there on menus abroad. To learn more about the Netherlands’ oyster industry, check out this site.
Zeelande — Netherlands: savory, sweet, seaweed flavors
The once significant German oyster industry in the Wadden Sea (Wattenmeer) had also failed due to over-harvesting. However, you can still find some good oysters from Sylt.
Sylter Royal — Sylt, Germany: slim and thin meat, mild flavors, semi-salty, one note
Oysters from Africa?!? That totally blew my mind when I discovered them being sold at an oyster bar in Hong Kong (of all places!) I tried them and loved them. Apparently, the oyster industry in Africa is growing, which sounds like a win-win situation!
Namibia — Namibia: earthy and mushroomy, creamy and buttery, bold and pungent flavors, semi-bitter saltiness
West Africa: creamy and plush, medium salinity, buttery smokiness
There are only Pacific oysters in Asia, but many of them rival the rest of the world. The oyster business has been booming in major Asian markets–especially China. While I had a hard time locating raw oyster bars in my hometown–Shanghai–they are quietly scattered throughout high-end hotels and seafood restaurants. I have yet to taste an oyster native to China though… I’m assuming that overfishing and pollution has made the oyster farming a challenge in the country.
Hamaichi — Miyagi, Japan: little salt with a fresh, clean taste, hint of cucumber in finish, firm and chewy, beautifully striped shells
Uramura — Mie, Japan: bold and briny, the saltiness is balanced with a slight mineral aftertaste, recommended
Senpoushi — Hokkaido, Japan: creamy, balanced salinity, rich in umami (like dashi), recommended
Maruemon — Hokkaido, Japan: plush white belly, savory, medium brininess and a hint of sweetness, rather large (3 inch body)
Magaemon — Hokkaido, Japan: little salt, but has a delicate vegetal flavor, very large (3+ inch body) and provocative shape
Caviar — Pambula Lake, Australia: immediate hit of metallic tang, smoky, beautiful black-tipped shells
Pittwater — Australia: buttery, savory, mouthful flavor, low in salt, slight vegetal finish
Smoky Bay — Australia: low salinity, faint copper tint, creamy inside with chewy skin, buttery
Sydney Rock — Australia: plump, cylindrical, shrunken mantle (as if it were cold), bold, pungent, deliciously fishy
St. Helens — Malting Bay, Australia: mild flavors with little salt, slightly vegetal, does not taste of the sea
Tasmania — Australia: creamy, plump, chewy mantle, medium salinity, fruity, sweet and clean finish
Santa Catarina — Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil: very salty, balanced by sweetness, rocky minerality, plump, crisp, bean sprout flavor