Book writing is a tedious business. Up every day, staring at the screen, wondering whether my words are going to fully capture my 18 months at Island Creek or just dip below the surface. But slowly, I slog on, hoping that something cohesive and maybe even witty will come out in the end. What breaks up my day are frequent and often supremely entertaining visits to the Island Creek Oyster Bar. Wednesday's stopover involved a comparative tasting of almost the entire oyster list with the front of house staff. Although the list changes day to day, there are a couple of staples that are starting to become favorites and the staff was eager to try them all side by side. So, we sampled them in flights -- three flights of three oysters plus one palate-whopping finish.
It went like this:
Flight One: Island Creeks, Duxbury, MA Rocky Nooks, Kingston, MA Cuttyhunks, Cuttyhunk, MA
Flight Two: Riptides, Westport, MA Peter's Points, Onset, MA Wellfleets, Wellfleet, MA
Flight Three: Shigoku, Bay Center, WA Hog Island, Tomales Bay, CA Kumamoto, Puget Sound, CA
Finale: Wild Belon, Harpswell, ME
After tasting and taking notes, the staff shouted out descriptors using a new list of oyster language that we devised after a similar tasting (scroll to the bottom) Skip and I ran at Eastern Standard in September. With this new set of oyster words, the staff opened up their vocabulary when describing certain flavor qualities. Instead of creamy, they opted for compound butter, yogurt, or heavy cream. Instead of earthy, they offered musky, miso, and my personal favorite "sea mushrooms" (which don't exist but totally should).
Here are a few other oyster descriptors to try:
SWEETNESS Hard Candy sweet Brown Sugar Natural Sugar Pear, Asian Pear Melon, Green Melon Bay Scallop-sweet Passion Fruit Chamomile Linden Flower Sweet Corn Watermelon Jelly
BRINE Sea Salt, Flake Salt Salt Lick Table Salt Turkey Brine Olive-like, Greek Olive or Picholine Anchovy Creamy, feta-like saltiness Mouthful of ocean Fishiness Salmon flesh
TEXTURE Yogurt Silky Beef-like, steak-like Chewy like a mushroom cap Crunchy like kale Bright Jello, gelatinous Spongey Thick, toothsome A bit dumb, weighty Muscle-like flesh Delicate, disappears Stringy, like bamboo shoots Poofy Velvety
MINERALITY Slate Chalk Coppery Tin-y Zinc Stone Like sucking on a penny Sharp Saffron (like lead) Cooked Cabbage Pepper Green Tea Oxidized Apple Pine, pine needles
FLAVOR Earthy Mushrooms Umami Mossy Seagrass Like licking a mossy rock Muddy, River mud Woodsy Musky Farm-like Barnyard Smoked Meat, Prosciutto Cooked Cabbage Hay Grass Tofu Bready/yeasty Sourdough Uni Vanilla Salted Melon Ripe Cucumber Celery Leaves Fennel Broccoli Greens/Lettuce Funk Green Garlic Miso
Whether the Hog Islands really tasted like "green beans for a tin can" or "had hints of fennel" is still up for debate but I think we all walked away with sturdy understanding that oysters can be much more complex than briny, sweet, or vegetal.
For those keeping track, the wild belons are absolutely stunning this time of year. This is an oyster that was originally introduced to U.S. waters in the 70s by the University of Maine. Experimenters assumed the crop died after they failed to produce but what the oysters were really doing was getting used to their new habitat. Years later, they started reproducing naturally and now grow wild near the shores of Casco Bay. Amanda Hesser covered this story several years ago - a great read about a mind-boggling oyster. If you've never tasted Flats, get ready for a completely unexpected contrast to the brine of the Virginica or the melony cucumber of a Kumo. As Rowan Jacobsen says, this oyster doesn't want to be your friend. But, if you're up for an adventure, this is the time to do it. It's December which means the waters have turned colder up that way, putting the distinct European-flat, mouth-coating hit of metal right around an 11. Also, I'm offering a prize to the person who can pair it with just the right wine. Hint: It may or may not be something sweet. Good luck.