Although Jonathan Swift is credited with saying, “It was a bold man who ate the first oyster,” there is evidence that oyster cultivation and consumption dates back thousands of years. Perhaps archeologists found an empty beer bottle and oyster shells nestled together in a fossil?
One of the most famous oyster aficionados was Mark Twain. He moved west to avoid being conscripted into the Civil War and after working in Nevada making cement he moved to San Francisco where he fell deeply in love with the bivalve that was then growing wild in the Bay. The oyster on the menu most nights was the Olympia oyster, a much smaller oyster than the big meaty ones produced in the Gulf of Mexico. A long lasting love affair with the “Oly” had begun.
Gold mining in the Sierras created silt in the rivers that eventually reached the San Francisco Bay, killing off oyster production, so the industry moved north to Oregon and Washington where it thrives today.
Oysters are alive when purchased at the fish market, and care should be taken not to eat a dead oyster. Terrible things will occur in your gut should you happen to ingest a dead one. True believers say the best way to eat an oyster is raw and unadorned straight from the shell, whereas many others insist on using lemon juice or cocktail sauce on the oyster before hoisting the open shell to your lips. Oysters have a distinctly coppery, or mineral taste to them and are crisp on the palate and a bit chewy; they pair well with white wine or cold beer. Mr. Twain was known to enjoy dozens of them in a single meal.
There are five types of oysters commonly sold here in California, most if not all of them raised in an aquaculture setting. Miyagi are the most common, and they’re sold under various regional or producer names. The Kumamoto, French Belon and Olympia can also be found in the area, although the Olympia is very rare. Three varieties of oysters are available at our Monterey and Aptos Markets are Myagi, Shigoku and Kumamoto oysters. Each type of oyster has nuances that reflect the water, climate and nutrients of the region in which they are raised.
- Myagi, also known as Pacific oysters, are plump, medium sized oysters that have a firm consistency and a slightly salty but mild flavor with a hint of minerals and smoke.
- Shigoku are small oysters with a deep shell and a flavor described by Rowan Jacobosen (author of The Oyster Guide) as “a light, clean taste of cucumber and salt, with a finish of water chestnut and Jerusalem artichoke.”
- Kumamoto, originally from Japan, are related to the Shigoku oyster, are also small oysters. Mildly fruity and sweet with a slightly mineral finish and a rich buttery texture, Kumamoto oysters are the perfect oysters for beginners.
The single best place to get a full education on the merits of oysters is at Bill the Oyster Man’s website. Bill Callahan has been serving up oysters all over the region for many years and has successfully introduced about 141 million people to this delicacy.
Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch
The Monterey Bay Aquarium reports oysters to be either “Best choice” or “Good alternative” regarding their sustainability, so you don’t have to feel bad about eating dozens at a single meal.
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