On a recent early evening at Maison Premiere, a Brooklyn oyster bar, I sampled five varieties of East Coast oysters perched on a platter of crushed ice like salty gems. As I slurped them all up, I noticed their individual charms: the minerality of the Moonstone, the crisp smoothness of the Onset, the deep umami sweetness of Colville Bay, the briny notes of the Malpeque, Violet Cove’s hit of seaweed and salt. While these bivalves were all the exact same species — Crassostrea virginicas, also called the eastern or Atlantic oyster — they were as different from each other as a buttery Napa chardonnay from a crunchy Burgundy Chablis.
In sommelier parlance, the expression of these differences is called terroir and reflects how factors such as the environment, climate, geology, soil health, viticulture and weather influence the taste and feel of a finished wine. For oysters and some other clams, including scallops, art’s term is meroir, a play on “terroir” replacing the French for “terre” (land) with “mer” (sea). Learning more about it can deepen a seafood eater’s experience, just as a little bit about terroir can help wine aficionados better appreciate the pinot noir in their glass.
Krystof Zizka, the oyster buyer and owner of Maison Premiere, said there is a great overlap between wine culture and oyster culture.
“The same kind of grape variety can take on a very different personality depending on where and how it’s grown,” he said. “It’s the same with oysters.”
But while there are thousands of wine grape varieties, there are currently only five oyster varieties grown in the United States, and only three of those are largely available in the entire country. The Atlantic oyster is native to the east coast, and the west coast is home to the Pacific oyster and the Kumamoto oyster, two Japanese species that were brought over to repopulate areas that were overfished during the 19th-century gold rush. The last two species — the European flat-bottomed boat (also called Belons) and the small, umami-laced Olympia oyster, native to the northwest and farmed there in small numbers — are rare finds. And as with grape varieties, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Bordeaux, for example, which has a completely discreet character from an oyster grown in Napa Valley, an Atlantic oyster harvested in Maine differs radically from an oyster harvested in Louisiana. .
Wild oysters once grew densely in American waters, but centuries of overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction have dramatically depleted their populations. Today, more than 95 percent of all oysters consumed in the country are grown on highly sustainable aqua farms.
It is the interaction of aquaculture techniques and the environment that creates meroir, and both can significantly affect the final product.
Ryan McPherson, an owner of Glidden Point Oyster Farm in Edgecomb, Maine, can easily reflect the elements of the Damariscotta River that contribute to its meoir, including the cold, pristine, brackish water; the abundance of plankton and algae flowing on the current; and the silt on the riverbed
But what sets its (sweet, dense, stony) oysters apart from the (salty, smooth, mild) oysters just 300m across the river at Mook Sea Farm is the farming technique. At Mook, the oysters are hung in cages that move with the tides, encouraging a clean taste and a slightly rounded shell that holds more of the oyster liqueur. At Glidden Point, Mr. McPherson farms his oysters directly on the hard riverbed, giving them a complex, mineral flavor and helping to grow a strong, consistent shell that won’t chip or splinter when you peel it.
“Merroir is more than just about taste,” said Mr. McPherson. “Each oyster shell tells a story, like rings in a tree.”
At Hama Hama Company, a family-run oyster farm in Lilliwaup, Wash., Pacific oysters are grown in Hood Canal, nestled next to a Douglas fir forest.
Adam James, one of the fifth-generation co-owners of the company, said even the landscape around the water can have a direct effect on the oysters.
“Oysters consume not only algae and phytoplankton, but also organic waste in the water, such as seagrass, elder leaves or, in our case, pine needles,” he says.
In describing his oysters, he reached for a vocabulary that was part sommelier, part seal.
At their best, he said, his Hama Hamas are “mild and clean, firm as an underripe peach, with an aftertaste of melon or cucumber — what else could be described as crisp and fresh?” It only took a second for him to find the right word: “It’s like a nosedive.”
Mr. James recommends slurping his oysters straight from the half shell while they are still raw, whole and full of life. This is when their meoir is at its strongest and most vibrant.
And this is exactly how Aaron Waldman, the founder of The World’s Your Oyster Company, a Northeast Oyster CSA, encourages his customers to enjoy the bivalves he distributes weekly in New York City.
“That briny liquid in a freshly peeled oyster shell is the seawater it’s grown in,” he said, adding that those flavors aren’t nearly as apparent after a stint in the oven or on the grill.
In a similar vein, he urges oyster eaters to try them plain before adding mignonettes or cocktail sauces.
“A little lemon is all you need to reduce the salt content,” he said, “this will give you the purest meroir experience.”
While oysters are the seafood with the most obvious meroir, other sea creatures, such as scallops and clams, can also express it, especially when eaten raw.
Togue Brawn, owner of Downeast Dayboat, a scallop purveyor, offers seashells harvested in small batches from several bays in Maine, each with a slightly distinct flavor and texture. They range from those mellow and mild from Cobscook Bay to funkier, firmer, salty adductors from Little Machias Bay.
Appreciation for the seashell meoir is a recent thing, Ms Brawn said. It can only happen with scallops caught on day boats that stay in one location close to shore (not from the big fishing boats that sail for miles out to sea).
“For decades in Maine, they brought their local scallops out of the state and mixed them with the crop from larger boats in the federal fishery,” she said. “It’s like taking a bottle of Dom Pérignon and pouring it into a barrel of Barefoot Bubbly.”
Perhaps the best reason to consider an ocean dweller’s meoir is that eating it can take you somewhere off your plate, whether that’s a wild Pacific Northwest coastline fringed with spruce trees, or a sandy Long Island beach in the middle of nowhere. summer. (Yes, you can eat oysters in the summer, but they are the sweetest in the winter.)
Rowan Jacobson, who has written several books on oysters and the environment, said eating a raw oyster is a unique visceral experience.
“So much of the food we eat has no place at all,” he said, “and especially in this age of disconnection, the desire to connect with the natural world is primary.”