Editor’s note: This post is excerpted from a new Grist special report, “Half-Shell Hero: How the humble oyster is reviving a regional economy and helping to heal one of America’s great wild-food factories.” Read the full report here. 

oysters-and-lemons

That gelid ocean essence and salty burst of supple flesh — there’s no more intimate encounter with the sea than eating a raw oyster. Just as soil gives wine its own terroir, subtle differences in waters and farming techniques impart oysters with a “merroir” of their own. And oyster connoisseurs, just like all the oenophiles you pretend to understand, have their very own lingo. Here’s a quick cheat sheet so you can hang with the cool kids next time you visit the raw bar:

  • Brine: simply put, an oyster’s saltiness. East Coast oysters like Blue Points and Chincoteagues typically have more of it than their sweet, West Coast counterparts.
  • Creaminess: Oysters gain a more buttery or creamy taste as they approach spawning in the summer.
  • Crispness: Cold waters slow down an oyster’s metabolism, leading to crisper, sweeter bivalves. As waters warm down the coast, oysters become meatier and more briny.
  • Finish: Kumamotos from California and Washington, for example, leave a faint taste of honeydew melon on the tongue. Olympia oysters on the West Coast are slightly smoky, metallic, or coppery.
  • Liquor: This refers to the delicious natural juices inside the shell, the essence of the sea. A true oyster connoisseur always slurps the liquor with the animal itself.
  • Merroir (pronounced “mare-wáh”): This refers to the flavors imparted in an oyster by the particular waters and conditions in which it grew.
  • Naked: Old timers may dip their oysters in cocktail or mignonette sauce, but purists stick to a squeeze of lemon, or prefer to eat their oysters naked, without any sauces at all.
oystermountain

Illustrations by Amelia Bates

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!