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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Guide to Enjoying Prime Oyster Season

A Guide to Enjoying Prime Oyster Season

Deanna Staffo By Anisha Jagtap

This winter in Baltimore may seem mild, but the raw beauties we call oysters are cold and in-season. Local bars and restaurants around the city offer an abundance of oysters from all over the country and the Chesapeake Bay during this prime harvest time when cold waters slow down the oyster's metabolic process, preserving its flavor.

Oysters are bivalve filter-feeders that separate food and foreign matter from water, improving water quality in some areas due to their algae intake. A number of factors affect the flavor of oysters, but most influential are water (temperature and algae/mineral content) and region (East Coast, West Coast, and the Gulf).

On the East Coast, oysters grow completely underwater, resulting in a smooth shell and a salty, sharp finish. West Coast oysters are only submerged during high tide, giving them a coarse shell and a milder flavor. Oysters in the Gulf of Mexico grow rampant, so the quality of water and the harvest area are hard to maintain. They are generally used as generic oysters for cooking.

"I find that the East Coast oysters are big, full, and saltier than the West Coast oysters," says Benjamin Erjavec, executive chef at the Oceanaire Seafood Room at Harbor East, where between seven and nine types of oysters are served a day "Oysters from the West have hints of melon and cucumber, which are nice and somewhat sweeter," Erjavec says.

Patrick Morrow, executive chef at Ryleigh's Oyster in Federal Hill, orders seven varieties daily to serve on the half shell (served in one shell, still attached, on ice). "I order three basic ones people in Maryland love--Chincoteagues from Virginia, Blue Points from Long Island, and Wellfleets from Cape Cod," Morrow says. "They are full, plump, and somewhat salty." The other four choices are usually boutique varieties from specialized harvesting areas that are fresh at the time. These rare oysters generally have distinct flavors. "I always order one [Prince Edward Island] type from the Malpeque Bay. Those oysters are sweeter, and colder, with a good salt," Morrow says.

Woodberry Kitchen at Clipper Mill provides locals with mixtures of oysters strictly from the Chesapeake region. Among the medley: plump Choptank Sweets. These aquacultured oysters (oysters grown in floats on the surface of the water, away from the bottom) are on the menu to support sustainable harvests. Eaters can assume these aquacultured oysters are clean and fresh because they are constantly monitored.

Because oysters seal themselves tightly when removed from water, prying an oyster open can be tricky. A short, thick-bladed shucking knife is used to separate the shells by cracking at the hinge and slowly moving forward along the edge to release the top muscle.

At the annual National Oyster Shucking Competition in St. Mary's County, the fastest shuckers from the East and West coasts show up to test their skills. George Hastings of Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood at Cross Street Market has won the title twice for Maryland. "We house a number of oyster shuckers who compete," says Nick's manager and chef Paul Bartlett. "George can shuck about a dozen oysters a minute." Despite his accolades, Hastings can still be seen shucking oysters at Nick's during weekend and game-day rushes.

So where do all the shells go? Most go straight to the dump, but Bartlett encourages oyster purveyors to donate their shells to recycling programs. Nick's has started an oyster-shell recycling program in an effort to help the restoration of the Chesapeake. "We are trying to figure out how to get these used shells and broken pieces to the University of Maryland Horn Point hatchery on the Eastern Shore." Hatcheries propagate oysters, place them in the old shells, and then situate them on reefs.

Oysters can be pricey, but many restaurants offer specials that allow you to get a taste without emptying your wallet. Ryleigh's Oyster serves $1 oysters all day Monday and Tuesday, with the same deal during happy hour Wednesday through Friday. If you don't go for the slimy, yet tasty raw assortment, try them grilled. Oceanaire also runs a happy hour special of a half-dozen oysters for $6.95 between 5 and 7.

With so many varieties served at these and other restaurants around town, selecting the right oyster can seem like a daunting task. Don't be afraid to ask the generally well-informed staffs to explain the distinctions, or, as Morrow suggests, "try a bunch of different ones and see what suits you the best."

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