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Guide to Oysters

From European Flats to Pacifics

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A person used to be able to simply order a dozen oysters. No more. Raw bars present patrons with lists of dozens of oysters to chose from. Wellfleets are prized in New England, New Yorkers love their Blue Points, and Kumamotos rule on the West Coast. Yet there are just five species of oysters harvested in the U.S., all other differences come from where they live, the water they filter, and how they're handled.

Their taste, in the end, is local.

Whether you're headed to a raw bar or to the market, this guide will help you decipher the world of oyster labeling and oyster types. Looking to prepare them at home? See How to Shuck Oysters and Sauces for Oysters on the Half-Shell. Or, perhaps you's prefer to cook them? Grilled Oysters are a favorite of mine.

1. Crassostrea gigas - Pacific Oysters

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Photo © Molly Watson

Pacific oysters are small and sweet and the world's most cultivated oyster. They are growing in popularity in both Europe and the West Coast, where they are starting to over-run the native Olympia (below). Pacific oysters used to be used to describe all small Pacific oysters like Kumamotos and Miyagis. Kumamotos, however, were found to be their own species (below). Pacifics have a distinctly more fluted, sharply pointed shell than Atlantics or European flats.

Today Pacifics are usually named after where they are grown, such as Totten Inlet and Fanny Bay, but some are trade names such as the justly well-known Sweetwater oyster from Hog Island Oyster Company.

2. Crassostrea sikamea - Kumamoto Oysters

Photo © Molly Watson

Kumamotos are small, sweet, almost nutty oysters characterized by their deep, almost bowl-shaped shell. Like Pacifics, they have deeply fluted, sharp, pointy shells. They spawn later and in warmer water than other oysters, so they remain firm and sweet well into summer months. Kumamotos are widely cultivated in Japan and the West Coast. The name Kumamoto is so valued that Kumamotos are always labeled as such, although some places will also specify where they are from.

Kumamotos used to be lumped in with Pacific oysters, but it ends up they are their very own species.

3. Crassostrea virginicas - Atlantic Oysters (Bluepoints, Wellfleets, and More)

Atlantic Oysters
Photo © Molly Watson

Many people are shocked to learn that Bluepoints and Wellfleets, Malpeques and Beausoleils are all Crassostrea virginicas, as are some 85% of oysters harvested in the U.S. (including most of those in the Gulf of Mexico).

True bluepoints are raised in Long Island's Great South Bay where they were first found. Today "bluepoint oyster" is often used as a general term for any Atlantic oyster served on the half-shell (i.e. "New Jersey bluepoints" and "Virginia bluepoints"), which, if you know they are all the same species anyway, is amusingly absurd.

Wellfleet oysters are grown in Wellfleet Harbor in the northeastern part of Cape Cod. Enthusiasts correctly detect many differences between oysters grown in different parts of the harbor.

4. Ostrea edulis - European Flats

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Photo © Riou/Getty Images

European flats are often called Belons. While Belons are, indeed, European flats, not all European flats are Belons (Belons must be grown in the Brittany region of France). Once the most common oyster in Europe, Europeans are increasingly appreciative of Pacific oysters while Maine and Washington state oyster farms are increasingly charmed by European flats.

European flats are characterized by their smooth flat shell (no surprise there!) and lovely seaweed and sharp mineral taste. They have a meaty texture and, for those used to different kinds of oysters, almost a crunch to them.

5. Ostrea lurida or Ostrea conchapila - Olympia Oysters

Olympia-Oysters.jpg
Photo © Sheri L Giblin/Getty Images

Olympias make the tiny Kumamotos look like giants, often coming in about the size of a quarter. They are the only oyster native to the West Coast of the U.S. Their popularity in San Francisco during the Gold Rush almost wiped them out, and they were believed to be extinct for decades. Wild populations still exist, however, and are strictly protected. Olympias at the market and in restaurants are cultivated, mostly in the Puget Sound and British Columbia.

Olympias are sweet, coppery, and metallic.

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