Oysters are intimidating at first. Rowan Jacobsen, author of the seminal piece of oyster literature A Geography of Oysters, describes the first tasting of the much adored mollusk by saying, “It involves gathering courage, overruling one’s instincts, and taking a point-of-no-return leap, like jumping into cold water.” Indeed, few foods captivate and divide people to the same degree as prying something open that appears equally as unappetizing inside and out. Yet despite all these aesthetic obstacles, oysters remain a menu fixture, a delicacy and a lasting figure of symbolic importance.
Oysters fall under a classification system not unlike French and Italian wine, with their names derived from the specific locale in which they were raised. There are five species of oysters: Eastern, European Flat, Pacific, Olympia and Kumamato. One can generally differentiate between an Atlantic or Pacific grown oyster through size and depth, as East Coast oysters are usually larger and shallower than their small, deep West Coast relatives.
In the past, conventional wisdom dictated that one should only consume raw oysters in months that end with the letter R, but the truth of the matter is that extensive aquaculture and geographical proliferation of species allows for high quality mollusks to be enjoyed year-round. That being said, the oyster is still a living organism, and it does have an ideal point for consumption. This is generally directly prior to the slowdown of their metabolism as the winter months approach, when their bodies carry the most mass.
The varying regional taste of oysters is contingent on a litany of factors–water temperatures, diet and age, among others. Generally, connoisseurs associate sweet notes with those specimens from the West Coast (Pacifics, Kumamotos) and their East Coast counterparts (European Flats, Easterns) with higher salinity, minerality and earthiness.