One early evening at Maison Premiere, an oyster bar in Brooklyn, I tried five types of east coast oysters, perched like salty gems on a plate of crushed ice. As I sipped each one, I noticed their individual charms: the minerality of the moonstone, the fresh softness of the onset, the deep umami sweetness of Colville Bay, the salty notes of the Malpeque, the hit of Violet Cove of seaweed and salt. Although these clams were all exactly the same species – Crassostrea virginicas, also called Eastern or Atlantic oyster – they were as different from each other as a buttery Napa Chardonnay from a crispy Burgundy Chablis.
In sommelier language, the expression of these differences is called terroir and reflects how factors such as the environment, climate, geology, soil health, viticulture and weather affect the taste and feel of a finished wine. For oysters and some other mussels, including scallops, the art term is merroir, a game of “terroir” that replaces the French “terre” (land) with “mer” (sea). Learning more about it can enhance a seafood eater’s experience in the same way that a little knowledge of the terroir can help wine lovers 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 grape variety can take on a completely different personality, depending on where and how it is grown,” he says. “It’s the same with oysters.”
But while there are thousands of varieties of grapes, only five types of oysters are currently grown in the United States, and of those only three are available across the 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 varieties brought to repopulate areas that were overfished during the 19th century gold rush. The last two species – the European flats (also known as belons) and the tiny Olympic oyster with umami tips, native to the northwest and cultivated there in small numbers, are rare finds. And just like, for example, with grape varieties, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux has a completely independent character from one from Napa Valley, an Atlantic oyster harvested in Maine is radically different from one harvested in Louisiana.
Wild oysters once grew strongly in U.S. waters, but centuries of overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction have drastically depleted their populations. Today, more than 95 percent of all oysters consumed in the country are grown in very sustainable aqua farms.
It is the interplay of aquaculture techniques and the environment that Merroir creates, and both can have a significant impact on the end product.
Ryan McPherson, an owner of Glidden Point Oyster Farm in Edgecomb, Maine, can easily shake off the elements of the Damariscotta River that add to its merroir, including the cold, pristine brackish water; the abundance of plankton and algae that flow on the currents; and the silt on the riverbed
But what sets its (sweet, dense, stony) oysters apart from the (salty, slippery, mild) oysters just 300 meters across the river at Mook Sea Farm is the breeding technique. At Mook, the oysters are hung in cages that move with the tide, which promotes a clean taste and a slightly rounded shell that contains more of the oyster liqueur. At Glidden Point, Mr. McPherson grows his oysters right on the hard riverbed, which gives them a complex, mineral flavor and helps grow a strong, consistent shell that does not splinter or splinter when peeled.
“Merroir is more than just taste,” said Mr. McPherson. “Each oyster shell tells a story, like rings in a tree.”
At the Hama Hama Company, a family-run oyster farm in Lilliwaup, Washington, the Pacific oysters are grown in the Hood Canal, which nestles next to a Douglas fir forest.
Adam James, a fifth generation co-owner of the company, said that even the landscape around the water could have a direct impact on the oysters.
“Oysters not only eat algae and phytoplankton, but also organic waste in the water, such as seaweed, elder leaves or, in our case, pine needles,” he says.
When describing his oysters, he used a vocabulary that was partly sommelier and partly sea dog.
In the best case, he said, his Hamas Hamas are “mild and clean, firm like an underripe peach, with a melon or cucumber finish, that is – how could you describe it as crisp and fresh?” until he found the right word: “It’s like a duck dive”.
Mr. James recommends slurping his oysters straight from the half-shell while they are raw, whole and full of vitality. This is when their merroir is at its strongest and most alive.
Just like that, Aaron Waldman, founder of The World’s Your Oyster Company, a Northeast Oyster CSA, encourages customers to try the mussels he distributes weekly in New York City.
“That salty liquid in a freshly peeled oyster shell is the sea water it grows in,” he said, adding that those flavors aren’t nearly as evident after a period in the oven or on the grill.
He also urges oyster eaters to try them without make-up before adding mignonettes or cocktail sauces.
“A little bit of lemon is all you need to reduce the salt content,” he said, “it will give you the purest Merroir experience.”
Although oysters are the seafood with the most obvious merroir, other marine life such as scallops and clams can also express them, especially when eaten raw.
Togue Brawn, owner of Downeast Dayboat, a scallop supplier, offers scallops that have been harvested in small quantities from various bays in Maine, each with a slightly different taste and texture. They range from the soft and mild ones from Cobscook Bay to the funky, firmer, salty adductors from Little Machias Bay.
Appreciation for the scallop merroir is a new thing, Ms. Brawn said. This can only happen with scallops caught on day boats that stay in a place near the shore (not the big fishing boats that go for miles out to sea).
“In Maine, they’ve been shipping their local scallops out of the state for decades and mixing them with crops from larger boats in the federal fishery,” she said. “It’s like taking a bottle of Dom Pérignon and pouring it into a vat of Barefoot Bubbly.”
Perhaps the best reason to consider any marine life’s merroir is that its consumption can get you somewhere beyond your plate, be it a wild, fir-lined Pacific northwest coast or a sandy Long Island beach in the summer . (Yes, you can eat oysters in the summer, but they are cutest 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 separation, the desire to reconnect with nature is fundamental.”