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Forget Turkey! This Holiday Season, Dig Into Northwest Oysters

November 27, 2015

We in the Northwest enjoy some of the best regional food and drink anywhere. Along with the rise of the region’s wine industry comes a growing sophistication in our awareness. For example, a foreign word like "terroir" has become familiar to many Northwesterners.

Merriam-Webster defines terroir as “the combination of factors including soil, climate, and sunlight that gives wine grapes their distinctive character.”

A wine connoisseur can identify flavors in wine that are usually associated with fruits and vegetables, characteristics such as “berry,” “floral” or “spicy.” That word has taken new life with another Northwest crop.

Have you ever heard someone compare the flavor of a melon, cucumber or mushroom to an oyster?

It seems only right that the terroir referring to the relationship between wine and earth should also have its oyster-sea corollary. Hence the term "meroir."  The famous dictionary doesn’t currently have a definition for the word “meroir” but that may soon change.

“The basic concept is the flavor of place,” said Marco Pinchot, marketing director of Taylor Shellfish in Shelton, Wash. 

That’s because oysters are filter feeders.

“They’re filtering all this water — 50 or 60 gallons of water per day goes through them. Whatever is in that water is passing through that oyster,” said David George Gordon, author of Heaven on a Half Shell. “I can’t think of any other animal that has that intimate a relationship with its environment.”

We’re not talking about the flavors of different kinds of oysters. Pacific oysters, originally from Japan, have become the most intensely cultivated oysters in the world, including here in the Northwest. But when that one species is grown in a particular bay or inlet — its flavor becomes unique.

Pinchot and Gordon recently got together to sample several Pacifics grown in a collection of South Sound inlets.

Totten Inlet is home to one of Taylor’s most productive oyster farms and the algae-thick water there not only provides the shellfish with a plentiful food source that accelerates growth, it also gives Totten oysters a rich, full flavor.

“Totten has the reputation for being the strongest flavored whereas I think that Eld is a little more mild,” said Pinchot.

One reason is that Eld Inlet — a mere 4 miles from Totten Inlet — has more freshwater from rivers flowing into Eld. According to Pinchot, oysters from Eld are characterized by “nice firm meat, good balance of saltiness” and even carry “some sweetness.”

Pinchot and Gordon found oysters grown 40 miles away in Case Inlet “saltier” and “earthier.”

“Case Inlet is at the very end of a long, deep estuary, so it makes sense that it’s going to have a lot earthiness and kind of well-rendered mushroom kind of flavor,” said Pinchot.

Gordon admits all this talk can sound hyperbolic but he's adamant. 

“Because an oyster has such a rich sense of place. Literally what you’re eating is that place,” he said. “I know that sounds poetic — but it is in fact true."

Flavor to some extent is subjective but there is a thriving community of connoisseurs sharing notes. Check out this map to see how the flavors profiles of oysters change with location. 

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Shaw Rose retrieves an oyster dredge on his boat on the Rappahannock River near White Stone, Va., Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015.

 

Steve Helber

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