"He was a very valiant man who first adventured on eating of oysters,” observed King James I in the 1660s, and today, looking at the craggy, hard-shelled, sometimes barnacled bivalves, one can’t help but agree. Here, on the other side of the pond, New England’s Indigenous peoples have consumed the meaty mollusks for centuries, our cool waters and coastal topography creating idyllic organic growing conditions in Narragansett Bay for millenia.
“Now is the best time” to enjoy oysters, says chef Harry Graham of Midtown Oyster Bar in Newport. Though the well-known foodie myth warning to only eat wild oysters in months with the letter “r” is inaccurate, it’s true that oysters in colder “r” months do reap delicious rewards. And Graham would know, shucking up to thousands of oysters a day from behind the restaurant’s Instagram-worthy, marble ensconced raw bar. A chalkboard on the wall lists which mollusks are currently on deck, whether it’s Walrus & Carpenter oysters farmed in South County or Aquidneck Cups from Portsmouth, regional New England favorites – from Cape Cod to coastal Maine – or even slurpers from as far as the West Coast, British Columbia, and New Zealand.
Graham explains that in the summer, oysters lose a third of their mass when reproducing. Once fall begins, they fatten up for the winter season ahead, and then hibernate. Hence, the colder months are when you’ll typically find the meatiest mollusks throughout the region. An oyster’s flavor profile also shifts with the season. Oysters are filter feeders, so the taste is deeply impacted by where it grows – called its “merrior” (rooted in the French word “mer,” for the sea). The salinity of the water, mineral content of the soil, the ebb and flow of the tide, and even the way oysters are farmed all impact what’s reflected on the palate.
Last month, Graham hosted Oyster Shucking 101, a sold-out workshop where he explained how oyster culture varies from region to region, recommended wine pairings, and showcased how to experiment with condiments like homemade mignonettes and preparation techniques. In short, Midtown put Graham on the ‘gram, and what was originally intended to be an intimate gathering soon doubled in size. Turns out, there’s a demand in the oyster space for knowledge – and knife wielding.
While overseeing a dozen or so people with sharp objects can be daunting, Graham says oyster shucking isn’t easy, but people can polish their skills with three things in mind: practice, patience, and paying attention. “How hard you are pushing the knife into the oysters is how deep the knife goes into your hand, so don’t don’t use a lot of force,” he cautions. “You need enough force to get into the hinge [the part of an oyster where the two shells meet], and then just a twist… It’s all leverage. Once you feel it locked in, it’s just a pop, and then a scrape.” Graham calls oyster shucking hard, but hardly impossible.
While shucking can be a fun party trick, it’s not to be taken lightly. “If you’re not paying attention, you’re not gonna be able to do it; you’re gonna hurt yourself,” adds Graham. Closely observing, then having someone show you the ropes, is key. “And once you’ve done like, two or three of them, you can do it – just no rush. Nice and calm.”
Though another oyster shucking workshop isn’t on Midtown Oyster Bar’s 2024 calendar just yet, it’s an extraordinary time of year to explore these delightful delicacies. Graham says experimenting with oysters from different farms yields vastly different flavors, and discovering a new favorite can be a delight.
345 Thames Street, Newport
401-619-4100 • MidtownOyster.com
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