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THE CALIFORNIA COOK

Sweet silver shells

For a food that requires so little of the cook, the oyster can be pretty intimidating. But nothing could be easier or more lavish for the holidays.

December 24, 2003|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

The appeal of oysters is primal: They come without subterfuge or disguise, naturally perfect. They taste of nothing but the sea -- not as it is but as it would wish to be, crisp, clean, brimming with vigor and brine. And they require nothing of us but popping them open. There are few foods that can remind us of nature's generosity in the same way.

Whether this is the reason for the tradition of serving oysters at the holidays, I can't say. It may be coincidental that the peak of their season runs from December to February. If so, it is the happiest of accidents that they come along in the dead of winter, just when we most need a little gift.

It's ironic, then, that most of us enjoy oysters only at restaurants. Can something still be a symbol of generosity when it's being sold by the measly half-dozen?

Serve oysters at home and you can feast to your fullest. It takes remarkably little effort. You need nothing more than some shaved ice, a $10 oyster knife and, of course, the oysters.

That is usually the sticking point. First of all, where do you buy them? Oysters, being living things, are notoriously fragile. Almost everyone knows someone who has had a bad experience with them, or at least has heard tales.

How do you know which oysters to choose? It sometimes seems these days that there are more types of oysters in the Pacific than there are olive oils in Tuscany or Pinot Noirs in Sonoma.

And then, of course, how do you get the little beggars open?

Let's start with the most complicated question first: variety. There are hundreds of types of oysters available today, but they all belong to one of five families. The specific names they're sold under usually refer to the place they were raised, such as Fanny Bay or Skookum Inlet.

This is done not to confuse you; it's done because the specific flavor of an oyster depends much more on the place it was raised than on which family it comes from. However, these general names do offer useful guidelines, especially since an oyster's taste can vary so much depending upon the weather, time of year, and perhaps most important, whether or not it is egg-bearing (milting).

Eleanor Clark captured the problem exactly in her book "The Oysters of Locmariaquer" when she said that trying to describe the flavor of an oyster is like trying to capture the color of the sea. Though you will find quite detailed oyster tasting notes, read them with some skepticism. It's not that cut and dried.

Indeed, at a recent tasting of more than 20 varieties of mostly West Coast oysters at downtown's Water Grill, it was astonishing how much variation there was even among oysters of the same variety that had been harvested at the same place on the same day.

All five families of oysters are currently being raised on the West Coast, but the only one that is truly native to the American Pacific is the Olympia, or Ostrea lurida. Olympias are tiny oysters -- it can take several years for one to reach the size of a quarter. Despite their small size, they are very flavorful, in a delicately sweet sort of way, with a slightly metallic finish.

Because of their scarcity, Olympias are among the few oysters that are always sold under the same name, no matter where they are raised. The other is the Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea). Kumamotos originally came from Japan but almost all of the natives there have vanished and now the variety is being farmed almost exclusively on the West Coast.

Kumamotos are small, but not as tiny as the Olympias. And their shells are deeply cupped, meaning there's a lot more room for meat. They are widely popular even among non-oyster-eaters because of their generally mild and sweet flavor.

Another small family is the flats, Ostrea edulis. This is the familiar oyster of Europe, where they are known as Belons or Marennes in France and Dorsets and Whitstables in England. They have round shells that are flat, rather than cupped. Edulis oysters are among the most delicious and distinctively flavored, with an easily recognizable coppery flavor.

Though they are being cultivated on the West Coast (most notably Totten Inlet and Westcott Bay) in Washington, flats can be hard to find. Because the flat shell allows them to dry out faster than other oysters, they are much harder to maintain at retail.

So far, fairly simple. But this is where it gets complicated. The remaining two families are so widespread and so multitudinous that it seems almost impossible to keep them straight.

Variations by venue

Rather than trying to memorize the individual place names and their attributes, it's probably better to settle for the general family. By far the predominant oyster on the West Coast is the Crassostrea gigas, which is sold under names such as Hama Hama, Yaquina Bay, Sunset Beach and Fanny Bay. This is another Japanese import, though it has become so prevalent here that it is commonly called the Pacific oyster.

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