An oyster primer, wild, farm raised, all good

A dozen beauties begging to be slurped at Offshore Ale. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

In New England, we take pride in our sports teams and our oysters. And with good reason. Both are winners.

Oysters’ sizes, shapes, and flavors differ, depending on species and geography, known as “terroir,” and they range from briny and salty to sweet and metallic. Similar to wine, oysters are named after the region where they grow, giving them a sense of terroir, a taste of place.

Winter is the perfect time to eat oysters. The cold water creates plump oysters that are packed with vitamins and minerals. Oysters can be stewed, fried, pickled, smoked, and Rockefeller’ed, but there is nothing quite like slurping down a raw oyster, which may seem barbaric to some but refined and luxurious to others.

Oysters may be accompanied with a squeeze of lemon, a dollop of spicy cocktail sauce, horseradish, or a splash of mignonette, a condiment usually made with minced shallots, cracked pepper, and vinegar. If you are a purist and want to taste the “place” of the oyster, then eat it as is.

On Martha’s Vineyard you can find both wild and farm-raised oysters, bringing up the age-old question of nature vs. nurture. Wild oysters tend to be gnarly in appearance, which stems from the spat or oyster larvae that grow in tangled clumps.

Wild oysters grow and are harvested from Edgartown Great Pond and Tisbury Great Pond, the latter shared by the towns of West Tisbury and Chilmark. Wild oysters are harvested seasonally and grow in brackish water, the salinity of which varies, depending on how long manmade openings in the pond’s barrier beaches remain open to the sea.

Farm-raised oysters are grown from spat “singles” and tend to have more eye appeal. They are symmetrical in shape, and similar in size. Veteran Island oyster farmer Jack Blake and his wife Sue, owners of Sweet Neck Farm, have earned a reputation for uniformity of shape and delicate taste for their oysters raised in Katama Bay marketed as Sweet Neck oysters.

“The difference between wild, brackish water oysters, harvested from Island ponds periodically opened to the sea, and aquaculture oysters raised in sheltered bays is that with farm-raised oysters, you know what you are getting. Farmed oysters have a more consistent quality of flavor. Unless you know the ponds really well, you won’t know when they’ll be open and in turn when the wild oysters will be most flavorful,” says oyster farmer Jeremy Scheffer, whose father, Roy, is also an oyster farmer. Both men work in Katama Bay, home to about a dozen oyster farming operations. Jeremy’s products are marketed as Spear Point Oysters.

Farming in these great ponds, like farming on land, requires a combination of science as well as skill. Certain techniques and maintenance are used to improve the “crop,” such as rotating the oysters to strengthen their shells.

The Net Result in Vineyard Haven (508-693-6071), closed until February for a mid-winter break and renovations, usually carries a variety of local oysters.

“There are a growing number of start-up oyster farming operations on the Island, but I can only comment on some of more successful brands that we regularly carry,” says Andrew Larsen, the son of Louis Larsen, owner of the fish market with his wife, Beth. “The most popular oysters in the winter are the West Tisbury Pond wild oysters, although the Katama Bay are the most popular variety year-round. They have the most staying power it seems… Some people swear by farm-raised while others swear by wild, and the opinions are usually quite passionate.”

Ben deForest, chef and owner of The Red Cat Kitchen at Ken ‘N’ Beck in Oak Bluffs is a believer in wild oysters.

“They are a whole, entire, different being than the Katama farm-raised oysters. They are heirloom oysters in their own way. When they come out of the cold water, you crack them open and have them with champagne mignonette,” Mr. deForest says.

Historically, oysters and alcohol have been partners in criminally good eating. Depending on your taste and choice of accoutrements, pair with a pint of stout, a flute of champagne, a glass of Muscadet, or a shot of chilledvodka.

Check out the Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company’s (508-696-3000) oyster shooter menu, a shot of alcohol with a freshly shucked Katama Bay oyster.

Flavor combinations range from citrus vodka, cocktail sauce, horseradish, and Tabasco to Jameson Irish Whiskey and dill pickle juice. Prices for shooters range from $5.50 to $7.50 or $31 for a sampler. The restaurant also serves Katama Bay oysters with a champagne mignonette for $2.50 per oyster.

Offshore Ale in Oak Bluffs (508-693-2626) serves Sweet Neck Farm and Katama Bay oysters for $2.50 a piece and this winter offers West Tisbury wilds for a $1 on Fridays from 3 to 5 pm.

Find Sweet Neck Farm and Katama Bay oysters as well as Penn Cove oysters from Washington State at Eleven North in Edgartown. If you don’t have the courage to eat them raw, try the fried local oysters onthe half shell with pickled slaw and remoulade for $15.

If you want to conquer oysters on your own, they are available at a variety of Island fish markets. Here is a selection: Katama Bay, Menemsha Pond and West Tisbury Wild oysters at Menemsha Fish Market.

Sweet Neck Farm at Edgartown Meat and Fish Market. Katama Bay and West Tisbury Wild oysters at Edgartown Seafood.