Chef Kenny Tufo clearly believes the old expression, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Only in this case, it was oysters. The executive chef of Sea Salt in St. Petersburg recently helmed an afternoon oyster tutorial for local diners, an event we couldn't attend. So we wheedled our own class time with him, which he began by teaching us how to shuck.
Heavy bar towel, folded in quarters. With the curved cup side down and the hinge side exposed, swaddle the rest of the oyster in the bar towel. Angle your shucking knife into the oyster's hinge, rocking back and forth, not forcing things, which can cause bits of shell to break off. Wait until you feel the hinge give way, then run your knife along the surface of the upper shell to make sure no meat sticks. Clean your blade. Pull the upper shell off and, without tipping the liquor out of the bottom shell, run your knife under the adductor muscle to disconnect it from the bottom shell.
We did it. Badly. Luckily the rest of Tufo's lecture was about oyster appreciation. The restaurant regularly offers more than a dozen varieties of oysters from most of the major growing regions. He walked us through the basics.
There are five species of oysters that we tend to eat in this country: the European flat oyster; the Pacific oyster, most common along the northwest coast and British Columbia; the Kumamoto; the Eastern oyster, produced from New Orleans to Nova Scotia; and the Olympia oyster of the Pacific Northwest. In general, East Coast oysters are very salty and briny, with a clean, crisp seawater flavor. West Coast oysters are richer, with a softer, creamier texture and a range in flavor from melony-cucumbery to strong, musky and minerally.
Tufo says that new oyster-farming techniques, better storage and delivery systems and an increased interest in clean sources of sustainable seafood have led to a renaissance of oyster bars around the country. And because oysters are filter feeders, their flavor is affected by the body of water in which they live — the bottom composition, salinity, river inlets, etc. It's terroir, only underwater. Tufo led us through a tasting to show us the wide range of flavors and textures — oh, and he says the old saw about never eating oysters during months that don't end in "r" is bunk.
WiAnno (Mass.): Raised in Cape Cod Bay and Nantucket Sound with an elevated rack and bag method, these have white, slightly pink meat, a deep cupped shell and a sweet, very briny flavor.
Big Cove (Wash.): Cultivated in the South Puget Sound's Totten Inlet, these have a deep cup and a high meat-to-shell ratio. They are plump, with a crisp saltiness and sweet melon notes. Totten Inlet is famous for oysters with a nori finish. (I didn't get nori, but it was tasty.)
Wellfleet (Mass.): Wellfleets are Tufo's faves, and it's easy to see why. Very briny, they have a light body and a crisp, clean finish with an appealing butteriness. There are six different Wellfleet estuaries, however, so there's a fair amount of variation with these beauties.
Fanny Bay (British Columbia): Cultured in Baynes Sound, these are small to medium. Sweet and salty, they offer a slight minerally-metallic taste and a pronounced cucumber finish. The shells tend to be beautifully fluted and super colorful.
Shigoku (British Columbia): These are a relatively new oyster, debuted in 2009 by Taylor Shellfish Co. Seattle restaurants are gaga for them, with good reason: They have a clean, deep cup, not crazy briny, with a light, clean taste and a cucumbery-melony finish.
Kumamoto (British Columbia): Tiny, deep-cupped with a ridged and fluted shell, this is a crowd pleaser. Cucumbery, with a crisp, sweet flavor and creamy, melony finish, these are sometimes called the "chardonnay of oysters."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.