The World in Your Oyster

By Jane Black | Boston Magazine |

The day after oysterman Skip Bennett made his regular delivery to Caffè Bella in Randolph, he received a surprising phone call from the chef-owner, Patrick Barnes Jr. “What did you do?” Barnes asked. “The oysters taste different.”

“I thought he was joking,” says Bennett. The oysters were just like all the others from his lease in Duxbury Bay. And then, Bennett remembered. It was January, and much of the shallow water had iced over.


The day after oysterman Skip Bennett made his regular delivery to Caffè Bella in Randolph, he received a surprising phone call from the chef-owner, Patrick Barnes Jr. “What did you do?” Barnes asked. “The oysters taste different.”

“I thought he was joking,” says Bennett. The oysters were just like all the others from his lease in Duxbury Bay. And then, Bennett remembered. It was January, and much of the shallow water had iced over. The oysters delivered to Caffè Bella had come from a different part of Bennett’s farm, half a mile away.

Bennett had harvested them from an area near Eagles Nest Cove close to a freshwater spring, which gave his Island Creek oysters an ultrasweet finish. Since oysters can process as many as 27 quarts of water every hour, one tiny change—higher temperature, increased salinity, varied plankton, or different methods of growing and harvesting—can affect the way they look and taste. In general, the colder the water, the sweeter the oyster; the saltier the water, the brinier the oyster.

Such differences are beginning to change how oysters are branded and marketed. Increasingly, Massachusetts oyster farmers are not content to call their bivalves simply “Wellfleet” or “Barnstable.” Within Wellfleet Harbor, there are the classic salty Wellfleets plus Heron Points and Blackfish Creeks. From Buzzards Bay, there are the extremely salty Cuttyhunks, sweet and seaweedy Onsets, meaty Marionports, and plump Falmouths, which come in a distinctive green fluted shell. In short: The French concept of terroir—or, as we’ve heard it called, meroir—which describes how the specific geography and culture of a place can influence the way a food tastes, has taken hold. “It’s similar to what happened in the wine world,” says Jeff Nace, owner of Neptune Oyster in the North End. “Twenty years ago, people talked about California wines; now it’s all about single vineyards and new designations. [terroir] is part of the branding—and it makes the experience more interesting.”

Interesting, yes. But it can also be confusing to the uninitiated. “You can read a customer and see when they’re getting overwhelmed,” admits Justin Morel, general manager at B&G Oysters, which has a master list of almost 175 varieties, including more than 30 from Massachusetts. “That’s when we stop and suggest that we choose a selection so they can experiment.”

The risk of diluting an established brand is one reason that the local collective Wellfleet Shellfish Company has decided to continue selling its oysters as plain old Wellfleets. (It also makes more sense economically, because the farmers can share the cost of storage, distribution, and marketing.) But it’s still tempting to show off the unique meroir of one’s oysters: At this month’s Wellfleet OysterFest, the Wellfleet Shellfish Promotion and Tasting organization is sponsoring a sampling that will let oyster lovers judge for themselves. Irving Puffer, who farms Mayo Beach, hopes fans will note that his have a distinctively salty burst, thanks to the deep waters on his farm, while Bob Wallace believes the shallow waters on his property, near a freshwater estuary, create a plumper, sweeter meat. And Barbara Austin, who farms in nearby cold Indian Neck, is certain that tasters will love her oysters’ extraordinarily deep cup, which develops because she lets the oysters complete their growth on sand, rather than in cages. Whatever the outcome, the message is clear: It’s meroir that creates harmony on the half shell.

Bed Hopping

One ocean, six distinct tastes

We joined B&G Oysters’ chef de cuisine Greg Reeves and general manager Justin Morel to sample a selection of Bay State bivalves. What a difference a few miles can make.

>>WELLFLEET
Pangea Wellfleet vs. Pat Woodbury Wellfleet
These Wellfleets from two different purveyors were large with clean, elongated shells. The Pangea oysters had an initial “juicy burst of salt,” according to Reeves, and a mineral finish, while the Woodburys were meatier, less salty, with a totally clean finish. Our pick: Pat Woodbury Wellfleet.

>>DUXBURY
Island Creek vs. Duxbury Jade
As the name suggests, the Duxbury Jade had a “pesto color” shell, compared with the Island Creek’s white and brown shell. The Island Creek oysters had a superior taste—“clean with hints of kelp and seaweed,” said Morel—and were plumper and sweeter than the Jades, with a “surprisingly long” finish. Our pick: Island Creek.

>>MID-CAPE
Wianno vs. Barnstable’s Beach Point
Harvested just eight miles apart, these two could come from different planets. The Wiannos were medium size with a salty start and a clean, sweet finish; the Beach Points were huge and meaty—it took three or four bites to get each one down—and the flesh was firm with a strong briny flavor. Our pick: Wianno.