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Book writing is a tedious business. Up every day, staring at the screen, wondering whether my words are going to fully capture my 18 months at Island Creek or just dip below the surface. But slowly, I slog on, hoping that something cohesive and maybe even witty will come out in the end.

What breaks up my day are frequent and often supremely entertaining visits to the Island Creek Oyster Bar. Wednesday’s stopover involved a comparative tasting of almost the entire oyster list with the front of house staff. Although the list changes day to day, there are a couple of staples that are starting to become favorites and the staff was eager to try them all side by side. So, we sampled them in flights — three flights of three oysters plus one palate-whopping finish.

It went like this:

Flight One:
Island Creeks, Duxbury, MA
Rocky Nooks, Kingston, MA
Cuttyhunks, Cuttyhunk, MA

Flight Two:
Riptides, Westport, MA
Peter’s Points, Onset, MA
Wellfleets, Wellfleet, MA

Flight Three:
Shigoku, Bay Center, WA
Hog Island, Tomales Bay, CA
Kumamoto, Puget Sound, CA

Finale:
Wild Belon, Harpswell, ME

a sampling

After tasting and taking notes, the staff shouted out descriptors using a new list of oyster language that we devised after a similar tasting (scroll to the bottom) Skip and I ran at Eastern Standard in September. With this new set of oyster words, the staff opened up their vocabulary when describing certain flavor qualities. Instead of creamy, they opted for compound butter, yogurt, or heavy cream. Instead of earthy, they offered musky, miso, and my personal favorite “sea mushrooms” (which don’t exist but totally should).

Here are a few other oyster descriptors to try:

SWEETNESS
Hard Candy sweet
Brown Sugar
Natural Sugar
Pear, Asian Pear
Melon, Green Melon
Bay Scallop-sweet
Passion Fruit
Chamomile
Linden Flower
Sweet Corn
Watermelon
Jelly

BRINE
Sea Salt, Flake Salt
Salt Lick
Table Salt
Turkey Brine
Olive-like, Greek Olive or Picholine
Anchovy
Creamy, feta-like saltiness
Mouthful of ocean
Fishiness
Salmon flesh

TEXTURE
Yogurt
Silky
Beef-like, steak-like
Chewy like a mushroom cap
Crunchy like kale
Bright
Jello, gelatinous
Spongey
Thick, toothsome
A bit dumb, weighty
Muscle-like flesh
Delicate, disappears
Stringy, like bamboo shoots
Poofy
Velvety

MINERALITY
Slate
Chalk
Coppery
Tin-y
Zinc
Stone
Like sucking on a penny
Sharp
Saffron (like lead)
Cooked Cabbage
Pepper
Green Tea
Oxidized Apple
Pine, pine needles

FLAVOR
Earthy
Mushrooms
Umami
Mossy
Seagrass
Like licking a mossy rock
Muddy, River mud
Woodsy
Musky
Farm-like
Barnyard
Smoked Meat, Prosciutto
Cooked Cabbage
Hay Grass
Tofu
Bready/yeasty
Sourdough
Uni
Vanilla
Salted Melon
Ripe
Cucumber
Celery Leaves
Fennel
Broccoli
Greens/Lettuce
Funk
Green Garlic
Miso

Whether the Hog Islands really tasted like “green beans for a tin can” or “had hints of fennel” is still up for debate but I think we all walked away with sturdy understanding that oysters can be much more complex than briny, sweet, or vegetal.

For those keeping track, the wild belons are absolutely stunning this time of year. This is an oyster that was originally introduced to U.S. waters in the 70s by the University of Maine. Experimenters assumed the crop died after they failed to produce but what the oysters were really doing was getting used to their new habitat. Years later, they started reproducing naturally and now grow wild near the shores of Casco Bay. Amanda Hesser covered this story several years ago – a great read about a mind-boggling oyster. If you’ve never tasted Flats, get ready for a completely unexpected contrast to the brine of the Virginica or the melony cucumber of a Kumo. As Rowan Jacobsen says, this oyster doesn’t want to be your friend. But, if you’re up for an adventure, this is the time to do it. It’s December which means the waters have turned colder up that way, putting the distinct European-flat, mouth-coating hit of metal right around an 11. Also, I’m offering a prize to the person who can pair it with just the right wine. Hint: It may or may not be something sweet. Good luck.

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