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Opening up a world of oysters

Rowan Jacobsen has written a guide to oysters as cuisine. Rowan Jacobsen has written a guide to oysters as cuisine. (mary elder jacobsen)

Rowan Jacobsen's new "A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur's Guide to Oyster Eating in North America," (Bloomsbury USA) is a wide-ranging, thorough, breezily written guide to oysters as cuisine. He tells how to pick, buy (including by ground express), and savor the mollusks. He lays out the North American species (few) and varieties (many). He explains why particular oysters taste like they do, and why they taste different at different times of the year. He profiles a number of oyster farmers, salts old and young.

In the chapter about beverages to accompany oysters, he is encouragingly iconoclastic: Wine snobs be damned; shoot, beer snobs be damned.

Jacobsen leads with his fearless palate every time - he's a down-to-earth companion you listen to, even if you don't always agree with him. He spoke to us recently from his Vermont office.

Q. Your book is clear and non-snobbish when you had a perfect subject on which to be obscure and snooty. What are you trying to prove?

A. I guess that oysters wear a lot of hats. They can be a high-end snooty food but also very comfortable, like people shucking their own with a pitcher of cold beer and sawdust on the floor.

Q. You're big on really getting to know your oyster - savor, don't gulp, keep condiments minimal, learn to shuck your own.

A. I feel like oysters more than most foods give you a chance to connect with place and with the primal pleasures of eating. Because there's no intermediary - they're plucked out of the water and handed to you as is and not cooked - and because they embody the place they come from. It kind of goes back to the basic pleasures of eating, and if you don't have too many sauces or things getting in the way, it makes for a pretty vital experience.

Q. In tasting oysters, you describe such elusive flavors as cucumber, melon, even watermelon rind. How do you keep your palate up to such levels of discrimination?

A. Just like with wine tasting, it takes a while to start to pay attention to your own reactions and feel a source identifying this flavor. Of course it's all connotation, so what says "cucumber" to me or "smoke" to me might not be "smoke" to somebody else. But some of those are shockingly clear. The watermelon rind in particular, it's distinct, no one would argue.

Q. At least one of your beverage recommendations is a big surprise - it's water, specifically Perrier.

A. I've spent a fair amount of time tasting different beverages trying to find what was right with oysters. I like a lot of them, but I always felt like there's a slightly weird way that the oyster and the alcohol play together. And then water - in particular, any sort of sparkling water that's got a strong mineral to it - it just seemed perfect. I admit it's not what I always drink with oysters, sometimes I want a glass of wine there, but I do think in terms of pure flavor matches, it's perfect, and why wouldn't it be?

Q. You call oyster farming good aquaculture, sustainable and beneficial for the environment. Why?

A. I have bad associations with the word "aquaculture" because of what I've read about salmon farms, although I guess salmon farms, at least in the United States, are not nearly as bad as they used to be. But what was a wake-up to me was to realize that oyster farms aren't putting anything into the environment, they're taking stuff out and helping clean it, because oysters are filter-feeders. You don't have to feed an oyster, it actually acts more like a plant than an animal; all it needs is water to survive.

Q. So when we scarf oysters, we're helping save the planet?

A. We are.

Q. You get a lot of your oysters by truck, ground express. No concerns about quality?

A. Actually, I've found that the quality is better than what you get at most bars, because it's coming straight from the grower. And they tend to be very careful about the way they pack them, with the cup side down so that they hold their liquor, and they put them in styrofoam with lots of ice.

Q. Bluepoints or Wellfleets may be the most familiar New England oysters. What are some others, which you describe in the book as rivaling any in the world?

A. Well, in our neck of the woods I like Island Creeks a lot, and they are some of the saltiest oysters I've ever had. I understand that the reason they are so salty is because of the offshore breezes at Duxbury, fresh water is lighter than salt water, so the fresh water tends to go to the top, the breezes blow that out, and the cold and super-salty water comes up from the bottom. Another oyster that I really love is Glidden Points from Maine, the Damariscotta River - very, very cold water even in the middle of summer. So they're very slow-growing oysters; they grow 40 feet down, the bottom of the basin, the estuary. By the time they're harvested, they're about four years old, and I've found that a slower-growing oyster tends to have a bit more density, a better chewiness, and more depth of flavor.

Q. Any oysters anywhere in the world that you haven't gotten to eat yet?

A. Yeah, there's an oyster that I've heard is supposed to be incredible called the Sydney Rock oyster, grown in Australia. I guess it's got very yellow flesh, and it's supposed to have this super-buttery flavor. This year the paperwork got cleared, so they can now be imported to the US and I'm hoping that they'll appear here soon. They're almost dying out in Australia; they're getting squeezed out by the Pacific oyster, which is grown everywhere.

Q. Do you have mounds of oyster shells in your backyard? Are they good for anything?

A. Well, I'm putting them all in my driveway now because, you know, gravel's expensive. I may have the only driveway in Vermont with an oyster shell lining.

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