How an Oyster’s Environment Plays Into Its Taste

When Jon Rowley stood at the headwaters of the Nisqually River on the southern slopes of Mt. Rainier, he couldn’t help but think of oysters. Now it could be that Rowley, a renowned seafood expert, has oysters on the brain perpetually, but as he peered down the gash left by the river and its retreating glacier, he says he had a “poetic moment.”

Rowley thought about the glacial melt, the snow and the rain, the microscopic flora and fauna and the minerals steeping in the water, and the tributaries the Nisqually picks up on its way to Puget Sound. Everything the river flushes into the inlets and passages of the South Sound imparts flavor to the oysters grown in this area. If you chew on a Peale Passage Pacific oyster, for example, you’re tasting minerals that have been filtered down from Rainier’s flanks.

It’s all part of what shellfish gurus call “merroir”—a term Rowley, who works for Taylor Shellfish and has consulted for many restaurants, himself coined. Just like a wine’s terroir, merroir refers to the various environmental aspects contributing to an oyster’s flavor. It’s a complex concept, as I learn from Rowley over half-shell oysters and wine one recent afternoon at Taylor Shellfish in Melrose Market.

The oysters in the tanks next to us range from meaty, creamy Totten Virginicas to deep-cupped, briny Shigokus and small, bright Kusshis. Each oyster’s flavor profile and texture has a different story to tell, and the contributing factors are quite intricate. Rowley simplifies it a bit.

“If an oyster is fat [like the Tottens], you’ll taste more sweet than briny. If the oyster has not eaten well, it will be skinny and briny. A fat oyster will be mostly sweet,” he explains. That white fat content is glycogen, energy the oyster stores up in preparation for production of reproductive cells called gametes. It’s the reason the Totten Virginicas are so hearty and remind me of a tender, braised short rib. When oysters enter spawning season, which is typically in summer, they’ll turn soft and bitter—and you won’t enjoy eating them nearly as much.

What oysters eat matters, too: The bivalves dine on microalgae, which differ in type and quantity from one location to another. “For whatever reason, Totten Inlet has a lot of types of microalgae and has them in abundance. The oysters are fatter there than in most other bays,” Rowley says. “There is a bountiful chum salmon run in Kennedy Creek at the head of Totten Inlet. I theorize decomposing carcasses that come back down into the bay in one form or another is one of the reasons everything that grows in Totten Inlet—oysters, clams, and mussels—are plump, sweet, and perky.” Salinity, pH, even rain can contribute too.

“Rainfall will change the salinity [of the water], and along with that, the flavor of the oyster,” Rowley says. “Oysters like a brackish water—salt water with influx of freshwater like you have in an estuary. When it rains, you not only have the precipitation, but also what comes downstream from the watershed. Oysters can get pretty bland after a heavy rain. The taste is also affected when the bay doesn’t get enough rain.”

So the same species of oyster grown in a different place will have a different flavor profile, as is the case with the Shigoku. It’s the same species as the Peale Passage Pacific, but noticeably brinier. The Shigokus are also tumbled (put into bags to roll around in the tide) four times a day, which helps them grow a deeper cup than their Pacific siblings.

To really get a full sense of an oyster’s merroir, Rowley suggests eating them right off the beach where they’re raised. Second to that, eat them in an oyster bar, chewing them slowly and savoring their aftertaste. And for the love of all things true and good, forgo the mignonette and the cocktail sauce and the Tabasco. Taste the oyster on its own merits, and maybe you’ll get a hint of mountain meadow or glacier melt along with your sea brine.

Oyster happy hours

Seattle is lousy with oyster happy hours, with new ones popping up each year. Our favorites include Coastal Kitchen, which serves Hama Hama oysters at its new oyster bar. They’re just $1.25 between 10 p.m. and midnight. Elliott’s Oyster House has an astounding array of oysters—as many as 44 types grace the menu during peak season. Weekday happy hour starts at 3 p.m., when the oysters are 75 cents. At 4 p.m., they’re $1.25, and $1.75 from 5 to 6.

At Taylor Shellfish Farms in Melrose Market, you’re in for a learning experience. Descriptions of each oyster sit above the tanks. There’s a $4 shucking fee, but it’s waived Monday to Friday from 2 to 4 p.m.

Oysters tumble out of wire baskets at The Walrus and the Carpenter. The restaurant opens at 4 p.m. and serves half-price oysters for an hour, Sunday through Thursday. From 5 to 6, they’re 25 percent off.

Cozy up to the oyster bar at Westward and Little Gull, or grab a window seat for a Lake Union view. Happy hour brings expert shucker David Leck’s choice of oyster, discounted from 5 to 5:30 p.m. on weekdays and 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. on weekends.

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