Last weekend, we went wild.
With oysters, you can go crazy or be more refined. There are both wild and cultured oysters found in our waters, and both are available on this spectacular Island of ours. I was lucky enough to come across some of West Tisbury’s finest wild stock and am still reveling in the bliss of oyster consumption.
French writer Léon Daudet spoke eloquently of his love for these shellfish. “Oh, oysters, I’ve never ceased to hold them dear. One tires of morels and truffles, the same for poultry. I do not think one could ever tire of oysters.” Leave it to a Frenchman to capture my feelings exactly.
Not enough can be said about this simple bivalve. Oysters provide a variety of services to the community. As a filter feeder, oysters suck in an incredible amount of water and filter out a variety of compounds, cleaning our waters during their simple life. Living communally in flats along the shore, they also provide a measure of support for our fragile coastlines, buffering and protecting them.
An anonymous author of “Lucullus, or Palatable Essays” in 1878 sang the praises of these natural shellfish beds, noting, “An oyster bed is a pleasure — an El Dorado — a mine of wealth, in fact, which fills the owner’s pockets with gold and affords to the million untold gastronomical enjoyment and healthy food.”
My favorite use of these beautiful bivalves is also food. Deciding on whether to go wild or cultured, though, can be a conundrum.
Wild oysters are on their own, so to speak, usually developing without human management in ponds and estuaries. These natural bivalves are in the oyster minority, accounting for less than 5 per cent of the world’s total consumption. Cultured, also called cultivated or farmed oysters, make up the remainder of those devoured.
There are benefits of both types of oysters and I can honestly say that I love each and every one, no matter its origin. Wild oysters contain twice as much fat as cultured oysters and have more sodium. If high cholesterol is a problem for you, choose cultured oysters, which have less than half the amount of cholesterol than the wild variety. Carbohydrate watchers should pick wild oysters, as they have half as much carbohydrates per oyster.
Protein is higher in wild oysters, as are minerals, including copper, zinc, and vitamins A and C. However, there can be too much of a good thing when it comes to those minerals. Nosebleeds and upset stomach have been associated with high intake of said minerals.
If you aren’t lucky enough to know about a natural oyster honey hole, and you get your fill at the fish market or restaurant, you can determine whether you have wild or cultivated by keen observation. Cultivated oysters tend to be more consistent and uniform in appearance. Since they are usually grown in bags or in other types of suspension, they don’t have any shell damage.
Wild oysters, in contrast, have a scar where they were attached to a rock, ledge or other oyster. Wild oysters can come in a variety of shapes and sizes and have more fluted, or wavy shells with irregular growth. Often they also have more biological hitchhikers on them, including other bivalves, barnacles, snails and even worms, which can sometimes be found crawling from their pocked shells.
The wild Island varieties will not be available for much longer. West Tisbury recently reduced the length of their oyster season, and harvesting in that town will now cease at the end of April.
That gives me only a small window of time to walk (and eat) on the wild side, but thanks to the Island’s shellfish farmers, cultured oysters will always available to curb my craving for these beautiful bivalves.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.