Oyster Lovers, Unite

Nearly four inches long, the "Sand Dune" oyster from Prince Edward Island was so plump that it bulged out of its shell. "Like a large breast in a small brassiere," Rodney Clark, owner of Rodney's Oyster House in Toronto, put it. Intensely briny and wonderfully sweet, the big, fat, beige oyster tasted like a big mouthful of salty butterscotch ice cream.

Clark, an oyster expert, had a lot to say about the oyster's reputation as an aphrodisiac, a subject that often comes up around Valentine's Day. Instead of the usual nod-nod, wink-wink, "let's just say" explanation that most oyster authorities give, Clark launched into an embarrassingly detailed yarn about a hooker nicknamed "the cat woman." She came in all the time and worked the bar at Rodney's. After sharing some oysters with a guy, she would slip a hand into his lap and grope him. "It was quite a floor show for the people at the tables next to the bar," Clark recalled. "We finally had to ask her to leave."

Clark's restaurant has an artful collection of photos of black-and-white bearded oysters hanging in the men's room that were taken by famous photographers. Besides being an oyster expert, Clark is a former art student, and oyster-related erotica is one of his favorite genres.

Valentine's Day is one of the busiest times of the year at Rodney's. Oysters are to Valentine's Day what turkey is to Thanksgiving. And this Valentine's weekend may be the best time to eat oysters in recent American history. Plenty of oysters are on the market, and the recession is keeping prices low. Although many restaurants reported dismal holiday figures, oyster sales were up.

"We have been riding an oyster high since the turn of the century, and the oyster business is still hot," says Sandy Ingber, head chef and oyster buyer at Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York. "There doesn't seem to be a letdown in oyster demand." The busiest oyster bar in the country is buying extra supplies for Valentine's weekend — Ingber expects to sell around 10,000 half-shell oysters on Friday and Saturday alone.

On the West Coast, Bill Taylor of Taylor Shellfish in Shelton, Washington, says he can't produce enough oysters to meet the ever-higher demand. And on the Gulf Coast, Jim Gossen at Louisiana Foods reports that holiday oyster sales were up around 25 percent over last year and that orders for Valentine's Day are brisk.

Better enjoy it while you can. Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike have limited the Gulf oyster harvest and damaged oyster reefs. That's bad news for Florida, which harvested 3 million pounds of oysters in 2007, a crop worth $6.7 million.

Meanwhile, failures in West Coast hatcheries may be the result of an even more disturbing problem. An accumulation of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has made oceans more acidic, which retards shell growth. That may be the reason oyster larvae in West Coast hatcheries are dying before they form shells.

Oyster lovers could be in for a rough couple of years. When the current crop of mature oysters is sold out, predictions are there won't be enough new oysters to meet demand.

I wish I could tell you where to get a Sand Dune this Valentine's weekend, but you probably wouldn't think much of it anyway. That's because I visited Rodney's Oyster House in the first week of December, the absolute peak of the Canadian oyster season. By mid-December, Canadian waters get so cold that the oysters stop feeding and the bays on Prince Edward Island freeze over. By February, the oysters have shrunk up in their shells.

If you want to eat great oysters, you need to check the weather report, Rodney Clark explains. You hear a lot about how the flavor of an oyster comes from the water where it's grown. But you don't hear much about how dramatically the flavor of every oyster changes with the weather. In fact, seasonality may be as important as geography when it comes to buying oysters.

At their peak of flavor, oysters are bulging with fat and completely opaque, Clark says. To pluck them from the water at their maximum "ripeness," you need to understand the life cycle of an oyster. As the water gets colder in the fall, oysters fatten up with a carbohydrate compound called glycogen. To our palate, glycogen tastes like sugar. In the spring, when the water warms, the oyster slowly converts glycogen in preparation for reproduction. As it does, it begins tasting fishier. Then in the early summer, the oyster spawns and loses much of its mass and nearly all of its flavor.

In far northern oyster regions, oysters start tasting great in September. But when the water temperature goes below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in December or January, the oyster goes into a sort of hibernation and stops feeding until the water warms up again. Northern oyster experts talk about peak "shoulder seasons" of late November and early April. In between, during the January-to-March lull, Rodney's Oyster House shops for oysters farther south. In March of last year, Clark brought a couple of shipments of plump Gulf oysters to Toronto for the first time. In the summer, he buys winter oysters from New Zealand and Australia.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh