The rhythmic motion of an oyster shucker can be mesmerizing. With a flick of the wrist, they pop open stubborn shells, and before you know it, a dozen glistening oysters are laid upon an icy bed, ready to take the tongue on an exquisite culinary adventure.
Many visitors to New England seafood houses feel obligated to order steamy lobsters or creamy clam chowders. But once they get a good look at a tray of just-shucked oysters, they often break from tradition, reject the plastic bib and explore local bivalves.
What makes New England oysters so special? They along with every oyster on the planet have a unique merroir, which means their taste reflects the environment where they're grown. The body of water, salinity level, temperature, movement of waves, season, rainfall, food source, and method of how they were raised all play a role.
Northeastern oysters enjoy colder waters than their southern counterparts in the Chesapeake Bay or Gulf of Mexico, which makes them a special treat in the spring and summer. And the Atlantic's salty waves infuse a distinct briny flavor that stands out with just a spritz of lemon and pairs splendidly with a crisp white wine.
New England raw bars present a diverse experience in oyster merroir thanks to the region's wide variety of places where local bivalves are raised. You find aquafarms and wild oyster beds splashed by the Atlantic's salty waves, and oysters thriving in salt ponds, freshwater tributary rivers and creeks, and protective coves and inlets that allow them to grow firm and plump.
Maine's year-round chilly waters yield oysters that take longer to mature, often three to four years, but they develop spectacular texture and flavor profiles. The Damariscotta River estuary, known for its cold deep waters, creates an oyster utopia for the multitude of aquafarmers who harvest award-winning bivalves from the river's nutrient-rich shoreline.
Wellfleets, named after the harbor where they reside, have been the standard bearer of Massachusetts oysters for centuries, with their plump meat and high salinity. But oysters from neighboring bodies of water are now vying for attention, including Buzzards Bay, Narragansett Bay and the salt ponds of Rhode Island. And a New England oyster menu would not be complete without Blue Points on the list, as they are Long Island Sound's salty darling of the bivalve world.
The abundance of choices for sampling New England oysters can be overwhelming. To narrow down your options, first consider your taste preferences. Are you a fan of robust salty flavors or do you prefer sweet buttery undertones? And be sure to ask the shucker or your server which oysters came into the restaurant this morning, so you can sample the freshest local bivalves in the house.
As you cruise up the New England coast this spring, keep the following oyster chart at hand for guidance about what to order. Marinalife's 20 favorite oysters are likely to appear on a seafood house chalk board or menu, and you can use them as a starting point for a delicious oyster feast.
Beaver Trail - Rhode Island - Large, cupped oyster; unique beaver tail shape; grown in suspended trays beneath East Passage of Narragansett Bay; briny flavor.
Belon - Harpswell, ME - Also known as European Flats; transported from France in the 1950s and flourish in Casco Bay; best eaten with a pinch of lemon.
Blue Point - New York/Connecticut - Many oysters from Long Island Sound are called Bluepoint and most come from the Connecticut side; very popular, mild flavor.
Chatham - West Chatham, MA - Farmed on Cape Cod's southeastern rim in a salt pond; firm meat, sturdy shell, very salty flavor that's enhanced with a lemon spritz.
Copps Island - Norwalk, CT - Aquafarmed by a family since the 1940s off the shores of Norwalk and Westport, CT; plump meats with a sweet briny taste.
Cotuit - Village of Cotuit, Cape Cod, MA - Since 1857 grown in a cove with eelgrass and algae that turns the shells green; moderate salinity with a sweet finish.
Cuttyhunk - Cuttyhunk, MA - Grown in pristine waters of Cuttyhunk Island's West End Pond and live on natural phytoplankton; bold briny flavor.
Duxbury - Duxbury, MA - The meats are plump and firm, but the shells may be irregularly shaped; sweet and buttery with a crisp brine.
Glidden Point - Edgecomb, ME - Slow grown for at least four years in the deep cold waters of the Damariscotta River creates a deep cup; hefty weight; crisp taste.
Island Creek - Duxbury, MA - Grown in Duxbury Bay on the coast south of Boston; perfect combo of buttery and briny, best slurped with a local craft lager.
Katama Bay - Martha's Vineyard, MA - Considered one of New England's best oysters and sometimes called Sweet Petites; expect high salinity with a creamy sweet finish.
Moonstone - Point Judith, RI - Grown in Point Judith Pond around the corner from Narragansett Bay; known for its pearly white shells, deep cup and robust brine.
Mystic - Mystic, CT - Raised in sandy beds where Noank River converges with the currents of Long Island and Block Island Sounds; intense salinity.
Pemaquid Point - Maine - Grown in the Damariscotta River by Dodge Cove Oysters, one of Maine's first oyster farms; briny, lemony and clean flavor.
Quonset Point - Rhode Island - Orange tinted shells with a deep cup, farmed on Narragansett Bay; less salty than many Atlantic oysters with a sweet creamy finish.
Riptide - Westport, MA - Unique flavor from nearby salt pond and freshwater creeks; moderate brine and earthy finish; perfect with crisp, dry white wines.
Taunton Bay - Taunton Bay, ME - Raised near Acadia National Park; one of Maine's northernmost oysters; deep cup and silky firm meat; high salinity and sweet finish.
Watch Hill - Watch Hill, RI - Grown in Winnapaug Pond and protected by a barrier beach; mild saltiness finished with a mellow buttery flavor.
Wellfleet - Wellfleet, MA - Likely the most popular and famous New England oyster; from protected intertidal flats of Wellfleet Harbor; light body, heavy salinity.
Wianno - Town of Barnstable, Cape Cod, MA - Grown in racks and bags just off the ocean's bottom and are exposed at low tide; slightly sweet and very briny.