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Consider the oyster

Reflections on 2006

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When you know love for the first time, you realize that those "I love you's" shared in previous relationships amount to nothing more than words. This recognition is the accumulation of thousands of luminous or indifferent moments that shape actions -- and tastes. This lightning bolt of clarity brings sudden comprehension and empathy for Etta James songs and Shakespearean sonnets. All other relationships pale to what you have found.

While love and oysters may seem strange bedfellows, the taste range of oysters is as vast as interpersonal relationships -- from the superficial to the most profound. Renowned food writer M.F.K. Fisher sang this lowly bivalve's praises in her landmark Consider the Oyster (North Point Press: 1941) while also noting their peculiarities, such as being a male while young then becoming female when older. Fisher remarked on how oysters taste of place. Oysters, like wine, develop a sense of territory. Oysters from the American and Canadian coasts have a distinctive taste profile, as do European oysters. But none have that intense, true-love taste of an Australian oyster.

My epiphany with oysters occurred last July. Years ago I had been introduced to cold water oysters as a match for champagne, but never had I considered the standout quality of a singular oyster. Then at a wine tasting/cocktail party in Adelaide, Australia, I popped a Coffin Bay oyster: cold and crisp, robustly salty and unsullied. The soul of the sea slid down the back of my throat. I needed more. Not wanting to appear too piggish at the party, I found the circulating server and I discretely scarfed another oyster. This, too, exploded across my taste buds. Then I had another. And another. I was besotted.

Aussie oysters are rather ordinary in size, not the enormous two mouthful oysters often found the Pacific Northwest (such as the Dosewallips from the life-rich salt water Hood Canal in Washington) or the legendary mammoth mollusks once available off Long Island. Coffin Bay is a limestone lined cove in the state of South Australia whose ocean's waters are virtually free from pollution. In fact, Australia's ocean waters are so clean that the oysters, a filter of the environment, taste unlike other oysters. Coffin Bay is reputed to have the cleanest oceans on the planet and thus produces succulent and intensely flavored oysters.

Ironically the Coffin Bay oyster isn't indigenous to Coffin Bay at all. The original oyster was almost wiped out by over-harvesting, and the local oyster industry collapsed in the 1940s. Attempts were made to farm-raise indigenous oysters, but they were small and slow to grow. In 1969 the Japanese Pacific oyster was introduced into Coffin Bay oyster farms, and today these are the bulk of oysters harvested from this pristine coastline.

As I traveled across the red continent, I hoped to find more extraordinary oysters. In Australia oysters know no season; however, they are typically only sold regionally. In other words, South Australian oysters may not make the trip to Perth on the west coast, or Caines on the northeast coast. Hoping for the best, my desire for more Coffin Bay oysters took me to the Sydney Fish Market.

SFM is the largest fish market in the southern hemisphere and a vibrant hands-on learning place, selling over 100 species of seafood and more than 11,000 pounds daily. That volume of exchange is staggering. They also conduct weekly cooking classes on the wharf, ranging from basic fish preparation and grilling techniques to complex ethnic cuisines conducted by local chefs.

Behind the glass counters at the market, dozens of locally harvested translucent oysters nestle on chipped ice. Among these are the rock oysters from Sydney Bay, Tasmanian oysters, and (a welcomed sight) a line up of plump Coffin Bays. One dozen cost $5 (U.S.).

Australian oysters do not need to be gussied up with breadcrumbs, Tabasco, or even lemon. Nor do they need a trip to the barbie or a bath in champagne. Aussie oysters are best sliding down the throat bareback.

I picked out a flight of a dozen oysters from across the Australian coastline from one vendor and talked him into preparing a blind tasting for me. He arranged the pairs on small styrofoam trays. I took the trays and sat in the warm winter sun, consuming oysters that only hours before had clung to ocean rocks. Then I returned to the vendor with my scorecard. By this time his employees were curious and had gathered around.

Most predicted the Tasmanian oyster, a local favorite, would win my heart. But in the end, Coffin Bay, the one I loved first, beat out all comers. Perhaps the first recognition of excellence and exhilaration of taste had spoiled me for others. No doubt, new oysters will be tasted, but I suspect none will have that same audacious brightness, innocent youthfulness or welcomed unassuming taste that permeated my first Australian oyster.

Eater's Digest

2006 brought a close to some local favorites: Anderson's Restaurant, Athen's Restaurant, Campania Ristorante di Napoli at Piper Glen (owner Ciro Martoni now owns the recently opened Vesuvius, a pizzeria in Ballyntyne), Ghali's Deli & Grill, and Mai Japanese Restaurant. Meanwhile a spate of restaurants opened: many of these are chain emporiums, some locally owned. Of note is the increasing number of Italian restaurants across the area. How do you say "enough already" in Italian?

To contact Tricia regarding tips, compliments or complaints or to send notice of a food or wine event (at least 12 days in advance, please), opening, closing or menu change, fax Eaters' Digest at 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail at 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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