Oysters: A Kiss from The Ocean

The moment the salty air from the ocean hits my nostrils, I know New England has to be the place where I would raise my children. Waves lashing the sand steadily soothe me. I appreciate the immense sea, the fruitful land that surrounds it and foremost the bounty of fresh produce and seafood it generously offers. These waters are rich with shellfish. And for that I’m thankful. I’m an oyster glutton. 

The whole point of an oyster is where it comes from, hence I always like to eat one or two of my oysters naked, ignoring the condiments. Nix to the lemon, no butter nor dark bread, no Tabasco. 

The seawater and the taste of the raw, fresh meat, like terroir for wine, will give me a clue of the origins. Buttery and mild, a hint of a mineral-like taste, sweet, at times almost melon-like. 

Once I categorize the flavor of the oysters, I move on to consider how to serve them and improve on them if necessary. Raw oysters don’t need much anyway. I’m careful to preserve as much of the oyster liquor as I can when I shuck them.

The first water in a freshly shucked oyster is essentially seawater. I let it rest before eating it raw so it will mingle with the oyster own juices. Then I dress it with a simple mignonette.

A mignonette should complement the ocean taste, not mask it. Tart, astringent, extremely spicy flavors or fat do not belong and are not complementary to the sweetness of a fresh oyster. (Cooked oysters, on the other end, benefit from all of the above, especially from a good dose of fat and cream.) My favorite mignonette is simple. Thinly diced sweet shallots macerated in proper Sherry vinegar, seasoned with white pepper and pinch of salt. Cider apple vinegar is also an interesting choice. I add a finely diced apple for crunch and chopped parsley to balance the sweetness. 

A Wintertime Delicacy 

I choose to cook oysters in winter, because cold months are when we have an abundance of oysters in the ocean. Oyster spawn in summer and they relax in winter, making the months with “r” favorable to bivalve.

In winter I indulge in rich and creamy oyster chowders; best eaten with homemade sourdough bread by a warm fireplace. I coat shucked oysters in breadcrumbs and lightly fry them, then serve them on a bed of creamy spinach; I wrap them in bacon and bake them until crisp, then I enjoy the succulent morsels with a squirt of lemon.

A couple of years ago, while living in London, I had the fortune to taste a recipe for tagliatelle with oysters and beurre blanc served on the shell as an appetizer. It’s a decadent, luscious dish. Beurre blanc is a sauce that originated in the Loire of France, it goes well with seafood and it can take on bold flavors like chili, mustard or lemon. This elegant dish makes a fantastic starter for a formal dinner when the best linens and the good silverware are required. In the intimacy of my own home however, I live a simpler life. My family and I enjoy slurping oysters quite often, so I remixed the tagliatelle recipe into a quick creamy and bright lemony, herbs loaded, spaghetti bowl topped with a generous helping of gently steamed local oysters.

I buy my oysters on Saturday. I stock up at my farmers market from the Copps Island Oysters stand, skillfully tended by Tracy Barclay. Copps Island Oysters are locally harvested in the South Norwalk bay and they are famous for their unparalleled freshness, sweet briny flavor and plump meat. If you happen to be in New Canaan on a Saturday morning, I encourage you to stop by the stand, get a dozen or two of these plump oysters, and a handful of steamer clams. Your weekend will immediately look brighter and since all the proceeds from the sales are donated to local charities, you’ll feel good in and out.

The Experts

I have always been curious to learn more about oyster farming, so when Tracy invites me to visit the Copps’s Island operation I immediately jump on the boat. 

I meet Tracy on an early morning with blue skies. Tracy has been working for the past two seasons for Copps Island at the markets. Once we get to the marina, I feel gratitude for being able to spend my day surrounded by infinite nature and a group of people dedicated to an ancient and sustainable trade. The Blooms have been oystermen since the 1940s and operate one of the last standing traditional oyster farms in the United States. Norm Bloom and Son is a fourth-generation family-owned farm that provides sustainable oysters nationwide. They have a fleet of fifteen boats and a dedicated crew, and they harvest year-round from the deep, cold, nutrient-rich waters along the coast of Connecticut. 

At the docks I’m warmly greeted by Norm Bloom, then I meet Rachel Precious. Rachel is an aquaculture biologist and she in charge of the baby oysters, water quality monitoring and data management at the farm. plus she runs the farmers market booth in Westport. She is also the owner and founder at Precious Oysters, Connecticut’s first shucking service. 

I follow Rachel to the tanks. I learn that oysters reach maturity in one year, they spawn as males and as they grow over the next two or three years, then they spawn as females by releasing eggs that eventually become baby oysters and settle in beds at the bottom of the ocean. Bay oysters usually spawn from the end of June until mid-August. Copps Island Oysters are cultivated onshore and they are then placed in the water to mature naturally to be collected like wild oysters. The Bloom Oyster is a delicious treat from the deep waters but is also highly beneficial to the environment. Oyster beds filter millions of gallons of water each day and create habitats for many other varieties of marine life. 

After learning how oysters are cultivated, Tracy and I leave the docks on the Cultivator boat with captain Pat in command and Don Bell, our tour guide. Captain Pat shows me how he operates the dredges that scoop oysters off the ocean floor once the boat reaches the oyster grounds. The two dredges hang on booms above each side of the boat’s deck look like cages with chain link sides and a rake on the front. He skillfully operates the dredges with a pully from the wheelhouse, being careful to lower them to just the right depth.

He empties the catch on the boat deck and the crew cull the oysters brought up by the dredge and order them by size. Then they pack them in ice. It’s a brutal and tedious job. I’m humbled and overflowing with respect.

While the captain and the crew work relentlessly, Don Bell shares his passion about oyster farming and his vast knowledge about preserving the high-quality standards and cleanliness of the bay waters. 

Once back on land, Don takes us over to the spotless packing facility and then to the Museum, crammed with thousands of vintage and antique oyster cans of all sizes, a collection Don started years ago and that makes this former art director feel in packaging paradise. I finish my tour by visiting the “The Oysterman’s Daughter Shop” located in the boatyard, and by indulging on fresh, succulent and juicy Copps oysters shacked with precision by Tracy.  

I drive home, windows down to fully breathe in the smell of the salty water, and I think to myself that eating oysters is like receiving a kiss from the ocean.

Oysters, Tagliatelle and Beurre Blanc

Beurre Blanc is a classic sauce and it looks like hollandaise. Creamy, silky and luscious, it enhances seafood, vegetables and chicken dishes. Julia Child said, “it’s simply a butter sauce, butter emulsified, held in a suspension by its strongly acid flavor base”. White wine is reduced with wine vinegar and shallots and then a whole lot of cold butter is whisked in slowly, piece by piece. The tart ingredients counteract with the richness of the fat; they wed in perfect unison with the briny and plump oysters and with the starchy tagliatelle. When a complete bite hits the tongue none of the flavors dominate, allowing you to distinctly taste each and every single one of them.

Serves: 4 people as a starter

Ingredients

For the Beurre Blanc Sauce:

2 medium shallots, peeled and finely chopped

¼ cup (60 ml) dry white whine

¼ cup (60 ml) white wine vinegar 

½ cup (115g) cold butter, cut into cubes

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

12 fresh oysters, scrubbed

4 oz (115g) fresh tagliatelle 

4 teaspoons finely cubed cucumber, peeled and seeded

Sea salt for cooking the pasta

Caviar, optional

Directions

Make the beurre blanc. In a small pan over medium heat mix the shallots with the wine, the vinegar, and a splash of water. Simmer down until almost no liquid is left. Whisk in the butter, patiently one cube at the time to create a smooth custard like emulsion, whisk in the lemon juice and season with salt. Keep warm.

Shuck the oysters. Place a shallow pan on medium heat. Add the liquor from the oysters and ¼ cup of water, bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Gently put the shucked oysters in the liquid and poach for 1 minute until the sides gently curl. Drain and set the oysters aside.

Rinse, clean and dry the oyster shells. Cook the tagliatelle in salted boiling water until al dente.

Drain. With a small fork twirl a small amount of tagliatelle in each shell. Top with one steamed oyster. Generously spoon the beurre blanc sauce over the top. Finish with the cubed cucumber and garnish with caviar, if using.

Remix: Zesty and Creamy Lemon Spaghetti with Toasted Breadcrumbs and Oysters 

Bring some zing to your autumn and winter cooking with a squeeze of citrus in this creamy bowl of spaghetti topped with briny and sweet oysters. 

I’m using lemons in this ridiculously simple and comforting pasta dish, but limes would work well too. The creamy base is a simplified beurre blanc that plays well with the sharpness of the lemon, the texture and taste of the capers and with the crunchiness of the breadcrumbs. You can also substitute the oysters with shrimp, clams or squid or omit the seafood completely and enjoy this incredibly bright and creamy pasta on its own.

Serves: 

Ingredients

2 medium shallots, peeled and finely chopped

¼ cup (60 ml) dry white whine

½ cup (115 g) butter, cut into cubes

The zest and the juice of 1 lemon

12 fresh oysters 

One pound (454g) spaghetti

2 tbsp capers in brine, rinsed and drained

One handful picked flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped

½ cup sourdough toasted breadcrumbs, but any old crusty bread will do

2 tablespoons of olive oil

Sea salt

Directions

In a small pan over medium heat mix the shallots with the wine and a splash of water. Simmer down until almost no liquid is left. Whisk in the butter, one cube at the time to create a smooth custard like emulsion, whisk in the lemon juice and the zest and season with salt. Keep warm.

Shuck the oysters. Place a shallow pan on medium heat. Add the liquor from the oysters and ¼ cup of water, bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Gently put the shucked oysters in the liquid and poach for 1 minute until the sides gently curl. Drain and set the oysters aside.

Heat a frying pan on a medium-high flame, then tip in the breadcrumbs and fry, tossing or stirring regularly, for seven to 10 minutes, until golden and crisp.

Meanwhile, bring a large pan of salted water to a boil and cook the spaghetti until al dente. Drain, then toss with the lemon sauce, the capers and the flat leaf parsley. Serve at once topped with the toasted and fried breadcrumbs and the steamed oysters.

Silvia Baldini is a former advertising art director and an Italian-born classically trained chef known for her work with popular Italian ingredients. She is a Chopped Champion on Food Network and the founder of The Secret Ingredient Girls and Strawberry & Sage. Following a distinguished and award-winning career as an Art Director on Madison Avenue, Silvia pursued culinary training at ICC in NYC and graduated first in class at Cordon Bleu in London.

Her work and recipes have been ​published​ in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, Parents Magazine, Reader’s Digest, Thrillist, Country Magazine, Saveur, The Wall Street Journal and The Independent. Her TV appearances include CNN, ABC, and Dr. Oz. She is a frequent keynote speaker and industry panelist, sharing extensive experience in the food and media industry. Silvia believes that wholesome cooking and traditional wisdom combined with modern technology will be the key to living a happy and healthy life.