There was a time when most restaurants in the region served one kind of oyster: one harvested by a water-man from somewhere in the Chesapeake Bay.
No more. In addition to a bevy of name-brand options from outside the region, diners can now choose from a slew of different Chesapeake Bay oysters. There are Shooting Points from the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Chesapeake Golds from the waters near Hooper’s Island, Stingrays from Mobjack Bay, Choptank Sweets from the waters near Cambridge and Olde Salts from Chincoteague Bay.
And, with more entrepreneurs getting into the oyster business every year, the number of brands grows.
It can be confusing to restaurant wait staff, who might not have tasted all of the varieties. If they recommend the wrong oyster to a first-time taster — either of oysters or just of Chesapeake oysters — they risk turning off that diner to oysters for life.
Daniel Kauffman didn’t want that to happen. An extension specialist at Virginia Tech in Hampton Roads, Kauffman put together an oyster-tasting panel in 2011 to better educate customers about the taste of raw oysters from different regions.
The idea, he said, wasn’t to comment on whether an oyster tasted good or bad, as a food critic might. It was more scientific — divide the oyster-producing waters of Virginia into distinct regions, so that diners might understand what they can expect from a first bite. The oyster panel members put all of the information into a brochure.
They enjoyed themselves, but it was also a lot of work. The panel met 18 times. The first six sessions were “training,” Kauffman said — setting
a standard for the different levels of salt, minerality, sweetness and creaminess.
“There was an oyster buyer there that had all levels of salt. The oyster buyer said, ‘oh, that oyster isn’t very salty — I’ve had way saltier.’ But another person said, ‘Boy, I find that pretty salty,’” Kauffman explained. “If we tried to put that into data, because the experiences were so different, it would not mean anything. But once you look at this brochure, you can see the salinity levels, the buttery creaminess, the sweetness. We put some additional comments that the tasters made. So now, if you’re looking at an oyster out of the Rappahannock River area, at least you would know what you’re getting.”
In that case, a diner is getting a strong mineral flavor and some saltiness, but not as salty as a seaside oyster.
Since 2012, the Virginia Marine Products Board has made the oyster-tasting brochure available to all who want it. It is also available online, and can be printed. Often, oyster companies will include the brochure in the box their oysters come in.
Maryland is not doing a similar program, but might consider it, said Steve Vilnit, the seafood marketing manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Maryland currently has 4,500 acres under lease and new applications all the time, with several companies forming each year.
Kauffman said he, too, enjoyed being on the tasting panel. But he is keeping his personal opinions on the best one to himself.
“You probably won’t get me to say — I love all kinds,” he said. “I like Virginia oysters, but also West Coast oysters and Prince Edward Island oysters. Part of the pleasure of tasting oysters is tasting their difference.”
The brochure is available at http://virginiaoysters.org/about/regional-flavors.