May 19, 2010

When I evaluate oysters in a retail shop, I use the “fruit rule”–pick the ones that feel heaviest for their size. That usually yields an oyster with firmer meat and shell less likely to shatter during shucking. Those dense oysters just seem to taste better, too. That’s certainly the case with Chathams, an oyster that as fine as any other on Cap Cod. Chatham is the elbow of the cape, and its blessed by finer, more protected bays than most Cape towns. It’s on the opposite side of the Cape from Wellfleet, and you can detect the difference in flavor: While Wellfleets have the strong mineral flavor of Cape Cod Bay, Chathams pack the raw slap of the Atlantic, a pure brine wallop. Really, these are as intense as any oysters on the east coast, unbelievably salty (a few drops of citrus juice will take the edge off the salt) and with a kind of concentrated, anchovyesque savoriness. The shells are the color of Chatham–gray shingles, green sea–and they do indeed seem to open easily every time. For that, we can partly thank Steven Wright, who grows them to perfect size and shape. Steve raises his oysters right on Chatham’s Oyster Pond River, using a traditional rack-and-bag system. It’s funny that Chatham isn’t often associated with oysters, because the Oyster Pond River used to be abundant with growers, and still contains a good supply of oysters, as do the surrounding creeks, which are a great source of wild Chathams. The Chatham Shellfish Company has been at it since 1976. If you buy its oysters in fall, you’ll get the rack-and-bag stock. The slowpokes, though, get tossed to the bottom of Oyster Pond, to make room for the next crop, and there they putt along, slowly putting on meat and fat for an extra six months to a year–however long it takes. In the spring, they get raked up. I’ve always been a fan of the intensity of bottom-grown, slow-growing oysters, and these are no exception. I haven’t tasted the rack-and-bag Chathams yet, so I can’t compare, but I can tell you that these are worth seeking out. They can be ordered through American Mussel Harvesters or Chatham Fish and Lobster, or tracked down in Chatham restaurants.

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