This Fourth of July many of us are planning to pull out that checkered tablecloth, fire up the grill and make the perfect all-American meal. It’s a tradition as integral as fireworks. Hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken, ribs and oysters. In the Bay Area, oysters are a great choice to serve to your hungry guests-- one local food that is sure to please.
But first, a brief history lesson. Our founding fathers, think Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, probably ate oysters. The first Independence Day celebration took place at a Philadelphia public house in 1776. Because Philadelphia was a major port city, the meal likely would have included local seafood such as oysters.
I couldn’t think of a better time to talk about these half-shell delights than with some of the foremost experts on the matter: the Sancimino family from Swan Oyster Depot in Nob Hill, an 18-seat counter fish market. It’s always packed with hungry patrons willing to wait hours for a coveted seat. Bon Appétit recently named Swan one of the "twenty most important restaurants in the America." Anthony Bourdain, Bing Crosby and Francis Ford Coppola have all been known to frequent the joint at one time or another.
The restaurant has been around for over 100 years. The Sanciminos have owned it in since 1946 and their expertise is revealed through the quality of the food they serve. They seem to know everything about seafood, especially oysters.
"He was a bold man that first ate an oyster, "so said Jonathan Swift way back when in ye olde’ days of yesteryear. Indeed, oysters, also known as “bivalve mollusks” have a variety of different tastes. Some are briny, an intense salty flavor, others almost sweet. There are so many different types, Kumamoto, Virginica and Olympia--just to name a few. Trying to choose from a variety of oysters can be an intimidating experience. I decided to seek assistance.
On a recent Wednesday morning, I had the chance to catch up with Kevin Sancimino, described by his brothers as “the oyster expert.” Kevin has a venerable wealth of oyster knowledge. He explained there are five main types of oyster species consumed in the United States: Pacific Oyster, Atlantic Oyster, Kumamoto, European Flat and the Olympia. Each has it’s own unique size, shape, taste, and texture.
Swan’s carries a variety of oysters each day. The menu changes based on what’s fresh. Some are local and come directly from Drakes Bay, while others are shipped from the East Coast. The family picks them up at Pier 33 each morning.
When I visited, he presented me with a platter of oysters on the half shell fit for a queen, or a hungry journalist.
One thing is certain, everyone has his or her favorite variety of species. Each family members had their own take on what is the most flavorful oyster.
“We keep a variety of oysters because there is no ‘best oyster’" Kevin said. “People like what they like.”
I asked Kevin to give me some tips on the right way to barbecue an oyster. To shuck or not to shuck? He told me that most people don’t bother to shuck the oyster. They simply throw it over an open flame and let it naturally separate. Sounds like a time-saving convenience, right?
While, that might sound like a good idea, Kevin doesn’t recommend it. “The best way is to shuck it. That’s what we do at family events. Separate it. Put it on the barbecue, put some sauce on it, and you wait,” he said. Here's some tips on how to correctly shuck an oyster:
But, how long should you cook these delicate sea creatures? Not long. His warning: Don’t let the oyster shrivel up.
“Wait until you see a little black dryness start to appear on the shell,” Kevin said. “The oyster will start to shrivel a little bit. That’s when it’s done. The sauce will start to bubble almost like it’s poaching in the shell. To me, that is the best way to barbecue an oyster.”
Kevin told me about three of his favorite oysters. Some are barbecue-worthy, while others aren’t. Check out his picks. Do you agree? What are some of your favorites?
Species Name: Crassostrea Gigas
Examples: Fanny Bay, Royal Miyagi, Kusshi, Drakes Bay
The Pacific oyster is native to the Pacific coast of Asia. It has become an introduced species in North America, Australia, Europe, and New Zealand. Most farm-raised oysters in the Pacific Northwest are Pacific oysters. They’ve got fluted, pointed shells that are usually rough and jagged. They go by a variety of names: Miyagi, Fanny Bay, Royal Miyagi, Kusshi, Drakes Bay. Some people describe them as creamy or buttery, not overly firm. Others say they are herbaceous, vegetal, or melonly. They can be extremely briny, a fancy way of saying “salty.” Whatever your take on these, the Miyagi is the most commonly grown and consumed oyster on the West Coast. Indeed, Kevin thinks these oysters are the best to barbecue. Whether with hot sauce, barbecue sauce or even a little pesto.
“These are by far my favorite oysters to barbecue,” he said. “The sauce cooks on the oysters, so it’s not as overwhelming.”
The Atlantic Oyster
Species Name: Crassostrea Virginica
Examples: Blue Point, Chathams, Beausoleil, Pemaquid, Wellfleet
These are Kevin’s second favorite choice to barbecue, especially the Blue Points. If you’ve only had oysters one time in your life, these are most likely what you consumed. They are the “traditional American oyster,” Kevin said. The Virginica oyster is native to the East Coast, Cape Cod and Nova Scotia, and are distinguished by their tear drop shape, smooth shells, and uniform colors: brown, cream, or forest green. They are dense and flavorful. Chathams, for instance, 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 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. Wellfleets oysters tend to be long and strong-shelled. Experienced tasters know that they are plump and clean with a distinctively good balance of creamy sweetness and brine.
Species Name: Crassostrea Sikamea
Examples: Humboldt Kumamoto, Shelton Kumamoto, Royale Kumamoto
The Kumamoto oyster is originally from Japan. Kumamotos are known for their small size, deep cup, creamy texture, and cucumber-melon finish. The tastes can vary depending on where they are farmed: Baja California, Humboldt Bay, or Puget Sound. Kumamotos are worshipped for their amazing sweetness and clean, fruity aromas. Kevin does not recommend barbecuing this variety, but he says many people do. That’s why he included it on the list. He knows plenty of people who swear by barbecuing these little suckers. Just don’t overcook them.
“You have to be careful with the Kumamoto. You try barbecuing theses guys and they are going to shrivel and wither down to nothing,” he warns.
His suggestion---Just eat them raw with a little mignonette sauce, a condiment usually made with minced shallots, cracked pepper, and vinegar.
So, this Fourth of July try something special. Unlock the magic of the ocean. Embrace the American spirit of individualism. Throw out the corn on the cob recipe and start shucking. As Shakespeare said in The Merry Wives of Windsor, “The world's mine oyster...”