Aphrodite's Delight: The Oyster
by Bonnie North
According to ancient myth, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, emerged from a giant oyster shell that rose up from the depths of the sea amidst a great churning of foam. No sooner was she ‘born” than she gave birth to her son, Eros. The Romans renamed her Venus and her son Cupid, but the words associated with their Grecian names, “aphrodisiac” and “erotic” are still with us, and ever since Grecian times the oyster has been linked with love, potency and passion.
Actually, the oyster itself has a most ambiguous sexuality. They are hermaphroditic, and will change gender at least once during their lifetime, usually starting as male and ending as female!
Ostrea lurida is a tiny oyster, rarely more than 1-1/2 inches wide. It’s native to the American West Coast. Most of them found in the markets today will be from Puget Sound.
Ostrea edulis —The European Flat. Some also call all of this variety “Belons.” However, in France, an oyster may only be called a “Belon” if it is grown in a specific part of Brittany. Other European varieties are Galway, Marennes, Colchester, Helford, and Whitstable.
Crassostrea virginica —The American Oyster. It’s found along most of the coasts of North America. Geographical location names include Blue Point, Apalachicola, Chesapeake, Chincoteague, Malpeque, Pemaquid, Cotuit, Wellfleet, and others. The shells are usually two to four inches in length.
The type of oyster makes a difference in its size, shape and taste, but just as important, and some might say of primary importance, is the locale it hails from, since oysters take on the characteristics of the water where they are grown. That’s why most oysters are commonly known by their place-names, rather than by their Latin names.
Colder waters produce saltier oysters. Less salty oysters will taste a little on the sweet side. East Coast oysters are usually a little higher in salinity, simply because of the higher salinity content in the Atlantic vs. the Pacific Oceans.
Thus, Belons from northern Maine or Nova Scotia will be salty, meaty and plump, with a coppery finish. Hog Island oysters from East Vancouver, where the waters are warmer and less salty, are known for having a sweet, almost smoky taste and a thinner, less plump body.
The name, Chesapeake, evolved from “Chesepiooc,” the Algonquian Susquehannock Indian word meaning “Great Shellfish Bay.” Fossilized oyster shells are layered nearly 50 feet high in some spots on the bottom of the Bay.
The live oyster beds here were once so huge that sailors had to learn to steer clear least they run aground upon them.
The bay’s shallow depths and plentiful oysters led to the development of the unique and beautiful Chesapeake Skipjack, a working waterman’s sailing vessel. These graceful boats still ply the coves and inlets of the Bay during oyster season, from October to April.
Sadly, today the Bay’s oyster population is reduced to about one percent of its historic level and healthy oysters are absolutely vital to a healthy Chesapeake. They cleanse and filter the Bay’s waters by consuming algae and other water-borne nutrients that are harmful. Scientists believe that the Bay’s original oyster populations could filter the estuary’s entire volume of water every three or four days. Now it would take almost a year!
Oyster reefs create craggy little mountain ranges that provide habitat for an enormous range of other animals—worms, snails, sea squirts, sponges, small crabs and fishes—all integral to the food chain and the web of life in our Bay.
We need to support the important work being done towards oyster restoration by efforts like The Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Maryland Sea Grant College. Reef building, establishing sanctuaries, and breeding for disease resistance are all fostering a comeback, but still no clear-cut solution exists. This is a tragedy, and not only for those who love the oyster’s briny taste, but for the entire Chesapeake region. When it comes to “Saving The Bay,” oysters are crucial!
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