If you ask any first-class gourmand where to find the best oysters in the world, they will tell you to look in the claires of France or along the western coast of Ireland. Certainly in the shallow waters around Prince Edward Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or in Wellfleet Harbor, Cape Cod. Somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico? Not a chance.
If they are really savvy, they will tell you about Mali Ston Bay, an oyster utopia on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast where a variety of European flat oyster can be found that is so precious Roman emperors once funded commercial farms there, and still, two millennia later, Austrian emperor Franz Joseph was insisting that his monthly shipments to Vienna come from Mali Ston alone. In Franz Josef’s day, five hundred miles by train would be about the same as shipping overnight on a 747. In logistical terms, halfway around the world.
Such is the love for this strange and wonderful bivalve and the lengths we will go to get them — nowhere is too far to send for the best. So whether you take them by the dozen on the half-shell or fried on a po-boy, with a bottle of France’s sparkliest or with an icy schooner of what made Milwaukee famous, the humble and posh oyster inspires a love that runs deep into the heart of many cultures and culinary traditions.
The Gulf, however, has not enjoyed the same reputation for quality as these other fabled appellations. Even before the concerns brought by the BP oil spill, there was the long-held conception that the Gulf waters are too warm and turbid, and that the coastal beds where our oysters develop their unique flavor profile are not briny enough.
So what we always lacked in quality, we made up for in quantity. At least we did until BP, an event that wiped out somewhere between 4 to 8 billion oysters — a loss that has taken the mollusk three generations to replenish.
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