Food & Drink

Aw, Shucks!

The oyster wave hits Baltimore.

We used to have to wait around for the “R” months to eat a decent oyster. Sure, we had crabs to tide us over in the summertime, but we have to admit: the wait was long. And hard.

Luckily, those days are over—thanks to refrigeration and the advent of triploid oysters, which are sterile and thus eliminate the shellfish’s summer spawning season, when their flesh is too weak and watery for market—and now oysters are readily available all year-round.

Maryland’s oyster-farming industry, also known as “aquaculture,” has grown exponentially in recent years, and with it just starting to hit its stride, local oyster-lovers are beginning to reap the rewards right here at home. Farms have been popping up all across the state and now nearly 4,000 acres of them dot our shores of the Chesapeake Bay. These days, their bounties are being shucked from their shells and served up at a growing number of restaurants, bars, street stands, and festivals.

Each farm’s oyster is a little different, picking up the “merroir,” or subtle nuances, of the waters and ways in which they were raised, much like that of a wine’s terroir. They vary in size, sweetness, and salinity, but whatever your preference, these mouth-watering mollusks were worth the wait.

Here are six of our favorites, hailing from St. Mary’s County to the southern edges of the Eastern Shore, as well as some local digs where you can slurp them up.

THE OYSTER: True Chesapeake Oyster Company‘s “Skinny Dipper”

THE FARM: St. Jerome Creek; Ridge

THE FLAVOR: Grown in a tucked away creek in St. Mary’s County near the Potomac River, these farmed favorites mingle in their local waters with the Atlantic’s high salinity for a not-too-salty, not-too-sweet “soft salt” taste. “Part of that is thanks to the unique properties of St. Jerome Creek,” says Patrick Hudson, owner of True Chesapeake Oyster Co. “Another part is our husbandry practices that keep the oyster off the bottom where mud and silt can alter the flavor.” Clean, crisp and refreshing, they’re a great go-to for a half-shell happy hour.

WHERE TO EAT THEM: The Local Oyster, Dylan’s Oyster Cellar; Ryleigh’s Oyster; The Boathouse Canton; Heavy Seas Alehouse; Oyster Bay Grille; Victoria Gastro Pub.

THE OYSTER: Chesapeake Gold Oyster‘s “Chesapeake Golds”

THE FARM: Hooper’s Island; Fishing Creek

THE FLAVOR: Hailing from Hooper’s Island on the Eastern Shore, these farmed filter feeders are a plump, medium oyster with a thick shell and a deep cup. They have a fairly salty, full flavor up front, followed by a sweet finish that makes it easy to slurp back a half-dozen or so by yourself on a sunny, summer afternoon. No cocktail sauce necessary.

WHERE TO EAT THEM: The Local Oyster; Thames Street Oyster House; Loch Bar; The Elephant; Nick’s Fish House & Grill; B&O American Brasserie; Cunningham’s; Christopher Daniel.

THE OYSTER: The Choptank Oyster Company‘s “Choptank Sweets”

THE FARM: Choptank River; Cambridge

THE FLAVOR: Named for the Dorchester County river in which they’re grown, these Eastern Shore shuckers are raised in floats just below the surface, which gives them a meaty texture “because it’s up at the top of the water column where food and oxygen are most abundant,” says manager Kevin McClarren. Imbued with the locale’s light salinity, they live up to their name with a mild flavor and finish that’s slightly buttery and—you guessed it—sweet.

WHERE TO EAT THEM: Thames Street Oyster House; Loch Bar; The Elephant; Lobo; The Boathouse Canton; Ten Ten American Bistro; The Nickel Taphouse; The Rusty Scupper; Victoria Gastro Pub.

THE OYSTER: Chesapeake Gold Oyster‘s “Holy Grails”

THE FARM: Hooper’s Island; Fishing Creek

THE FLAVOR: Saltier and smaller than their Chesapeake Gold sisters, these new CG oysters hit the market in March of this year. Also grown on Hooper’s Island, they have deep shells, meaty bodies and their initial saline burst finishes up smooth and slightly sweet. Just a squeeze of lemon will do.

WHERE TO EAT THEM: Thames Street Oyster House; Loch Bar; Nick’s Fish House & Grill, Riverside; Heavy Seas Alehouse; B&O American Brasserie; Cunningham’s; Oyster Bay Grille.

THE OYSTER: Hollywood Oyster Company‘s “Sweet Jesus” oysters

THE FARM Patuxent River; Hollywood

THE FLAVOR: A few miles north of Solomons Island, these St. Mary’s County sweets are grown in off-bottom cages in a mile-wide stretch of river that bellies up to acres upon acres of preserved park and private land. A smaller, milder oyster, they have a clean, sweet taste that’s reminiscent of cucumber with light hints of salt.

WHERE TO EAT THEM: Thames Street Oyster House; Loch Bar; Dylan’s Oyster Cellar; The Nickel Taphouse; B Bistro; Heavy Seas Alehouse; Cunningham’s.

THE OYSTER: Barren Island Oysters

THE FARM: Hooper’s Island; Fishing Creek

THE FLAVOR: These Eastern Shore oysters are grown in off-bottom cages on the open water just off Barren Island, a tiny, eroding dot of land just west of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge and one of the few remaining islands on the Chesapeake Bay. Light and approachable, they’re a clean, “not-salty oyster,” as owner Tim Devine calls them, with mineral hints, plump meat and a fine, polished shell.

WHERE TO EAT THEM: Thames Street Oyster House; Dylan’s Oyster Cellar; Ryleigh’s Oyster; Christopher Daniel.

*Oyster availability varies daily.