Oysters are bivalve ocean mollusks found in the wild worldwide, but they also are now one of the most commonly farmed shellfish. According to The Nibble, an online speciality food magazine, an oyster filters about 25 gallons of water through its system every day, so the qualities of the water greatly affect the oyster's flavour. Five species of oysters dominate the culinary scene in the United States.
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Flat Oysters (Belon or European)
Nearly wiped out in Europe by over-harvesting by the late 1850s, the flat oyster population recovered somewhat before serious diseases that first emerged in the 1970s virtually annihilated them. Some oyster farmers in Maine are now cultivating flat oysters. The best-known variety is the Belon, a name that specifically refers to flat oysters grown in the estuary of the Belon River in southern France. Other varieties are the Cohchester, Dorset, Galway, Helford, Marenes and Whitstable.
This is a Japanese oyster species now commonly grown in the Pacific Northwest, including California, Washington and Oregon. Originally it came from only Kumamoto Bay in southern Japan.
This West Coast native oyster is smaller than most other varieties, measuring no more than about 2 inches in diameter. Highly prized for its full flavour, it is no longer widely available because of over-harvesting.
The Pacific oyster is another species native to Japan that oyster growers brought to the United States in the 1920s, because the local Olympia oysters had been over-harvested nearly to extinction. The Pacific oyster now holds the distinction of being the most widely cultivated oyster in the world. Fanny Bays, Golden Mantle, Hama Hamas, Mad River, Malaspina, Penn Cove, Royal Miyagi, Samish Bay, Shoalwater, Skookum, Steamboat, Tomales Bay, Totten and Yaquina Bay are all varieties of Pacific oysters.
Viriginica (Atlantic or Eastern)
Viriginica oysters occur naturally from Nova Scotia to South America. They are generally thought to be saltier than Pacific oysters. Names of regional varieties include Blue Points, Chesapeake Bay, Chincoteagues, Lynnhavens, Pemaquid, Pine Island, Pugwash and Malpeques. Viriginica oysters from colder waters usually have crisper flesh and a saltier flavour than those from southern waters.
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