Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Billy Goat Food Trail (4)

Dish to die for: Belon oysters

We returned to where we had started our food journey: Black Salt Fish Market and Restaurant on MacArthur Boulevard – in whose parking lot the Palisades Farmer’s Market had been that morning. If you time it right, you can return from your hike on the Billy Goat Trail in time for happy hour at Black Salt and partake of $1 oysters and discounted drinks.

The happy hour oysters that day were Rappahanocks, but there was a selection of nine other – more pricey -- bivalves to be tempted by. I succumbed, of course. What particularly drew my attention were the oysters from Maine. It seemed reasonable to suppose that the icy waters that produce those fabulous Maine lobsters could also nurture other crustaceans of worth. But since I had never associated Maine with oysters, I also ordered a few representatives from West Coast – my favorite up to that point – just to be on the safe side. In all, my half dozen oysters consisted of two kinds of West Coast oysters (two of each) and two Belon oysters from Maine.

You will notice that I do not remember the names of the oysters from the west coast, or even which west coast state they were from. Much as I enjoy oysters, I can never seem to retain the names of the varieties that I like. Servers like to identify your selections for you, going clockwise or counterclockwise around the arrangement on your plate. But by the time they get from one side to the other, I have already forgotten what I have been told. You would think that once I have eaten the selection and found which I like, I would be able to remember at least those, but still I fail each time.

Belon oysters were different. Absolutely different. The name Belon has become imprinted on my brain. See, it is now a couple of weeks later, and I still know not only what they are called, but how to spell their name, and that they are named after a river in France from which they were introduced to Maine in the 1950s. According to Rowan Jacobson, only 5,000 Belon a year are pulled for sale in Maine, making them one of the rarest oysters in the world.

They are wild, these oysters, “as powerful as any on the planet, redolent of fish and zinc and umami – not for the faint of heart”. I have quoted Jacobson here because I cannot offer a better description of these delicacies. Except that they did not make my heart faint, but rather pound harder, with the excitement of a new discovery. I quickly ordered more of these gems (no way two would suffice), foregoing any thought of another course. As Amanda Hesser has put it, these oysters are "the main event".Bravo to Black Salt for procuring these rareties at the beginning of oyster season. 

Speaking of oyster season, thanks to a post by John Hook, my understanding of why the R months are oyster months has deepened. The R months are the winter months, when water temperatures drop low enough to end the spawning activities of oysters. As Hook puts it, at that point, "oysters have completely taken their tiny molluscan minds off sex and become fascinated with getting all larded up” – it is the post-coital planktonic matter that they vacuum up from the tides that give them their oysteriness. The point is also made by another authority on the seasonality of oysters, Robb Walsh’s Sex, Death and Oysters.

But for those of us in it just for the taste, all we need to know is that April – the last R month – is the pinnacle of oyster flavor. So between now and then, I will be heading back to Black Salt and hoping for more Belon.

Note for those following this blog: apologies for the belated posting -- I started this piece before my long trip, and was unable to complete it until now. The correct sequencing should have been directly after Billy Goat Food Trail (3)

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