When the offer came in from Jax Seafood to try one of their exclusive “custom-bred oysters”, I did a double take. Did the press release actually say these oysters were “created” in the Rappahannock River, by cousins who had “resurrected” their family oyster fishery? (Yes, it did). What have we here?, I wondered. Has farm-fishing gone the way of Dr. Frankenstein, creating new life from spare parts? What would that mean for our notoriously imperiled ocean ecosystems? Were the oysters “created” sustainably? Were they healthy? How do they taste? I had to find out.
First to the taste: the Emersum is well-balanced, flavorful, and mild. It’s a perfect starter oyster, for an evening, or for anyone who has not yet come around to the amazingness of this long-valued foodstuff. (Oysters were a delicacy in Ancient Rome, a workingman’s lunch in Victorian England, and provided employment AND nutrition to 19th century fishermen and laborers who powered the burgeoning New York restaurant trade).
I’m no sea-mmelier (we’ll get to the title of the article in a moment), but I’ll note the main taste qualities any average joe will pick up in an oyster: size; texture (on the meaty-creamy-slimy scale); saltiness; any other strong flavors, especially mineralities that might seep in from the shell. To those points: the Emersum is medium-sized, appealingly creamy, low in brininess, with a clean, sweet, fresh taste. My partner compared the experience to that of a semi-hard cheese (say a Gruyere) you might nibble between more assertive and textural bites (a Roquefort or Muenster). Indeed, if you are just sticking your toe into the oyster bed, a course of Emersum alone is a great entree; if you are an oyster fan (or one of us who ask after the uni batch at the sushi bar), you might try the Emersum as a subtle bridge between more exotic or spicy tastes.
A word on pairings: Alex set us up with a slate of beverages to play off the Emersum. Noting that the salty mollusk generally pairs better with beers than wine, he served a stout and a pilsner, as well as a Chablis and a Muscadet (whose vineyards are traditionally built on beds of seashells, so, yeah). I found myself going back to the pilsner as my preferred palate-wash, but the stout and chablis were surprisingly satisfying counterpoints (especially to the stronger brands we sampled later: the Chincoteague and Watch Hill.)
About that word “merroir” — I didn’t make that up. Obviously based on “terroir” – the word for the qualities in a wine derived from the source grape’s environment — “merroir” merely names a basic fact about oysters: all oysters grown in a particular oysterbed will generally taste the same. No amount of seabed manipulation, supplemental ingredients, temperature change or even aging will change the base taste. It is true that some racks (including the Emersum) are agitated to produce a harder, deeper shell cup. But the taste will be consistent. So if you are a scaredy cat like Jonathan Swift (“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster”), rest assured that bolder men and women have gone before you to make sure the Emersum makes the grade.
Notching high marks for nutrition and taste, this venture scores equally high on social enterprise dimensions. All RRO oysters sold at Jax are grown through a “spat-on-shell” method, in which a baby oyster “spat” is placed on a shell and then allowed to grow in clumps that simulate natural reefs. What’s more, the shells from all four Jax locations are returned to the marina in Virginia for re-use. The method requires disciplined stewardship of the oyster beds, monitoring of water levels, protection from predators, and culling out of undersized or misshapen shells, all throughout a 1-3 year growing period. The process as it has been developed does not deplete the environment of essential elements (no dredging, or adverse impact on other marine resources), and is thus sustainable. Indeed, farmed oysters are listed as a “Best Choice” on the Seafood Watch List.