Oysters have played an important role in human civilization for thousands of years, even here in Northeast Florida. When the first Europeans arrived along the First Coast in the 1500s, oysters were already a substantial part of the diet enjoyed by local Timucua. Evidence is clearly visible in the remarkable number of oyster middens (large mounds of discarded oyster shells) that dot the coastline.
While oysters have been well received throughout history, not everyone approaches them enthusiastically. Celebrated author Tom Robbins suggests, “Eating a raw oyster is like French-kissing a mermaid,” while musician Jimmy Buffett enthusiastically proclaims, “Give me oysters and beer, for dinner every day of the year, and I’ll be fine.” Woody Allen is clearly reluctant, saying, “I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead. Not sick, not wounded, dead.”
No matter how they’re perceived, oysters have the ability to provoke storytelling. In Jacksonville, these tales can be described as either distinctly culinary or beautifully artistic.
It’s helpful to understand that the quality and flavor of an oyster, known as “merroir” (wine has “terroir”), varies tremendously depending on the body of water in which they
are raised and the farming techniques applied. In general terms, the flavor of an oyster is the blend of taste, texture, and finish, with adjectives including buttery or creamy; hints of melon, cucumber or seaweed; sweet or salty (briny); and sometimes even metallic.
The oysters served around here are either Gulf /East Coast (Crassostrea virginica) or Pacific/West Coast (Crassostrea gigas). Every now and then you’ll find Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea) which are a bit harder to come by and certainly more expensive. While oysters are embellished with clever and fanciful names (it’s a marketing thing), they are probably C. virginica or C. gigas.
At The Local, a relatively new destination at the Beaches Town Center in Neptune Beach, oysters are served in a setting that J.C. Demetree, one of the restaurant’s three partners, describes as “comfy modern.” He explains, “Oysters were always a part of our original concept. Based on experiences in New York and New Orleans, we knew serving oysters at The Local would be unique to Jacksonville and well received at the beach.”
Guests are invited to select from a menu of freshly shucked oysters, updated regularly based on seasonal availability. For those who prefer cooked oysters, there’s Oysters New Orleans (char-broiled with Parmesan and butter) and the Big O Basket (lightly fried fresh oysters and okra with remoulade sauce and ranch). Hungry oyster enthusiasts may want to swing by during happy hour (Monday through Friday, 3 – 6pm) when oysters can be enjoyed for just a buck a pop.
You can also indulge at The Fish Company in Atlantic Beach, a popular spot favored by serious oyster aficionados. Kitchen Manager Garret Ley points out, “We bring in oysters based on seasonality and quality. When temperatures and growing conditions are favorable, our oysters are sourced closer to home, from Cedar Key or along the Gulf into Louisiana and Texas. At other times, they may come from Virginia or elsewhere further north.” While most are C. virginica, their flavor varies according to point of origin.
One of the best parts of an oyster session at The Fish Company is sitting at the oyster bar, enjoying the spectacle of oysters being shucked. Keep in mind that there are a limited number of seats that tend to be hotly pursued.
Should you prefer a more formal setting, nothing beats the variety of oysters served at Orsay, considered one of Jacksonville’s premier dining destinations. While you can indulge in their roasted oysters (garlic cream sauce, bacon lardons, sautéed spinach, Parmesan, lemon zest), and you can get them steamed with a touch of butter, nothing beats their variety of freshly shucked oysters.
According to Executive Chef Michael McKinney, “We typically get oysters from the Gulf Coast and East Coast (both C. virginica) as well as the West Coast (C. gigas). Since point of origin and “merroir” are such a big part of the oyster tasting experience, and
this is what distinguishes one oyster farm from another, we are happy to educate our guests about the oysters they select.”
While consuming oysters is certainly an enjoyable pastime, there is an undeniable beauty that becomes apparent when you consider the idyllic settings in which they grow, the rugged beauty of their shells, the voluptuousness of the oyster itself, and the pearlescent inner linings that become apparent once the shell is opened. It’s these remarkable qualities that have inspired a few local artists to put pencil, pastel, crayon, and paint to paper and canvas, creating inspired works that pay creative homage to these remarkable creatures.