THE EUROPEAN FLAT OYSTER IN NEW ENGLAND
The European Flat oyster is legendary. The first oyster farmer in recorded history was a Roman named Sergius Orata. He grew the "Flats" to sell in the Bay of Naples. The Romans in the time of Julius Caesar found piles of native Flats in the British Isles and shipped them by the boatload back to Rome packed in seaweed. The Colchester Oyster Festival in England was originally based upon them. It dates back to the 13th Century. The Dutch versions are profusely illustrated in paintings by the great Dutch masters. And what would Ireland be without its native Flat oyster and a nice dark stout?
The Flat oyster is also known by its proper species name: Ostrea edulis. But the name that persists today in France is "Belons" after the Belon River where they proliferated. Napoleon ate them before a battle. When Napoleon III became Emperor, he ordered the upgrading of oyster aquaculture techniques to save them. Casanova ate Belons for breakfast. Balzac put them in his morning omelet.
If you are French, Belons are still the best oysters in the world. You probably have them at your midnight feast on both Christmas and New Year's Eve. The first oyster I ever ate was a Belon served to me in Marseilles.
The photo in the middle above depicts a typical raw French Belon. This one is actually called "Napoleon" and was served to me in a beach restaurant in Barcelona. Note: Green olives (as shown) are routinely served with oysters in Spain.
Sadly, when you enjoy an oyster in a French restaurant these days, it's country of origin may be in question. Belons still exist as natives but have been replaced in many places by disease-resistant "Pacific" oysters otherwise known as C. gigas (pronounced g(soft g)eyeguz). They are a different species and have a
very different taste. The gigas used for farming originated in Japan.
Even when a "Belon" is served, it may actually have been farmed in Ireland or Scotland for the French market.
The photo (above middle) was taken at a seafood market in Paris. The photo of the box of "Flats" above was taken in Montreal last month.
The Flats were shipped to Montreal from Boston and were harvested in Harpswell, Maine by local divers! The rubber bands are used in shipping to help the oysters survive the long journey.
The import of live French oysters is not permitted in the U.S. regardless of the species. Enthusiasts of the Flat oyster claim it tastes the same in the U.S. as it does in France. Given that the taste of oyster flesh always reflects its environment, that is hard to believe. Coastal waters wherever oysters feed rely upon the tidal nutrients. Our North American algae is not the same as European algae. Of course, seasonal temperature ranges also play a role in the taste. When they are cold and fat, they are sweeter.
"WILD" FLATS IN THE U.S.
Many of the early attempts at farming oysters in New England after WWII used the European Flats. They were placed in New England coastal waters including Maine, Great Bay, NH, Narragansett Bay, RI, and even Duxbury Bay, MA. Early research on farming them was done in Milford CT at the Milford Aquaculture Labs. Researchers in Maine made some practical growing progress most notably in Boothbay Harbor.
Eventually our native C. virginica proved more successful for farming. So New England aquaculture of the Flats was largely abandoned. The "Belon" oyster we now see in raw bars from Washington, D.C to Los Angeles, are probably cousins of the original farming experiments.
Regardless of its country of origin, what actually most distinguishes the O. edulis from our C. virginica is the fact that the edulis fertilizes its eggs in the shell. The virginica issues both eggs and sperm into the surrounding waters. The hatchery spawning of a virginica oyster is easier to artificially induce. The virginicas also can last for months in storage with the proper temperature and humidity - no rubber bands are needed.
As a result of the early farming efforts, virtually all of the farms in New England that raise oysters from seed currently raise virginica oysters. New Englanders usually prefer the milder taste of a virginica.
Nevertheless, Flats leftover from the original farming efforts are still to be found living in New England waters. They reproduce naturally. Even the waters where I recreationally fish for oysters contain them. I became curious to know just how prevalent they are. Hence, the day of diving and the video. Enjoy!
Note: Thank you to Graham McKay for braving the ice cold water to perform this research.