Meet my nominee for poster child of the local, sustainable food movement. Its name is Virginica, and it’s romping around right in our backyard. Otherwise known as East Coast oysters, Virginicas are undergoing a meteoric resurgence, with thousands of variations flourishing from Maine to Florida. After decades of decline, they’re reclaiming their centuries-old place at the head of the class.
Joe DiMauro, co-owner of Mount Kisco Seafood Market (477 Lexington Ave, Mount Kisco 914-241-3113) and the Fish Cellar restaurant (213 Main St, Mount Kisco 914-666-4448; fishcellar.com), puts it succinctly: “They’re back!” As with wine, local oysters are named for their particular piece of real estate, with appellations like Pine Island, Peconic Pearls, Widow’s Hole, and Fishers Island. And, as with wine, terroir matters. Nuances in the water’s salinity, minerality, temperature, and tides impart a particular taste that can vary from cove to cove.
DiMauro knows, and loves, them all. “Each region has its own particular flavor, so you always know what you’re getting.”
There are always at least three Northeast Virginicas available at Fish Cellar’s raw bar, notes Chef Lisa Graziano, who favors their large size and crisp, oceanic flavor.
Although oysters’ names may vary, their care does not. They must be bought live, shells tightly closed, and should be eaten the day of purchase. Shuck them (you’ll need an oyster knife and a strong wrist—see ehow.com for instructions) right before using, especially if you’re eating them raw. A squeeze of lemon, a drop of vinegary mignonette—perfection! And if you’re hoping for a pearl, don’t hold your breath: in 28 years of opening oysters, DiMauro has found only four.
New England Oyster Chowder
Courtesy of Chef Lisa Graziano, Fish Cellar
8 Tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter
3 celery stalks, diced small
1 medium onion, diced small
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup dry vermouth
2 qts heavy cream
16 oysters and their liquor
salt and fresh-ground pepper, to taste
In medium-sized pot over medium heat, sauté onion, celery, and garlic in butter until softened, but not browned. Stir in flour to form a roux. Add vermouth; wait 30 seconds for alcohol to cook off. Add cream and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until soup thickens slightly. Add oysters and liquor; simmer another two minutes. (Do not overcook oysters.) Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with a French baguette or other crusty bread.