The Art of Eating an Oyster

Throwing back a half dozen oysters is easy; actually appreciating them takes a little know-how.

By Zach Patton

As true oyster lovers know, there’s an art to tasting the bivalve’s complex flavors. “We’ve taken our cue from the wine community,” says Chris Ludford, of Pleasure House Oysters, in Virginia Beach (3211 Lynnhaven Dr.; 757-663-6970; That means appreciating the nuances of an oyster’s “merrior”—the marine counterpart of terroir, all those environmental aspects that shape the taste of wine.

Autumn is a particularly good time to brush up on your oyster-tasting skills: While modern refrigeration and cultivation mean that you can eat oysters all year long—not just in months with an r in their names—oysters develop a deeper, richer flavor in the fall and winter. East coast oysters build up glycogen to survive through colder months, which makes them taste sweeter and fattier. “It’s like marbling in a steak,” Ludford says.

If you’re in Virginia Beach this fall, whether you’re at a fine seafood restaurant, in a dive bar or out on the waters of the Lynnhaven River, take time to savor that oyster you’re eating. Ludford walks us through the six parts of the tasting journey:

1.     The bouquet. Just as you do with a glass of wine, begin by inhaling the aroma of the oyster. That olfactory hit is your introduction to the flavors that make the oyster unique.

2.     The liqueur. Sipping the “juice” in which the oyster sits can tell you a lot about where it’s from. “That’s where you get the first hits of salinity, minerality, earthiness,” Ludford says. Oysters from rocky coastal areas, for instance, have a more mineral flavor.

3.     The front. With the oyster in your mouth, focus on the taste with the tip of your tongue. This introduces you to the initial flavor, which may then change as you eat it.

4.     The body. As you chew the actual oyster itself, concentrate on the texture as well as the flavor. Is it rich and buttery? Salty and snappy? Chewing also brings out an oyster’s sweetness.

5.     The finish. Oysters linger on the palate longer than a lot of foods. The finish is often when you taste the oyster’s umami, that undercurrent of savory flavor.

6.     The pairing. An oyster matched with the right wine or beer is like a perfect marriage, Ludford says. “It can really be fireworks!” Stick with a light-bodied dry white, such as steel-aged pinot grigio or a Loire Valley muscadet (which many have called the perfect wine for oysters). For beer, think a saison ale, a session beer, a very light IPA or another low-alcohol brew that won’t overpower.

Oh, and it’s probably best to put away that cocktail sauce. While Ludford says he enjoys sauce on a roasted oyster, the sweetness and strong horseradish flavor of cocktail sauce obliterate the taste of raw oysters. Instead try a mignonette, a thin sauce typically made from shallots, cracked black pepper and champagne vinegar. “You don’t want to drown out the oyster,” Ludford says. “You want to accentuate it.”

  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: August 2015