Wine has sommeliers. Oyster fans, get ready to meet your Mermmelier
NEW YORK – Most of us have probably had encounters with a sommelier at some point.
This is the person who will sneak up to your table in a fancy restaurant and tell you about the various fine wines that you could pair with your meal. Sommeliers usually boast of credentials to prove their oenophile skills.
Get ready to meet the latest food expert: your friendly local mermelier. What is that? A notice. “Mer” is French and means ocean.
A Mermmelier is an expert on oysters. Yep, those slimy, salty, seashell-encased delights from the sea. And Jeremy Benson, CEO of New York’s Crave Fishbar, is on track to become one of the first certified experts of its kind in the world.
“For me, tasting an oyster is like tasting the sea, which takes me back to my childhood swimming in the Atlantic,” says Benson, 37, a Massachusetts native who is helping pilot a certification run by the Oyster Master Guild, a dedicated organization Group organized to raise the status of the oyster. “I just want to share that magic with others.”
To achieve his goal, Benson turned to Patrick McMurray and Julie Qiu, both of whom are obsessed with oysters. They founded the Oyster Master Guild as a forum for educating and certifying those passionate about this oceanic delicacy.
Benson is the first participant in an Oyster Master Guild certification course. He’s part of a small group of budding masters, both enthusiasts and restaurateurs, attending a first and largely virtual seminar designed to help them educate the masses.
“Sometimes customers say, ‘An oyster is an oyster, why should I pay different prices for different oysters?’ ‘ says McMurray. “Well, like with crying, there are different notes. Maybe you taste salt, melon and cucumber. You can taste its origins like the roots of a wine.”
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McMurray is a Canadian restaurateur and author, and the current Guinness World Record holder for most oysters shelled in one minute. That would be 39. Don’t try this at home.
Qiu (pronounced “cue”) founded the In a Half Shell blog dedicated to oyster appreciation. The homepage encourages visitors to be “curious about mussels” and offers a wealth of information on oyster producers, suppliers and destinations.
“It all started for me when I was 15 and sampling oysters while visiting an uncle in San Diego,” says Qiu. As her passion for oysters grew into an obsession, she quickly realized that not all oysters are created equal.
“One day I was on an oyster farm in the middle of Long Island Sound, and when I tasted this oyster, it had a taste that was completely unique to this place,” she says. “That was the moment when I realized: Wow, this is a great product.”
Qiu and McMurray love to eat oysters, but it’s just as important to them to spread the word about the eco-friendliness of this food source. They point out that oysters are not only a renewable and sustainable protein, but also act as natural water purifiers. An adult oyster can filter several liters of water per day.
Better yet, they can be harvested. With a significant percentage of the world’s natural oysters disappearing due to overfishing, disease and warming oceans, oyster farms have stepped in.
Fertilized oyster larvae attach themselves to old oyster shells and over the course of a few years form their own new shells. This allows for the development of huge oyster farms that can be as lucrative as they are delicious. A five-cent oyster seed can become a 60-cent oyster that restaurateurs sell to customers for about $3, or $1.50 at happy hour.
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“Oysters have been appreciated for some time,” says Qiu. “When I first attended the New York Oyster Lovers Gathering years ago, we were many hundreds, and now there are more than 1,000. We just want people to know what they’re eating and why.”
She and McMurray are both supporters of the Billion Oyster Project, a non-profit organization whose goal is to clean up New York’s waterways by creating oyster reefs that also attract marine life and protect against rough seas. New sightings of whales and other creatures have been reported since the project began.
“Oysters are nutritious and also good for the planet, but when you say that, some people don’t want them anymore,” says McMurray with a laugh. “It’s better to just focus on how delicious they are.”
While wines often get their bouquet and flavor from the soil and other natural elements in the vineyards, oysters carry the flavor of the oceans in which they live.
On the whole, Benson says, East Coast oysters are saltier and saltier, and have tender flesh. West Coast oysters have a lower salt content and a tougher texture.
Crave’s menu features dishes from the Atlantic, which often include Blue Points (Long Island Sound, Connecticut) and Black Duck Salt (Hog Island Bay, Virginia). From the Pacific: Pebble Beach (Hood Canal, Washington) and Kusshi (Deep Bay, British Columbia).
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Master oyster tip: skip sauces and treat yourself to a dash of lemon or grapefruit
Benson is a spirited oyster booster. Wearing chain gloves, he deftly shells a few Blue Point oysters for a visitor before squeezing just a touch of lemon and sometimes grapefruit on top.
While many restaurants offer a range of sauces for oysters, Benson and other purists consider it taboo — a bit like diluting a fine wine with water. “You want to taste everything about that oyster, including the water it lived in,” he says.
As a guinea pig for the master’s certification program, Benson helps McMurray and Qiu refine the course. The first skill level is called Oyster Appreciation Fundamentals and covers everything from learning different types of oysters to how to shell them without hurting yourself.
Finally, the course will include more levels: Level 2 will focus on the art of oyster pairing, Level 3 will focus on how to create a varied oyster program for guests, and Level 4 will teach restaurant owners the success of oyster menus.
But for Benson, being named one of the world’s first certified oyster seameliers is simply about making customers feel like they’re about to be taken on a journey through the world of food.
“I wanted to be able to walk up to a table and say, like a master sommelier can do: Here’s a proof of my expertise,” he says. “You don’t want a doctor to operate on you without a degree and I personally believe that while I’ve worked hard to build my own knowledge, as an Oyster Master I will prove that I can talk.”
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