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Hama Hama oysters from Washington State (Photograph by Scott Heimendinger, Hama Hama Company)

Instant Connoisseur: Raw Oysters

Oysters are the food of the gods. Creamy mouthfuls eaten raw, they pack nutrients like zinc and iron.

They’re good for the ocean, too.

Oysters are self-sustaining and improve water quality by acting as filters. And, when coupled with the fact that they lack central nervous systems, the bivalves pass the test for even the most ethically minded eaters.

Need more incentive? Scientists say Casanova, who allegedly breakfasted on 50 oysters a day, was right all along about that aphrodisiac thing.

Here’s a brief guide to the low-calorie delicacy: 

Though wild oysters, which flourish in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, have long been a part of human diets—and history—the world over, “today, virtually all oysters are farmed,” says Rowan Jacobsen, author of A Geography of Oysters. The harvest increases each year to satisfy a growing demand.

Like a fine wine, oysters have a flavor profile determined by their species and the nature of the water in which they grow.

Atlantic oysters are the biggest, with a briny taste and a smoother shell. They make up about 85 percent of all the oysters harvested in the United States.

Wellfleets—originally from Cape Cod and always a classic choice—have a clean, briny flavor. But impress your tablemates and order the flinty Moonstones from Rhode Island or super-saline Olde Salts from the Chesapeake Bay.

The shells of European flats are straighter, with fine ridges. Belons, named for a river in France prized for its oysters, were introduced off the coast of Maine and went feral. These wild oysters represent some of the rarest in the world. The species is being maricultured in several areas on America’s West Coast.

Pacific oysters tend to be smaller and sweeter, with deeply ruffled shells, such as the Miyagi, named after a mountainous prefecture in Japan. Up until it was declared its own species a few years ago, the hefty Kumamoto was lumped in with the Pacifics. They are native to Asia but grow well on the reefs of the West Coast.

Right now, the Pacific Northwest is in the middle of a “tumble-farm” revolution, says Jacobsen, who, in his spare time, curates the interactive website Oysterater.

Bags of oysters are grown in the intertidal zone attached to floats that fluctuate with the tides and the waves. The constant shaking and flipping invigorates the oysters and polishes their shells. “The result is gorgeous, smooth, deep-cupped purple-black shells and firm, meaty oysters,” he says.

And for flavor, there’s something for everyone. Look  for “cucumbery Shigokus,” “herbaceous Blue Pools,” and  “bacon-fatty Sea Cows,” Jacobsen says.

> That Old Letter ‘R’ Rule:

The rule of consuming oysters only in months that contain the letter r—i.e., never in summer—has been shucked, though many insist oysters are at their tastiest during colder months, when ocean temps are lower.

“Today, they are stored below 40 degrees from the moment they are pulled out of the water,” Jacobsen says, “so they are safe to eat year-round.”

> Oyster Terms to Know:

  • Liquor: The juice to savor, trapped inside the oyster shell along with the meat
  • Cream: How to describe a buttery, sweet, and soft oyster
  • Copper: When an oyster is very metallic and green-tasting
  • Mignonette: The vinegary shallot-laced sauce you can dip your oyster in if you must hide the flavor

> How to Eat Them:

“It’s like kissing,” says George Hastings of Arnold, Maryland, a 30-year veteran who travels around the eastern seaboard on the “shucker circuit,” opening oysters and talking up guests at private parties and public functions. He’s also a former national champ.

Tip the shell to your mouth but don’t touch it or you’ll get a mouthful of grit, he warns. Gently take the oyster meat in with your lips. Chew a couple of times and swallow. Smile.

> Classic Places to Slurp Like a Boss in the U.S.A.:

Washington, D.C.: Go where the pols go after hours: Old Ebbitt Grill, near the White House. The dark paneled walls and white-aproned waiters haven’t changed in years (nor should they), but the oysters are always fresh.

Olympic Peninsula: Hama Hama Oyster Company recently opened a saloon overlooking its oyster and clam farm in Washington State. Both operations are run by a family that’s been doing oysters for five generations. In addition to a great wine and beer selection, you just might see a passing whale.

New Orleans: If you haven’t been to 100-year-old French Quarter stalwart Acme Oyster House, you haven’t seen a show. The knives are flying as fast as the chatter of the shuckers and, if you’re sitting at the bar, you’d better wear a bib. Try the grilled oysters with garlic butter and a side of red beans and rice.

New York City: Gotham has dozens of places to savor bivalves, but the best thing about Grand Central Oyster Bar is that it’s in Grand Central. So if you need to catch a train in 20 minutes, you can still grab good oysters, sometimes even hard-to-find flats from Maine, on the go.

This piece, written by Nat Geo food editor April Fulton, first appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of Traveler magazine. Follow April on Twitter @FultonHere and @NatGeoFood.