SOUTHINGTON — While they may look similar, each variety of oyster at the Close Harbour Seafood Oyster Festival held a hidden flavor derived from the minutiae of the waters they were raised in.
“Oysters just are so popular right now, they've just been growing and growing. Like craft beers and wines, people are just enjoying learning more about them,” said Lisa Onofri, co-owner of the restaurant and fish market. "That's why you come to the oyster fest, to find out what the difference is. It depends on what the waters are like where they're cultivated.”
She hopes to continue having the festival at the open and close of each summer.
Out of the dozen varieties they sampled, Onofri said the local Niantic Bay oysters stand out most to her.
"I like the size of them, the texture, they're a little sweet, they're not overly salty," she said. "There's more and more small farms popping up, there's more oysters being cultivated in local areas.”
"The Niantics are very solid, they're very consistent, they're good for beginners and connoisseurs. You're going to find a little bit of saltyness, a little bit of sweetness, a little bit of brine, which is the taste of the ocean,” said chef Dave DiBiase, who pushed for the start of the festival.
Everything from the water’s temperature, salt content and how it’s raised goes into the flavor during the two to four years it takes to prepare an oyster for harvest.
"It's not just something you pick out of the ocean, it's something that someone put a lot of work behind in order to get it to your table and I love the science behind that,” DiBiase said.
The raw flavor wasn’t the only characteristic to be sampled. DiBiase also tried out every manner of cooking style, including grilled, fried, smoked, oyster gumbo and oyster shooters with watermelon and jalapeno.
"We're huge oyster fans, so whenever there's an event like this, which isn't often around here, we try and hit it up,” said Mike Urbinati, of Wethersfield, who came with his fiancée and some friends.
"There's never an oyster bar or anything where you can get a huge selection," said Ryan Cherhoniak, of Prospect, before his wife, Kelly Cherhoniak, said it was a done deal once Ryan saw it was all you can eat.