Renowned for its quaint New England seaside charm, the icy Atlantic that rarely breaks 60 degrees, the spectacular sunsets at First Encounter Beach in Eastham and the rolling dunes of Provincetown, Cape Cod’s beauty and allure can also be found on a platter of Wellfleet Oysters.
Though I cringe every time I wade into the Atlantic, those bracing Cape Cod waters produce some of the freshest seafood in the Northeast, from palm-sized quahogs to chubby clams to those world famous oysters.
It’s the Wellfleet Oyster, the crassostrea virginica, that’s the Cape’s crown jewel, a bivalve gem whose salty liquor and creamy flavors make it one of the Cape’s most recognizable harvests. With their long bodies and hard shells, Wellfleet Oysters taste the best because they bed down in tidal flats from the time they are just tiny seeds until they mature. Fast moving tides, with their cold, salty cleansing waves, bring the growing seedlings unique nutrients, adding to their legendary clean taste.
Most Cape restaurants offer oysters on the half shell, deep-fried or baked. However, to appreciate their true exquisite flavor, try them raw with a classic mignonette, a vinegary, slightly sweet sauce that accentuates the oyster’s salinity. Don’t use a fork, but cradle the knobby shell in your hand and gently tip it back into your mouth. It’s Cape Cod in a shell.
Wellfleet Oysters are available throughout the Cape, from Sandwich to Provincetown, but I seem to enjoy them best when I’m actually in Wellfleet, a rural, but delightfully artsy village with its share of great seafood restaurants and markets.
Both the Pearl Restaurant and Mac’s Seafood are located in the harbor, a small but bustling pier where you can find and enjoy those Wellfleet Oysters while watching fishing and leisure boats head out to sea. Mac’s is strictly take-out, with a small eating area right on the beach, while Pearl offers a rooftop dining area with fantastic views of the harbor.
In the center of Wellfleet, there’s Mac’s Shack. Not your typical seafood shanty, Mac’s Shack has a larger, more upscale menu with a wonderful raw bar. They don’t take reservations – it’s first come, first served – and the wait can be long if you arrive during peak dinner hours.
If you prefer to knock back oysters in the comfort of your vacation rental, head over to the Catch of the Day, a small fish market and restaurant that has not only oysters, but plenty of native seafood. Opening oysters can be a bit tricky at first, so ask the folks behind the counter for a demonstration. Make sure to buy an oyster knife and wear a heavy glove.
Once you master the art of opening up a Wellfleet Oyster, you’ll be able to set up your own raw bar in your own home, wherever you travel.
Karen Ellery Jones is a Cape Cod travel writer. She has lived on the Cape for over 20 years with her husband, two teens and three cats. You can read more of her writing on Cape Cod for Couples.