November 23, 2011

Island Creek Oysters

An Island Creek oyster, in all its glory. 

Island Creek Oysters started when Skip Bennett first planted some on his quahog lease in Duxbury Bay after a few years of failure to make it work. It is lucky for us that the oysters quickly to the ecology of the bay, or these might not exist today. No one had ever farmed oysters in this particular bay in Massachusetts, you see, so people were skeptical when Skip tried. The company grew over the years as he was joined by a few others: Christian Horne (an oyster farmer from Maine), Donny Berry (owner of a local fish market), and Bill Bennett (Skip's father and long-time lobsterman). Currently, they have a large crew and are distributing oysters grown by other local farms, oversee their own non-profit foundation teaching aquaculture in Africa, and travel to many festivals and fundraisers. Quite a change from their humble beginnings. (If you want to know more of the history of the farm and crew, visit their website)

The basic process is as follows: seed goes into the upwellers in early spring, just as the weather starts to warm up (they have always purchased the seed, but are in the process of starting their own hatchery); once it's grown a bit, it either goes out into the bay, protected by bags placed in large racks, or up into the floating nursery in the upper marsh to continue to grow; finally, the oysters are "planted" on the lease (a process of either shoveling them out of a boat into the water, or shaking them out of bags at low tide to rest directly on the bay floor. To harvest, they mostly dredge the oysters from the lease -- in this case actually a sustainable method, since they are continually dredging and replenishing the same area -- but at very low tides (called "drainers") they are picked by hand from the mud.

At Island Creek, they have a special cull for one of their high-profile customers: Thomas Keller. Chef Keller uses Island Creek oysters for his Oysters and Pearls dish, served both at Per Se and the French Laundry. These oysters are small, about 2 1/2 inches, and perfectly rounded and regular. Perfection on the half shell.

Duxbury Harbor

November 16, 2011

Beach Point Oysters

A typical Beach Point. Delicious

Barnstable Harbor (or Barnstable Bay, there is some disagreement as to the proper name) has begun to prove itself as a contender for some of the best oysters on Cape Cod, one to rival the eminent Wellfleet Harbor. This area has pristine waters, thanks to protected lands on all sides and an utter lack of major industry; the salinity is high, the predators are few, and the water is cold. The large barrier beach of Sandy Neck wraps around the harbor on the north side, protecting it from the harsh winds and waves of the open Cape (the tip of Sandy Neck is called Beach Point, hence the name).

Barnstable Harbor the first day I visited

Mark Begley has been growing his Beach Points on 2 acres of the sea floor since 1999, with occasional help from his sons and daughter, and the support of his wife. Considered a "boutique seafarm," his operation is very small by any standards, both because of the local leasing regulations and because this is a part-time venture -- though, there really is no such thing as "part-time farming" as any farmer can attest -- but this seems to be working out very well for Mr. Begley (who is officially employed full-time as an Environmental Engineer). He raises his oysters from purchased seed in an imported long-line-and-cage system from Australia (check out the photos on the website here), which is very unusual here on the East Coast. There are several advantages to this system: first, the cages are easy to handle, even when full of adult oysters; second, they are free to move around with the waves and tides, keeping the oysters nicely tumbled; and last, the cages are designed in a way that facilitates the grow process by allowing the use of mesh bags placed inside to grow oysters from seed to adult. With help from his son, Mark Begley also just built a mechanized tumbler to help sort the oysters and make his life easier. This might also make the oysters more robust and deeply cupped than before, so keep your eyes out in about a year or so for this product.

These oysters are definitely in my Top 10, and, having been there and conversed with Mr. Begley himself, I know they will continue to be exceptional. Enjoy!

The same location, 24 hours later at wicked high tide. 

November 13, 2011

Mystic Oysters

A Mystic Oyster, in all it's glory.

Mystics are farmed in several locations within Mystic Harbor, Connecticut, by 2 farmers: Jim Markow and Steve Plant. I had the opportunity to spend some time with Jim Markow a few weeks ago, and I got a much greater appreciation for the details that make these oysters distinctive. 

Mystic farmers are members of Noank Aquaculture Cooperative, along with Karen Rivara (Peconic Pearls) and Brendan Smith (Thimble Island Oysters), which gives them access to oyster seed (baby oysters under 1/8" in diameters) grown by Karen on Long Island. (I'll do a longer post at another time to explain this process). Jim purchases this seed by the millions in early spring and move them into mesh bags set on the bottom of Beebe Cove until they get bigger, about two inches or so. All of these bags (which are huge, about 10 feet square) are frequently lifted off the bottom with a crane mounted on their boat to be sorted and to kill off any fouling that may have attached to the bags and oysters, then returned to clean bags and replaced in the Cove. Once they have matured a bit, they are taken out of the nets and placed directly to the bottom of the harbor in various locations to finish their growth. 

A life on the bottom is a tough one, however, as proven by the 70% mortality rate from seed to market. Predators such as green crabs, starfish, and oyster drills have devastating effects in bad years, as do sponges and macroalgae. Despite all of this, the finished oyster is an incredible product, exhibiting a full, firm texture, medium salinity, followed by a celery and mineral finish. 

If you can find them, do yourself a favor an order a few. You won't regret it.

Jim Markow's Boat in Noank, CT

November 7, 2011

Oyster Chowder

I had an excess of oysters a while back, and threw this together based on a recipe from the 1930s. It's basically a clam chowder but with oysters. Quite good.

Oyster Chowder

24 each    Oysters, shucked, drained (save the liquor!!)
1 1/2 oz    Dry sherry
3 cups       Milk
2 cups       Water
4 oz          Salt pork or bacon, diced
8 oz          Onion, diced
4 oz          Leek, washed and diced
2 oz          Celeriac, peeled, small diced
12 oz        Waxy potatoes, diced
3 each       Bay leaf
1/4 tsp.     Cayenne powder
1/4 cup     Parsley, chopped
--              Cracked black pepper
--              Salt (don't be shy)

1. Render the pork over low heat, stirring occasionally.
2. Once the fat is rendered and the pork browned, add the onion and leek and sweat until translucent. Add the celeriac and potatoes, saute briefly.
3. Deglaze the pan with the sherry and oyster liquor, then add the milk, water, and seasonings. Simmer gently until root vegetables are tender.
4. Stir in the parsley and oysters, simmer 2-3 more minutes. Serve immediately.

Oysters at Home

Getting live oysters to your home has become quite easy since the advent of the internet, as many producers (even some smaller ones) now sell direct to customers, often in a variety of quantities. Many of the nicer fish markets will stock a selection as well, and if you're lucky enough to live near oyster-producing areas you might even be able to pick some up at your local greenmarket. However you purchase them, you'll need to know a few things to keep them happy until you're ready to shuck them:

Once you get your oysters home, it's often a good idea to give them a good once-over. Some producers clean their oysters so you don't have to, but that is the exception; often, oysters get from the water to you with a minimum of handling, so give them a rinse under cold running water to get rid of the majority of silt and algae. If they are exceptionally dirty, you can use a stiff brush to scrub them off -- I almost always go this route because the shells are often quite beautiful and I'm a bit too anal retentive to leave them dirty for long. Also, some types of silt or other material on the shells can start to decompose out of the water, which can smell horrific but does not affect the quality of the oyster inside. Some of the farmers I have talked to swear that they stay good longer if your don't clean them right away, but I've never tested this and the concept doesn't seem to make any sense scientifically. Which ever way you go, make sure that they are mostly clean before you start shucking, at least around the hinge where you will be opening them.

Once cleaned (or not), find a space in your refrigerator large enough to accommodate your oysters. Crisper drawers are a favorite if you can spare them. They should be stored cup-down and covered with a damp towel. You can stack them in a container to save shelf space, and just cover the top as completely as possible with the towel. Just remember to keep the towel damp and remove any liquid from the bottom of the container; oyster may live in water, but their natural habitat and what ends up in the bottom of your crisper drawer are different things, the latter often containing high levels of nitrates from the excrement of other oysters and is basically toxic. DO NOT store them packed on ice, as this also can kill them by freezing. Oysters served on the half shell are often presented on ice, but this is only to keep them chilled in warm ambient temperatures.

Unless you plan to open your oysters by grilling or roasting, you'll need a way to open your oysters. The safest option is to buy an oyster knife, which is meant to withstand the forces required to pry open your precious bivalves. There are hundreds of variations on the oyster knife (I personally like the New Haven style), but be sure that the one you pick is very sturdy and comfortable in your hand. Once you have your knife, you'll want a small towel and probably a sturdy rubber or metal glove in case you slip. These knifes may not feel sharp to the touch, but they can inflict serious damage with enough force behind them; almost every serious shucker has a horror story about an injury received or seen. If you're new to shucking, here are some videos to get you going. Try to keep as much of the liquid in the shell as possible, there is a lot of flavor in that liquor (as it's often called).

This is where a lot is left to the individual, as everyone has a different way they like to eat their oysters. The simplest option: shuck and pass. No plates, no ice, no other tools necessary. If you want it to look a bit more professional, arrange a large plate or tray with crushed ice (or small ice cubes), rock salt, seaweed, etc. to hold the oysters still, and place the oysters atop this layer. The more serious oyster restaurants have special machines that can shave ice cubes, or ice machines that are designed to make small ice pellets. Obviously not practical for the average consumer, but they exist.

As a purist, I usually refuse to add anything to my oysters because I want to taste the oyster, not a sauce. However, the average person likes a little something added in. Sliced lemons are de rigueur, but mignonette, horseradish (fresh-grated is always best), and cocktail sauce are also common. Mignonette is a classic sauce for oysters which contains at least minced shallots, crushed (not ground) black pepper, and vinegar. Hundreds of variations exist, but the basic uses wine vinegar, red or white.

Spotting a Bad Oyster
No one wants to eat a bad oyster. At the minimum, the flavor will be unpleasant and the meat will be dry and unappetizing, and the worst-case scenarios all end in death. If you pay attention, you should be able to go your whole life without ever getting sick. Here's what you need to look for:

- Oysters should smell like the sea, and little else. If they don't, they're probably off, and I practice the "better safe than sorry" rule here
- The meat of an oyster should range from pale ivory to beige, with a few exceptions. If the meats have spots of other colors or are another color entirely, discard them
- Oysters should contain a good amount of liquid inside them, which is what keeps them alive out of the water. If the meats are dry or shriveled up, they are bad

Unfortunately, some of the worst diseases that you can contract from oysters have no effect on the smell or taste, and can be very serious if not treated quickly after symptoms begin. Buy your shellfish from someone you trust; all retailers are required to keep records and should keep up on fishery closures due to diseases. You can always ask for a photocopy of the shellfish tag that comes with each shipment. When ordering direct from a farmer, you're probably safe, and if nothing else a shellfish tag will come with each shipment as required by law.

Here's a brief list of companies selling oysters direct:

Island Creek Oysters
Taylor Shellfish
Kachemak Shellfish Growers
Rappahannock River Oysters

Be safe, be smart, and ENJOY YOURSELF! 

November 2, 2011

Blue Points vs. "Blue Points"

I really like the idea of protecting foods with laws like those of the AOC (France) and DOC (Italy), and I wish we could get some of that sort of regulation here. I think it would only benefit independent farmers. The idea behind these laws is that by protecting a product -- say, Prosciutto di Parma -- you protect the quality and consistency of that product. It is illegal in Italy to sell a product as Prosciutto di Parma if it is not produced following precise guidelines or within the region of Parma. Also, sparkling wine cannot be called Champagne, unless it is from the geographical region of Champagne in France. It is a strange concept for many Americans, but a concept that I strongly support.

This brings me to my point: why do we ignore similar laws locally, when they are meant protect the quality and reputation of products? In 1908, a law was passed in New York state regarding the production and distribution of Blue Point oysters in an attempt to do just that:

"§ 201-a. Blue Point oysters. No person, firm or corporation shall sell or offer for sale any oysters, or label or brand any package containing oysters for shipment or sale, under the name of Blue Point oysters, other than oysters that have been planted and cultivated at least three months in the waters of Great South bay in Suffolk county.
Formerly L. 1908, ch. 130, § 201-a."

Granted, three months is really not much time to become a true Blue Point, but it was deemed acceptable by the state that, after that amount of time, they would have developed enough of the local merquoi to be able to pass as such. I'm sure this law helped for a little while, but as can be seen in many establishments these days, it went largely unheeded. Today you can pretty much assume that any oyster offered up at $1 happy hour prices under the name Blue Point will be of poor quality, or at best be mostly lacking in flavor and complexity. There is one oyster, however, trying to reclaim the good reputation of Blue Point oysters: the Genuine Blue Point, grown by the Blue Island Oyster company in Great South Bay itself. I have eaten these on many occasions, and I can assure you that they are exceptional. More expensive than the usual happy hour options, but very much worth it.

I'm not saying you shouldn't indulge in those Blue Point knockoffs, sometimes they can surprise you. If you're just wanting to kick back with some friends and share some oysters over a few drinks, they just might be perfect.

November 1, 2011

The "Big 5" Oysters

There are many species of oysters in the world, but in North America there are only five which you will frequently encounter. Here's the breakdown:

Crassostrea virginica
AKA Eastern Oyster, Virginia Oyster, Atlantic Oyster, Common Oyster

These are the native oyster on the eastern coast of North America, with a range from the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Canada) as far south as Brazil, with the majority of farmed production being limited almost entirely to these same areas and a small production in the Hood Canal in Washington. Some attempts have been made to establish populations in Australia, British Columbia, the United Kingdom, and Japan, among others, but these attempts have resulted in limited commercial interest. 

Because of their range and adaptability to different ecosystem conditions, this species shows marked variations in size, shape, and flavor. Also worth noting is that this species only makes up (by most estimates) about 5% of the world oyster production. 

Crassostrea gigas
AKA Pacific Oyster, Japanese Oyster, Miyagi Oyster

These are the most common oyster species in the world. Originally native to the Pacific coast of Asia (most notably Japan), they are currently cultured in large numbers in Australia, British Columbia, Pacific Mexico, the United Kingdom, and France. These have been the go-to oysters when humans wipe out a native population of oysters (e.g. in the U.K. and France) and start farming to supplement. One reason for this broad range of production is the fact that they are very tolerant to different temperatures, thriving in waters as warm as those of Baja California and as cold as those in the bays of Alaska. 

Crassostrea sikamea
AKA Kumamoto

Originally from the Kumamoto prefecture of Japan, these were first imported to North America to supplement the dwindling populations of Olympia and gigas species. They met with varied enthusiasm of oyster farmers because they grow relatively slowly and stay quite small, which is why they were unpopular in Japan -- the Japanese culture favored oysters of larger size. However, they are considered by some to be the best oyster variety for their subtle yet complex flavors, and they often sell for a premium price. 

Ostrea edulis
AKA European Flat, Belon

Native to the Atlantic coast of Europe from Norway to Morocco, and currently grown commercially in France, the United Kingdom, Maine, Washington, and California. Most native populations were wiped out long ago by over-harvesting and pollution, though the species still has a few wild populations in Europe, the U.K., and Maine. Like Champagne, "Belon" is an AOC protected name, and oysters bearing this name in France must come from the Belon River estuary in Britany, France. 

These are a very different kind of oyster, in pretty much every regard. Their shape is almost perfectly round, very flat, and appear much more similar to certain varieties of clams than the oysters most people are accustomed to. Their flavor is polarizing, to say the least. In fact, most people who try them immediately do not like them; the flavor is often very metallic (zinc, lead, and copper), fishy (like canned sardines or anchovies), and tannic. Even their breeding method differs from other oysters, but I'll go into that another time. 

Ostrea conchaphila (formerly lurida)
(AKA Olympia Oyster)

This species is the only oyster native to the Pacific coast of North America, but over-harvesting and pollution pushed them almost to extinction. These are what gigas and sikamea oysters were imported to replace. Now farmed almost exclusively in the Olympia region of Puget Sound in Washington, these are another species that people either love or hate. The flavor is similar to that of O. edulis, but much more tame and without the fishiness, instead being strongly coppery balanced with a mild sweetness. These are one of my favorite oysters, but many people do not agree with me. 

Like the Kumamoto, these are a very diminutive species, rarely exceeding 2.5" across, and often about the size of a half-dollar. One estimate stated that it would take 250 shucked Olympias to fill a pint. Small in size, big in flavor.