December 20, 2011

Widow's Hole Oysters

A classy-looking Widow's Hole. 

In my dealings with oyster farmers, I find it interesting just how many of them have come to oyster farming after doing something else. For some, that "something else" involves a life in/around the sea (fishing, lobstering, etc.), but some come from careers very different (one of the farmers at Island Creek was previously a metallurgist for GE). This was the case for Mike Osinski, founder of Widow's Hole Oysters. Once a successful software engineer, he retired to his house in Greenport, NY, and started learning about the rich history of oystering in the area. And as soon as he realized that he owned 500 feet from the shore of his property, it was all over: he was going to farm oysters. So much for retirement.

As it turns out, Mike's location on Peconic Bay is an ideal location for oysters. Greenport Harbor lies on the North Fork of Long Island, separated from Shelter Island by a narrow stretch of the Peconic Bay. This narrowness is key to the success of the Widow's Hole oysters, as it forces all of the tidal waters entering and leaving the main bay to flush through two straits, one on either side of the island, bringing all the nutrients, plankton, and algae back and forth past the area where the oysters are grown. In essence, this tidal flushing of nutrients gives the oysters access to more food than they could possibly consume, allowing them to grow fat and fast. Mike grows all his oysters off-bottom in bags and cages, and keeps the rapid growth in check by handling the oysters often -- this is actually more necessary than it sounds, as rapid growth means that the oysters need to be sized and redistributed regularly. This also allows him to keep predation to a minimum, a major problem for any oysters grown within reach of the sea floor. Whelks, oyster drills, and crabs all can wreak havoc on oysters grown this way if they are not constantly monitored.

Since 2004, Mike has been personally delivering his oysters to restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn every tuesday, selling 4,000-5,000 oyster per week from September through May. "The only oyster delivered to NYC same-day fresh," is one of his favorite refrains, and a true one: he only removes from the water what he will sell that week, and keeps them in the water until the morning of delivery. The man is quite a character to boot; he knows a lot of the local history of Greenport, especially related to oysters, and loves to talk to people about what he does. If you ever get the chance to talk to him, please do, you won't regret it.

Oh, and the oysters are really good. Relatively large shells hide a full, plump oyster with a medium brine and a hint of iron on the finish. You can find these on many oyster lists across the city, but rarely beyond, so slurp a few if you find them.

December 13, 2011

Chatham Oysters

A Chatham Oyster, they taste better than they look if you can believe that.

At the "elbow" of Cape Cod lies Chatham, a small town bordered on three sides by the Atlantic Ocean, which has always been entwined with the local community and economy. Once a center for whaling and commercial fishing fleets, it is now more synonymous with summer resorts and vacation homes and is a convenient port for those sailing to Nantucket Island. However, some people here still make a living from the sea, and Stephen Wright of Chatham Shellfish Company is one such person. 

Chatham Shellfish Company has been cultivating oysters in the Oyster Pond and Oyster River system for over 30 years, and for that last decade it has been run by Stephen Wright. Given his history in aquaculture, Stephen is the perfect person to run an oyster company and, in my opinion, has been coming to market with an exceptional product. The oysters here are grown from purchased seed and given a jump start in a FLUPSY system built into the docks before being moved to a floating nursery in Oyster Pond. This nursery consists of rows of floating mesh bags (seen in the photo below) which are flipped over frequently to kill off anything growing on them -- it is important to keep the equipment clean so that the water flow to the baby oysters doesn't become clogged and suffocate them. To sort the oysters by size, Stephen uses a mechanical sorter made up of a series of screens of decreasing size attached to a metal frame, which is shaken by a large motor. It's quite a system, and I was sad I didn't get to see it in action.  From here, they are grown in a variety of ways: traditional rack-and-bag method is used the most, but some oysters are placed in plastic trays laying on the bottom and the slow growers are moved directly onto specific areas of the pond floor to mature at their own pace.

Few things in the world are better than an oyster eaten on the spot where they are grown, still frigid and wet from the cold estuarine waters, and these did not disappoint. Already firm and fat in October, they delivered a cold smack of pure salt, followed by the sweetness of the adductor muscle and a clean, slightly mineral finish. Harvested to order, these are a solid choice for any raw bar, and will always remind me of that early morning I spent freezing my ass off on a boat in Chatham. 

Part of the Chatham lease at sunrise. 

December 2, 2011

Barnstable Oyster

A typical oyster from Barnstable Seafarms

Another great oyster from Barnstable Bay, grown very close to Beach Points and others, this one simply goes by the name Barnstable. Despite this closeness in geography to other oyster farms, the finished product is still unique -- a testament to just how the minute differences between methods can come through in flavor. 

Barnstable Seafarms is owned and operated by Les Hemmila, who employs only a few locals to help out with the operation. A Barnstable native, Les moved away at 15 to Summerland, California, then further afield to Indonesia where he helped to teach locals to build boats and create a viable fishing industry. A lifelong surfer, he ran charters on the islands for other surfers in his spare time (he still surfs to this day). Eventually, he moved back to Cape Cod, and settled back in his hometown, where he started growing oysters. He currently has leases in three separate areas, two in Barnstable Bay, and one in Osterville on the Atlantic side of the Cape where he over-winters his oysters. Icebergs and freezing temperatures in Barnstable Bay are very dangerous for oysters, so every fall he moves them to the warmer waters in Osterville, then back north in the spring after the ice has cleared. The warmer waters keep the oysters alive through the winter, but can prompt spawning in the summer months, so this is an area where very little actual production happens.

Like most oyster farmers, Les purchases his seed oysters from several hatcheries (sort of a "don't put all your eggs in one basket" mentality that seems to pay off). He takes this seed and places it in mesh bags raised off the bottom on rebar racks until it reaches about two inches in length, then these oysters are moved to wire trays laid on the sandy bottom or planted directly in the sand. One of the leases is more for show than production as it is easily accessed at low tide close to the shore, though more theft happens here because of the accessibility. However, this is typically the extent of predation in this area, a fact not lost on the farmers here. (Moon snails exist here, but are typically more of a problem for clams than oysters raised off the sea floor)

Deeply cupped at three inches long, with bright salinity and a nice sweetness, these oysters are spectacular on the half shell. Ideally, if you can find a raw bar with several Barnstable Bay varieties, try them next to each other and taste the differences for yourself.