You know the adage that warns against eating oysters in months without an R? Those summer months are when shellfish spawn and toxic algae tends to bloom, but thanks to more controlled commercial farming, that rule may be largely outdated.
This is especially true for C.J. Husk and Dana Hale from Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, MA. They stagger the breeding process in order to harvest every week of the year. We sat down with them last weekend before Oysterfest at Meritage and cracked open some wine — and more than a few of their delicious bivalves — as they shared their farming process and love of the product.
“When you eat 15, 20 oysters, it’s like taking a shot of tequila or Fernet,” says Hale, beaming as she downs a freshly shucked oyster. “It’s part of what makes them so fun to dine with — it gives you that feeling, a euphoria, I’d call it life-force.”
They farm on a three-acre lease of Duxbury Bay, a smaller enclave at the mouth of Cape Cod Bay where water is far too cold for oysters to spawn. There they enjoy an 11-foot tidal range that refreshes the bay with new water and lots of algae (oyster food) twice daily. It takes them 18 months to grow an oyster — from “planting” the seed in upwellers under the docks to hand harvesting or dredging the muddy seabed.
As with all East Coast oysters, their flavor tends toward minerals and seawater, compared to the fruitier west coast varieties. Island Creek’s hit you right away with a refreshing saline tang, followed by a cucumber-sea grass-vegetal taste that finishes remarkably sweet. “I’ve been buying their oysters for over two years,” says Meritage’s Russell Klein, “and I’ve never had a bad one.”
Along with crucial outposts like Meritage, Island Creek regularly supplies around 100 restaurants between Boston and New York. “When you’re working with someone like Thomas Keller,” says Hale, “he respects the seasonality of it and understands the farming. But, ‘we don’t have them today’ doesn’t work for him. So, if there’s ice, we have a chainsaw, and we’re cutting a hole and harvesting.” During the culling process, a specific grade of oyster is sorted out for Keller’s use at Per Se.
But on the East Coast, oysters are everywhere. That’s why they were excited to be in St. Paul, where good shellfish isn’t taken for granted. “You’re getting oysters as fresh here as you would in Boston,” says Hale. “Maybe even fresher, because there, the attitude it so relaxed.” Here, they explained, places that overnight an expensive product are going have the care to store it correctly and serve it quickly.
“It’s great to have places like Meritage that enhance people’s understanding of the product,” says Hale. “They’re really nutritious, they’re some of the most sustainable seafood you can consume, and what I like about it, is that American farmers can actually make a living growing them, which you can’t say for a lot of other food.” Those are also the reasons that drive Island Creek’s Foundation, which works to establish sustainable aquaculture projects in developing areas like Zanzibar and Haiti.
Finally, they offered us a shucking tutorial: Hold the oyster firmly under a towel, pushing down on the rounded end, and gently wiggle your knife back and forth horizontally into the top of the oyster’s hinge (that pointy part at the end where it originally grows from its seed). Once you have the knife lodged in just a bit (about a half centimeter) you can use it like a lever to pop the shells apart.
Then insert your knife into the shell where it opened, and scrape along the top shell until it comes off. Finally, locate the abductor muscle where the oyster is attached to the bottom shell, and scrape across the width of the bottom shell, pushing the meat aside as you sever the muscle. Be sure to scrape as close to the bottom as possible, because the abductor is the sweetest part of the oyster meat.