Oyster EventsOctober 17, 2015

Ryleigh’s Oysterfest IX Recap

It doesn’t matter where you are, who you are, or which side you fall on the eternal “sauce or no sauce” debate, anyone can have a great time at an oyster festival. Last weekend, I took a train down to Baltimore to partake in the 9th Annual Ryleigh’s Oysterfest. Here’s a quick recap of my shuckin’ good time.

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Ryleigh’s Oyster in Federal Hill is a popular destination for Baltimorean’s most dedicated oyster fans. For the last eight years, Ryleigh’s has celebrated the opening of the Chesapeake Bays’ prime oystering season by hosting an annual fundraising weekend for Oyster Recovery. New and seasoned Chesapeake Bay & Eastern Shore oyster farmers were out in numbers, shucking for an energetic crowd that seemed to have an endless appetite for these delicious morsels. A few “far away” oysters also made an appearance, but the main focus was definitely on Maryland and Virginia varieties.

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A few details that caught my eye at the festival:

Oyster Recovery Partnership’s fantastic “Follow That Shell” recycling flow chart. It was a simple, eye-catching way to help any layman get a better idea of exactly what goes into the process.

Shucking on the flat shell was pervasive across the oyster vendors. I had also encountered at the Old Ebbitt Oyster Riot last year. This style of presentation makes the oyster seem like a completely different animal. No longer demure and nestled in its home, the oyster is completely exposed, ready to be “slurped up” from the top.

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Raw and cooked oysters were available to be enjoyed. I sampled the chargrilled oysters topped with seasoned tomatoes and cheese, as well as a hearty oyster stew. Excellent tastes all around!

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After I had my fill of food and drink, I was put to work as one of the shucking competition judges.Ryleigh’s Oysterfest also plays host to the annual Baltimore Oyster Shucking Championship, where the winner goes on to compete at the National Championship in nearby St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival. The winner at St. Mary’s will then have the opportunity to compete in the World Shucking Championship at Galway next year.

A league of shellfish aficionados including self-proclaimed seafood marketing czar Steve Vilnit, Baltimore Magazine’s Lydia Woolever, Oyster Recovery Executive Director Stephen Abel and I were each assigned one criteria to judge. My task: to impose penalty points for every oyster that contained mud, grit, broken shell. I was either very right or very wrong to take on this job since since grit & broken shell happened to be one of my biggest pet peeves. (I did not show any mercy.)

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Competitors were tasked to shuck and present one dozen oysters as quickly and cleanly as possible. Hands had to be raised at the beginning and the the end. Oyster mascot Shelly assisted in demonstrating this rule.

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Can you tell what’s wrong with this plate?

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In between the two heats, Patrick Hudson from True Chesapeake and Steve Vilnit found a couple pea crabs in one of the plates. Mmm yum.

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After each judge submitted their scores for every plate, the winners were announced. Father and son duo, George Hastings and George Hastings Jr. placed second and first, respectively. I am now convinced that excellent shucking skills can run in the family. Dylan Salmon of Dylan’s Oyster Cellar (and also a former Ryleigh’s shucker) placed third. Congrats to everyone!

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Until next time, keep slurping Baltimore! Feeling FOMO (Fear of Missing Oysters)? Check out my October Oyster Events post. Many thanks to Scotti, Brian, and the Ryleigh’s Oyster team for your wonderful hospitality.

Oyster EventsOctober 11, 2015

Washing Back Oysters with Scotch

Interestingly, when you search the keywords “oysters” and “whiskey,” not a whole lot of inspiration comes up. Most people are confused as to whether or not it would make a legitimate pairing at all. During the Whiskey Washback tasting event last Friday, I had a chance to find that out for myself. Here’s a quick recap of the experience:

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At Bowery Collective’s Whiskey Washback event last Friday, guests were invited to sample over 75 (!?) types of premium whiskey, bourbon, scotch, rye, and more. If you’re a super lightweight like me, you had to be pretty selective about what to try. Fortunately, the team at Sustainable Seafood Week curated a unique trio of farmed seafood and scotch pairings.

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First up: Fishers Island Oysters with Bruichladdich Islay Barley-spiked mignonette paired with the Islay Barley 2007. These oysters possess full-on oceanic brine, a zesty savoriness, and clean finish. The scotch is made with barley sourced from a single Islay farm. The bright complexity of this scotch makes it a great complement to briny oysters.

Steve and Sarah Malinowski (above) were initially cautious about how much scotch they mixed into their mignonette, but it didn’t take long for things to loosen up. The concoction worked surprisingly well on their ocean-grown Fishers Island Oysters. I think the floral, tangy accoutrement helped to marry the oyster with the scotch seamlessly.

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Next: Cape May Salts (naked) paired with Port Charlotte Scottish Barley. I visited the Cape May Oyster farm a few months ago (I will be writing about my trip… eventually) and was very impressed with their oysters from this year. The plump, buttery meats are a delight to savor. While the Scottish Barley is beautiful on its own, I didn’t love the pairing in this case. The strong peatiness of this scotch overpowered the subtleties of the Cape May Salt. Had the oyster been somehow cold smoked with a liquid smoke version of this scotch, I think it would’ve done well. Or maybe if you cut the scotch with oyster liquor? Just brainstorming…

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Another cool thing that was happening during this tasting was shell collection by Billion Oyster Project! If you don’t know what that is, check out my page on Sustainability. Special receptacles were placed around the oyster tasting table to collect empty shells, which is a critical first step in oyster reef restoration.

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Finally: Crave Fishbar’s Chef Todd Mitgang created a beautiful Faroe Island Salmon Crudo with Honey Bruichladdich aioli, black barley, golden beets, and tomato confit, which was paired with a Bruichladdich Scottish Barley — The Classic Laddie. The honey notes in both fish and scotch played well together. Perhaps I will try this at home sometime…

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All in all, I think that there is a promising intersection between oysters and scotch. If not in consumption, at least in production. When taste matters, place matters. Oyster farmers and distillers both share a great respect for the natural resources and environments that enable them to create memorable, site-expressive products. Now that’s something worth toasting to.

Many thanks to Sustainable Seafood Week for the invitation!

Oyster EventsSeptember 13, 2015

No Slurp Till Brooklyn: BK Oyster Riot [Photo Recap]

The fourth annual New York Oyster Week has arrived and my friends at W&T Seafood got the party started with another fun-filled Brooklyn Oyster Riot. To contrast the romantic choice of venue last year, this year’s event was held in the super chill Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg. Here are some photo highlights of the evening:

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Loved Montauk Pearl’s oyster & shell display!

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Well, hello there lovely ladies! Nellie Wu & Crystal Cun from W&T Seafood.

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Brooklyn Brewery delivers great non-oyster goods: beer and plenty of food.

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Mike & Mike, exclusive growers of Montauk Pearls.

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On the right is Brian Harman from Atlantic Cape Fisheries, growers of Cape May Salts in NJ.

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Each table was equipped with a handy oyster fact sign by Pearl App.

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It was great to see Rich Terry from H.M. Terry, grower of Sewansecott oysters from the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

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Pete Malinowski, director of Billion Oyster Project, handing every stall an oyster recycling bucket.

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Forty North Oyster Farm‘s display of Forty North farmed oysters and their new “Wildling Bastards.” Guess which ones are wild?

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Oyster Week co-founders Kevin Joseph and Rudi Ehrlich.

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Marco Pinchot from Taylor Shellfish repping the new branding! (Very nice indeed.)

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Oyster EventsApril 13, 2015

Oyster Omakase: the Makings of a Personal Passion Experiment

Oyster Omakase, my experimental oyster tasting pop up in New York City, was born out of a spontaneous impulse. Having traveled around the world in search of oysters and amazing half shell experiences, it dawned on me that I could be creating them as well. Although I’ve hosted a few private events here and there, I never really took a chance to put myself out there and see what would happen. Well, this is what happened.
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Oyster Omakase (pronounced “Oh-ma-ka-say”) was a series of short, illuminating oyster tasting and pairing events that I hosted last month. It was intended to be completely different than any other oyster event that I had ever been to. Inspired by wine tastings and high end sushi omakases, I wanted to create an intimate setting where guests would leave feeling inspired and enlightened. It was about raising the bar for oyster appreciation and connoisseurship.

The Ambiance

  • A perfect little bar area at the front of Chal Chilli on 28th and Lexington.
  • Decorated shelves with oyster knick-knacks and my favorite books.
  • Chalkboard menu hand-written by my talented friend Chavelli of I Draw Letters.
  • Wooden trays with pebbles to provide a “out of the water” vibe.
  • A photo-centric oyster Keynote projected from my iPad.
  • Goldfish crackers, because they’re tasty and fun.

The Format

  • 30 minute tasting sessions, with just four seats per session.
  • 4 sessions per night, for three nights a week, for two weeks.
  • Each taster was presented with three curated oyster varieties (six oysters in total).
  • Each taster was poured two beverage pairings and given a take home gift.
  • I shucked all of the oysters at the bar, while giving a guided tasting of the oysters.

Priced it at $36 per person and seats were booked in pairs ($72 per two seats).

Essentially, this was the start of becoming an oyster sommelier.

Oyster Sommelier?

Well, there’s not really a word for what I do… yet. Oyster sommelier is probably the closest that I’ve gotten, but it’s not just about curating a list of oysters. There is an overarching aquaculture advocacy and education aspect to it as well. Anyway, the working title at the moment has been the easiest for people to wrap their heads around. So far, the reactions have been good. The only downside is that it feels a little limiting.

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Photo credit: Melissa Hom (left), Simran Jaising (right)

The Oysters

I curated an all-star cast of six oyster varieties representing six different producers from six different states along the Atlantic. I ran two mini-experiments across the two weeks: Week 1 featured farms that I’ve personally visited before, so I was able to speak first hand about how they do things. Week 2 featured two new awesome oysters that have barely made their debuts. I’m fairly certain that my Oyster Omakase patrons were the first to have tasted them in New York.

WEEK #1

King Caesar Oysters from Duxbury, MA
A phenomenal oyster cull managed by Paul Hagan from Duxbury Bay Shellfish (and now the lead buyer at Legal Seafoods — congrats!) Loved them from day one.

Fishers Island Oysters from Block Island Sound, NY
Over the last several months, I’ve grown quite fond of Fishers Island Oysters and all that they (and the Malinowskis) embody. They have a great story and partnership with Billion Oyster Project and the Urban Assembly New York Harbor School.

Pleasure House Oysters from Lynnhaven, VA
One of the most remarkable boutique oysters out of the Virginia and you probably won’t find them on any New York oyster menus. Production/supply is limited and you kind of have to be in the know. 😉

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Photo credit: Mary Ann Benedetto

WEEK #2

Mount Desert Island Oysters from Bar Harbor, ME
This oyster is a brand new to the market and is currently sold in Boston, but not yet seen in New York. I had the opportunity to taste test them awhile ago and knew that they had to debut at Oyster Omakase!

Watch Hill Oysters from Westerly, RI
A robust, well-known Rhody oyster that I’ve been acquainted with on many occasions throughout my oyster tasting career.

Murder Point Oysters from Sandy Bay, AL
Perhaps the most surprising and stigma-busting oyster on this list. I had the opportunity to meet the growers at the Boston Seafood Expo and can’t wait to check out the farm later this summer.

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Photo credit: Jessica Joly (Right)

The Pairings

Tozai “Well of Wisdom” Ginjo from Osaka Prefecture, Japan
One of my favorite beverages to pair with oysters is sake! It might seem like a surprising combination, but the two together can boost umami like no other. “Well of Wisdom” Ginjo is a fairly subtle, but well-balanced and slightly dry sake. When paired with the briny Atlantic oysters, it made everything taste more vibrant! This sake was a match made in heaven with the northern oysters such as the Mount Desert Island Oysters and the King Caesar Oysters. I want to thank my lovely friend Monica Samuels from Vine Connections for providing her invaluable expertise and sensational product.

“The Oyster” Sauvignon Blanc from Central Coast, CA
Sauvignon Blanc is a contemporary white wine pairing for oysters, and I opted to use the most progressive of them all. We generally think of pairings in terms of taste, but what if you combined good taste with a great cause? Proud Pour does just that and helps creates wine that pair with solutions to local environmental problems. A percentage of the sales from “The Oyster,” goes back to support local oyster reef restoration programs such as the Billion Oyster Project. This wonderfully drinkable wine paired best with meatier and buttery oysters like Pleasure House and Murder Point. I want to thank Berlin Kelly from Vine Connections for her generous support and remarkable wine!

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Photo Credit: Rose Ahn (Right)

What I Have Learned

It took a couple days to get the rhythm down, but Oyster Omakase eventually found its flow. Every day was different. Some tasters enjoyed grilling me about oysters (which I eagerly addressed, but it resulted in a completely derailed schedule), while others were happy to just listen. While it seemed like everyone walked away more enlightened about oysters, I learned a ton through the experience as well. Here are a few of my own takeaways:

  • There is no one “best” oyster. Favorites were all over the place, and I was personally surprised by that. The stories helped a lot in conveying an unsaid quality about each of them.
  • There are still a lot of misconceptions out there about oysters. Questions about oyster myths and wives tales came up in every group, without fail. From the R rule to pearls, pea crabs to aquaculture, the industry still has a big ways to go to set the record straight.
  • 30 minutes isn’t enough. To get through three oyster varieties, with time to spare for Q&A, I need 45 minutes. 30 feels way too rushed and I can’t go “off script” as much as I’d like.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Bruck (Left) and Chavelli Tsui (Right)

What’s Next?

This was so much fun that I have to do it again! Oyster Omakase will most likely reappear sometime, somewhere in the near future. I have been talking with several interested parties about where to host the next one. I don’t know if this will ever become a permanent “thing,” but in the meantime, it’s a great way to do what I love, help growers get the word out about their oysters, and help other oyster lovers learn more. There’s no downside to that. 🙂

For those who of you want to stay in the know about Oyster Omakase and other special events, sign up for my newsletter! The sign up form is in the footer.

I’m also curious about what you might also like to see or experience at the next Oyster Omakase… what do you think would be cool? Tell me in the comments section!

Oyster EventsApril 4, 2015

My Favorite Oyster Moments of Seafood Expo 2015

I can’t believe it has already been nearly three weeks since the Boston Seafood Expo! The month of March was a real oystery blur for me, but I had to make sure that I wrote up a quick recap of my favorite moments during and outside of the trade show.

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This year felt similar to last year’s event, but with a few extra surprises that made it even more memorable. To start…

#1 Hanging Out with Rowan Jacobsen and Patrick McMurray

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OMG. Star struck. For a few of you who might be confused, the two gentlemen are oyster celebrities. Rowan Jacobsen is the author of A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America, my oyster bible. He really has his ABC’s down: apples, bivalves, cider. I had met Patrick McMurray a couple years ago at the Galway Shellfish Festival. He’s a world champion oyster shucker, restaurateur, inventor (see: ShuckerPaddy), author of “Consider the Oyster: A Shucker’s Field Guide,” and all around fun guy to be around. Naturally I had to ask for a photo together and promptly posted it on Instagram. Because if it’s not on social media, it never happened.

#2 Getting a Behind the Scenes Look During the Shucking Contest

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Judges for the competition were Chef Chris Aerni of Rossmount Inn; Skip Bennett, founder of Island Creek Oyster Farm and Joseph Milano, owner of Union Oyster House. Patrick McMurray MC’ed the event, briefed competitors, judges, and support staff. I helped carefully shuttle completed trays of oysters backstage for judging.

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Post-competition with my buddies Paul Hagan and Daniel Notkin. Daniel won!

#3 A Shuckin’ Social with R. Murphy Knives

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Speaking of shucking, I bet you at least a handful of the competitors were using R. Murphy knives as their go-to blade. I had a chance to meet the owners of R. Murphy Knives over at the New England Food Show, which ran concurrently with the Seafood Show. I tried a few in my hands and really loved the feel of the wooden-handled Wellfleet style knife. Thanks to the uber generosity of the Younkins family, I walked away with a pretty sweet take home of shuckin’ swag, just in time for my Oyster Omakase!

#4 Massachusetts Oyster Flight at Row34

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Through a crazy mix of digital and real-world introductions, a group of us media/marketing folks (including the very lovely Michael-Ann Rowe from Off the Beaten Palate and Jessie Johnson from Sustainable Seafood Blog Conference) ended up at Row34 after reception hopping, which by the way, didn’t include oysters but a lot of other delicious seafood! At Row34, we had the signature Island Creeks from Duxbury, Wellfleets, Chathams, and petite Hog Island (Sweetwaters I presume, although the menu didn’t specify).

#5 Meeting New Oyster Growers

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The wonderful Zirlott family (and Beth Walton) from Murder Point Oysters — a new farmed Alabama oyster that will make you reconsider oysters from the gulf.

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Here’s James Power, grower of Daisy Bays, Raspberry Points, and a handful of other oysters from PEI. This winter was particularly harsh for everyone along the Atlantic Coast, but James decided to take matters into his own hands by buying a 10ft (?) chainsaw.

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Getting a peek into the scale of West Coast aquaculture with Ian Jefferds of Penn Cove Shellfish.

#6 Seeing Old Friends

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Pangea Shellfish returned with a glistening display of over 30 varieties of oysters and other shellfish. The sad thing was that none of it could be eaten! While having a chat with Ben Lloyd behind the set up, I could see the wonder and hunger in people’s eyes as they walked by the display.

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Heather Lusk and Rich Terry from HM Terry (growers of Sewansecott oysters) showcasing a new line of packaged shellfish delights. Dave Ryan, grower of WiAnno Oysters, and his two sons, Matt and Nathan.

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#7 Slurping in the Historic Union Oyster House

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Met up with Josh Hoch of Go Shuck An Oyster at the historic Union Oyster House. We first sat down at the oyster bar for a dozen local slurps, shucked swiftly by Jimmy. Meanwhile, Anton pulled out his oyster book — a cool compilation of articles and photographs that explained oyster culture.

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#8 Sampling Fresh Oysters

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Throughout the Seafood Expo, I had the chance to sample some excellent oysters from all around the world, including mega Fanny Bays from British Columbia.

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A brilliantly briny and succulent Pacific oyster grown in Baja Mexico, branded as the Sol Azul oyster.

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Is there a record for largest oyster eaten? Until next year…