This is a very atypical post, but a really exciting one! The inaugural New York Oyster Week is coming up soon (Sept 22nd – 27th) and I have the opportunity to give away two tickets to the Oyster Farm Field Day that’s happening on Monday, September 24th. Read on for details of the trip and how to enter.
On Oyster Farm Field Day, a small group of 20-22 Oyster Lovers will visit a working oyster farm and learn ALL about Oyster Farming and the ecology of the Great South Bay. It’s a great day out on the water at Blue Island’s rather guest friendly oyster farm. Believe me, I know — I was there a few years ago.
The farm is a singular place just off of Captree State Park in a tidal channel that rips between Captree and Fire Island. The farm itself is basically a big, stationary dock-island built on pilings in the middle of the channel. At one end there is a small building where we can sit and eat if it’s a bit to chilly to sit and eat outside. Blue Island Shellfish Farm CEO Chris Quartuccio and his gang will undoubtedly fill you with bivalve knowledge, NY oyster industry history, and — of course — the little shuckers themselves.
GIVEAWAY : WHAT IS IT?
Here’s an overview of the event:
NY Oyster Week 2012 Oyster Farm Field Day
Monday, September 24th
11am – 6pm
Blue Island Shellfish Farms in the Great South Bay
Meeting location: Captree Cove Restaurant / Marina @ 3500 Ocean Parkway, Babylon, NY 11702. This is the spot where those who drive or take the train out with gather and then go to the farm by boat, kayak or stand up paddle board. Driving directions can be found on the NY Oyster Week website.
Unlimited local oysters
Lunch paired with local craft beers and wine (see details below)
Roundtrip water taxi from Captree Cove Restaurant
Water activities such as Kayaking or Stand Up Paddleboarding
Optional Lighthouse visit
FOOD & DRINK
NY Oyster Week will be putting out a really nice lunch featuring unlimited Blue Island Oysters, Lobster Rolls, Steaks, Local Corn and Potatoes paired with local Craft Beers & Local Long Island Wines
KAYAK & SUP
If the weather is good, some of us can kayak to or around the farm from the meeting place at Captree Cove Restaurant. If you are a capable Stand Up Paddle Boarder (read: done it once and are confident you won’t fall in!), you are welcome to paddle out. Paddle Boards courtesy of MASHOMACK Stand Up Paddle People! http://mashomacksup.
THE FIRE ISLAND LIGHT HOUSE
Time and weather permitting, we’ll cruise over there by boat, check out the beach, take the stairs to the top and slurp some oysters there too! http://www.
$99 before 9/21 or $125 afterwards
GIVEAWAY: HOW TO ENTER
I have a pair of tickets to give away for FREEEE to this awesome event. The winner will be chosen at random from all of the entries that I receive via social media (whether it’s on my blog, Facebook or Twitter) by Friday, September 21st.
To enter, simply do the following:
- Post a comment on this entry about why you love oysters! (Simple, right?)
- LIKE New York Oyster Week’s Facebook Page and (if you haven’t already) LIKE In A Half Shell’s Facebook Page
For an additional entry to win, tweet to @InAHalfShell with the following phrase “I want to win #OysterWeekNYC tickets to Oyster Farm Field Day! Enter to win at InAHalfShell.com”
P.S. If you don’t see your comment show up immediately, that’s because I need to moderate them in order for them to appear on the website. So don’t fret!
Good luck and happy slurping!
I love Maine. It’s as simple as that. Its pristine waters, its rocky coastline, its charming way of life. The world moves at half the pace and with twice the sincerity. B and I trekked as far north as Acadia National Park and as far seaward as Chebeague Island. We found our dream wedding venue, put a dent in the lobster population, and of course, enjoyed some of the state’s best oysters.
In my opinion, Maine is one of the last “frontiers” of the East. With just a population of 1.3 million (2010), it is set among the top 10 least populated states in the US. Maine’s unspoiled nature is just as fertile as it is beautiful. They are reputed with having some of the best tasting oysters on the east coast. I can personally vouch for that, as you’ll read about later. It’s no secret either. A couple thousand years ago, Native Americans were all about the wild oysters from Damariscotta River — and they left their tab behind for all to see. Today, most of Maine’s most prominent oyster farms are stationed along the Damariscotta, including Glidden Point, Pemaquid, and Cape Blue. If you’re really lucky, you can also find yourself a wild Belon!
On this trip, we were able to get our hands on some fantastic local favorites. Before hopping on the ferry to Chebeague Island, I headed over to buy oysters from the Harbor Fish Market, a reputable seafood market that attracts both locals and visitors. The selection and knowledge of the fishmongers was indeed extensive. I picked up four different varieties — three from Maine, one from Massachusetts.
John’s River from South Bristol, Maine
Flavor: 9 | Salinity: 7 | Sweetness: 6 | Texture: Plump, slightly chewy, meaty
This deliciously complex oysters was by far everyone’s favorite. It had a great balance of brininess, sweetness, and earthiness.
Winterpoint from Mill Cove, Maine
Flavor: 8 | Salinity: 8 | Sweetness: 4 | Texture: Soft, very meaty
The largest of the bunch, but also the most straightforward in taste. Winterpoints were difficult to shuck (due to size) — I actually had to use force!
Damariscotta from Maine
Flavor: 5 | Salinity: 5 | Sweetness: 3 | Texture: Slightly meaty, a bit thin
Simple sea flavor with a little bit of earthiness, relatively clean finish.
Duxbury from DuxburyBay, Massachusetts
Flavor: 7 | Salinity: 8 | Sweetness: 5 | Texture: Thin, soft, tender
These oysters had a rather pungent undertone, relatively briny, with a lingering salty finish.
The four dozen oysters disappeared quickly amongst the eight of us. Some opted to drizzle a little lemon juice on theirs, but I encouraged everyone to try at least one naked. That’s really the only true way to fully appreciate the fresh and vibrant taste of Maine. The more fresh the oyster, the less garnish you need.
Of course, that’s not all that we ate during the weekend. This season, there was a glut of lobster. While having excess is certainly better than the opposite, the reality of this surplus doesn’t help everyone. While we giddily scarfed down lobster wherever we went, we learned that lobstermen up and down the Maine coast were challenged to sell their excess product at a fair price. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place. To think of it, I didn’t really see any dramatic price cuts in NYC for lobster either, with exception to the $6.99/lb sale at Citarella’s. (We’ve seen it as high as $16.99/lb there!)
On a more positive note, I experienced my first authentic lobster bake on the island. Family friends of our friend’s family hosted the most quintessential afternoon lobster bake and party that I’ve ever been to. Their charming plot of island comes with access to the water, a lush lawn, a breathtaking view of the southwest, and and insanely gorgeous summer house. Mental note: that’s what I want in 20 years.
This was my first Maine island vacation, but there will be many more to come! We also were able to lock down our wedding venue earlier in the trip, which I will leave as a relative secret until our website is up.
Check out my Flickr gallery for the full vacation set.
When it comes to oyster farming, no other day is as pivotal as seed planting day. For Jack and Sue Blake of Sweet Neck Farms in Martha’s Vineyard, they greet the occasion with the same enthusiasm as they would have for Christmas morning. But instead of opening a stockpile of gifts, there’s just one — containing several hundred thousand baby oysters. My friend A and I were lucky enough to tag along and witness a side of the oyster business that few ever get to see.
First of all, just what were we really doing in the middle Martha’s Vineyard? Well, the original purpose of our Cape Cod road trip was to attend a friend’s bachelorette party. Of course, being the oyster-obsessed blogger/photographer that I am, I just had to turn it into story. Here’s why: since the beginning of my oyster adventure, I had a special place in my heart for Martha’s Vineyard varieties (Tomahawks — which are no longer, Katama Bays, Menemsha Pond). They were consistently robust in flavor and texture, and I often wonder about the people behind these amazing products.
With the help of a crazy chain of people (many thanks to Kevin Joseph, Chris from Island Creek Oysters, and Rick from Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group), I was able to arrange an outing with Jack and Sue Blake aboard their Sweet Neck Farms oyster boat.
Sweet Neck Farms is one of the 12 oyster farms in Katama Bay. (FYI: Katama is pronounced Kuh-TAY-Ma.) To get there, A and I took the 30-minute Martha’s Island ferry from Wood’s Hole, MA to Oaks Bluff and then hopped aboard a local bus to Edgartown. The bus system on the island is fantastic, by the way. There is really no need for a car unless if you plan to haul around a lot of gear with you. You can even stack bikes on the front of the bus if you get tired of riding around.
Sue picked us up from the Edgartown marina at half past 10, where local townsmen were already gutting their morning catches on the boat dock. Jack and their oyster dog Marley were patiently waiting aboard their oyster boat. The 23-foot skiff was well-worn and stacked with hand-built mesh trays (ready to be used later). As I looked around, I quickly realized that I probably should have worn something other than white shorts, but the excitement of the impending day mitigated my impulse to fret about fashion.
Jack started the engine and we began to glide slowly out of the harbor. The further we were from the marina, the faster we went. A and I fawned left and right at the gorgeous summer houses along both sides of the Katama Bay. After passing the narrowest part of the bay, the weather grew funky. “We’re now entering the soup,” Sue said. A thicket of fog blanketed the water and transformed the once-pleasant environment into the perfect setting for an eerie thriller movie.
The opaque clouds only blinded A and me though — Jack and Sue, being accustomed to these conditions, simply relied on sound as their predominant sense. So there was a lot of, “it sounds like…,” versus “it looks like…” observations going on. On several occasions, Marley would tiptoe to the edge of the skiff to look into the distance. Perhaps being the only one who could really get a full sense of what was happening, it was best to get an open view.
Part one: obtain the seed.
Most of the oyster farming community on Katama Bay, including the Blakes, purchase their seed from the same certified hatchery on Muscongus Bay in Maine. About 2 million seeds are planted in the bay each year. Each farmer orders their own quantity, which ranged from several thousand to several hundreds of thousands, and everyone’s orders arrive together. After encountering a shipping snafu earlier, the farmers were on edge today.
When the box for Sweet Neck had finally arrived, shoulders loosened a bit.
Sue gingerly sliced open the box, revealing a white Styrofoam cooler. Inside the cooler were layers of cooling packs and bags containing bundles of seed. The baggies were carefully handed to each party, but one crew was left high and dry. Their order was missing. Suddenly the smiles turned serious. They started to make calls. Fortunately, it was just an issue of mislabeling. All was well.
The most ambiguous and anxious part of the day was over.
There are two floating platforms on Katama Bay which Sweet Neck Farms carries out its operations. A and I first explored the larger dock out in “the soup.” It is where the market-sized oysters are cleaned (power washed), tumbled, and dried.
For those who aren’t familiar with these procedures, tumbling oysters essentially means rotating a batch of them in a giant mesh cylinder for a few minutes. It helps keep the shells manicured and the strengthen the muscle. I guess you could call it oyster boot camp / spa day. As for drying, apparently that is to help get rid of pesky tagalongs, such as mussels and barnacles.
This facility — and the floating nursery — are works of human ingenuity. Jack Blake designed and developed most of the equipment that he and the rest of the farmers in the bay uses. The oyster tumbler, which has 7200 individual handmade welds, is powered by the wind energy. Other than the occasional tumble, oysters don’t really move around. They are placed in trays or cages that sink beneath the water’s surface, held afloat by a labeled buoy. The incoming and outgoing tides help bring fresh nutrients to them.
While the larger platform was fun, it was no place to handle the babies. So we parted aways with Sue and Marley, and set out for the floating nursery with Jack.
As we returned back to the bottleneck of the bay, the fog lifted from us as rapidly as it had descended. Other farmers were already hard at work planting their seeds into the water. Some worked in teams, and others alone.
It’s amazing that every single floating nursery out there utilized Jack’s design. These aren’t the FLUPSY’s that many oyster farms in the US rely on. These tidal-powered upwellers were specially optimized by Jack to work in Martha’s Vineyard’s conditions. Fourteen years ago, Jack redesigned an existing upweller system (aka Mook upweller) that helped both increase flow and capacity. You can read more about it here!
Part two: plant the seed.
The moment of truth was upon us. It was time to transfer the seeds into the water. Jack took care to shield the baby oysters from the wind. One swift gust could easily blow a few hundred away!
He slowly unwrapped the blue burrito to expose a pile of brown dirt. To the naked eye, the heap of baby oysters looked more like a grains of sand than shellfish. But as you can see below, each are actually very tiny versions of their adult selves.
The bundle above contains about 400,000 seeds. To spread out the risk, Jack has his seeds divided into four clusters, one for each tray. For the next several weeks, they will grow to a bigger size in the safety of these mesh trays. While transferring each batch of baby oysters to their new homes, Jack checks for holes and leaks up and around the wooden frame. One tiny tear in the mesh would result in an empty tray the next day. In other words, 100k oysters GONE. (eep!)
Fellow farmer Nick Turner was about to encounter a catastrophe.
As I watched him go through the same motions as Jack, neither of us suspected anything wrong. Little did I know, he had overlooked a crucial element. His mesh trays — which were all bright white and seemingly new — were missing gaskets. By gasket, I mean the vital piece of material placed between the wood frames to help seal everything in. Without the gasket, the oyster seed would simply slip through the slim cracks, resulting in a total (and devastating) loss.
Fortunately, Jack caught the faux pas before disaster could strike. There was some extra sealant tape onboard Jack’s boat that did the trick. The death-defying relief that overcame Nick’s face said it all. Crisis averted and much gratuity was given.
Pictured above is Jack gently lowering one tray of 100k oysters into the upweller. In just 10 days, these itty bitty oysters will triple in size!
After the last mesh tray was put into the upweller, Jack gave his new oyster babies one last look and closed the lid. They will be revisited by the Blakes regularly, to ensure that they’re kept clean, happy, and healthy. Meanwhile, A and I were returned back to Edgartown.
As a parting gift, we were bestowed with several dozen fresh Sweet Neck Farm oysters. Told you it was like Christmas!!! We carried them in the same Styrofoam cooler that the baby oysters had arrived in. (**Full circle moment**)
I was especially excited about this, because it would make for a brilliant bachelorette surprise…never mind that the bride-to-be wasn’t much of an oyster veteran/eater/lover.
Oh btw, here’s one of the most ridiculous houses in Edgartown. Apparently it belongs to the family of a successful car dealership owner. Instead of showing off cars on their property, they keep llamas.
By the time we were back on dry land, our stomachs were grumbling hard. Jack recommended having lunch at Atlantic Fish & Chop House. After we said our goodbyes, we hauled our little cooler to the restaurant and sat down in the covered back porch area. We tried their crab cake (amazing), lobster cuban (pretty phenomenal), Katama Bay oysters (sublimely sweet and plump), and clams (yum). One of the oysters on our plate had the most exquisite vein detailing. The whole animal looked like a heart from the sea!
Now fast forward a few hours. We left Martha’s Vineyard and drove up to Pocasset, where Kacy’s party was happening. As soon as we brought in the oysters, there was immediate intrigue and excitement. Kacy was probably not one of the most eager, but she agreed to try one. That night just under half of the oysters were consumed. The firm, briny meat goes down perfectly with a crisp, summer ale. More booze was consumed. Bachelorette shenanigans ensued.
The next day, some of the girls tried their hand at shucking. A inevitably cuts herself.
After trying the Sweet Necks on the first night and then the second, I have to admit that I actually enjoyed them better on the second night. My statement feels a bit counterintuitive, since usually we assume the fresher the oyster, the better. Apparently this isn’t the case when the sea water is extremely briny. While the meat was supple and rich, the sea water overpowered the flavor on the first night. On the second, it tasted much more mellow. It really allowed the wonderful nuances in flavor — seaweed and miso — to shine through.
This entire experience has made me appreciate oysters on yet another level. It’s not just about the terroir — or taste of a place. Well, it is, but it’s not all of it. It’s also very much a story about the people behind the product. 98% of the oysters we eat today are sustainably farmed, and it ain’t easy. Folks like the Blakes are rare gems. They put their heart into their work and have no hesitation to help those around them succeed as well. It’s that kind of generosity and integrity behind their oysters that makes it all the more precious to eat.
So thank you again Sue and Jack for letting us experience a little part of your lives. I look forward to seeing Sweet Necks on the menus of NYC oyster bars soon!
Visit my Flickr gallery for more photos.
Check out this sweet article about Sweet Neck Farms in the Vineyard Gazette.
B and I went to St Lucia in mid-May… and we got engaged!
He proposed on our first day there, during the sunset by our private plunge pool that overlooked the Caribbean Sea. (No oysters involved, but he did splendidly with the ring!) So since then, I have been a little more pre-occupied with life outside of work and slurping bivalves. In fact, this post will be an oddball exception to my usual oyster-obsessed entries. It’s going to talk a little bit about my oyster discovery in St Lucia but mostly just about the trip. The next post will definitely be all about oysters though, so stay tuned!
Seafood is popular on the island, but it mostly revolves around fish and crustaceans. Most of the towns around the island are fishing villages, so no modern aquaculture yet (that I know of). However, I managed to find one restaurant that offered raw oysters called The Edge, a “Eurobean” fusion joint that focuses on seafood (including sushi!) Unfortunately the sushi chef was on an emergency leave of absence when we went, but the regular menu held its own. I was particularly excited about the Caesar salad with roasted oysters from Newfoundland. Canadian oysters in the Caribbean? Check.
At The Edge in Rodney Bay, B and I also shared several other tasty apps and entrees including: jumbo local prawn with squid ink pasta ravioli, shrimp and scallop skewers, red snapper, and jerk-marinated steak.
Outside of this fancy meal (and another swanky one at Rainforest Cafe, Marigot Bay), we had a blast exploring the local eats. We ventured into the Anse la Raye Friday Night Fish Fry with a group of Brits and went to town. I loved the fried mackerel on a stick — despite never having tried one like it, it tasted like something from out of my childhood.
When we weren’t stuffing our face with food and local beer (Piton beer is awesome), we were working off the calories scuba-diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and fishing… among other things. St Lucia was an incredible destination for a vacation, let alone an engagement. We hope to visit again someday soon! I’ll just leave you with some of my favorite photos from the trip. If you’re curious, you can check out the rest on Flickr.
This was my very first time scuba diving so I was very grateful to have such a good instructor! Thanks Andre
One of our favorite things to do during the day was to sit in the plunge pool and watch the boats go in and out of the bay.
A glimpse of the exquisite view from Emerald Hill Villa, adjacent to our suite. The owner of the property was kind enough to let us use the entire villa when they didn’t have other guests.
Kayaking through ominous weather = couples bonding.
Hanging around never felt so good.
Just one of the many breathtaking sunsets that we witnessed. Can’t believe I got engaged to this view!
Uber kudos to Chef Polo Dobkin at Dressler for putting together a delightful menu for the New York Oyster Lovers meetup. It was the first time that I’ve ever experienced all five species of oysters sold in the US on the same plate!
I just glanced at my NYOL Meetup count and apparently this is my 17th (!!!) event. Who knows how many other oyster tastings I’ve been to outside of the group. So it should provide you with some context as to how rare this 5-species sampler is by learning that this is the FIRST time that I’ve ever come across this offering. The fab five (see logo) all in one place? Too good to be true. Credit and thanks must be given to both Chef Polo Dobkin and the W&T Seafood crew for hooking him up with the goods. So thanks guys!
I’m going to keep my comments brief as I am under the weather today. Below is a quick recap of the courses and oysters that were showcased.
First course was a simple and tasty Shooter featuring a plump Cape May Salt Oyster from the Cape Shore of Delaware Bay, NJ and a small glass of tomato water, bloody mary, and mezcal. The combination was potent and refreshing. The Cape May Salt was simultaneously succulent and firm. Also you can’t go wrong with starting with a little booze. Smart move for a Meetup.
Second course was a platter of five flawlessly shucked raw oysters that came chilled on a bed of crushed ice. Years ago I learned about these five species from Rowan Jacobsen’s book A Geography of Oysters. It took thousands of oysters later to finally meet them all at once, together, face to face. The group decided to start with the Kumamoto, a West Coast fan favorite, and work our way to the East. The reason for this technique is that the brininess of the East Coast oysters tend to linger on the palette, so it’s best to start with lighter ones first. Basically the same protocol as any other tasting, whether it’s cheese, wine, sake, etc.
Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea) from Chapman’s Cove and Totten Inlet, WA
Some oyster connoisseurs snub the Kumamoto because it’s just “too easy to love.” It’s true, but that doesn’t stop me from showering it with affection. Famous for its deep cup of plush, pillowy, fruity meat, this Kumo fit the bill perfectly. After a couple of chews, the distinct melony sweetness began to emerge fully on my tongue. Great way to start!
Olympia (Ostrea lurida) from Totten Inlet, Southern Puget Sound, WA
Petite and darker colored, this oyster used to cover the entire west coast of North America. Overharvesting, disease, and industrialization practically wiped them out completely. Thanks to dedicated conservation efforts and sustainable farming, this little guy is coming back in force! They are about the size of a quarter but has the punchy flavor of a new penny. Coppery, earthy, bold. Non-apologetic.
Shigoku (Crassostrea gigas) from Washington Coast, Willipa Bay, WA
The name sounds Japanese and that is exactly where this species originated from. It was imported from Japan when the Olympias started to dwindle. Now the gigas is synonymous with the West Coast oyster (not to mention that its cultivated around the world). The Shigoku was the quintessential West Coast oyster: ultra creamy, clean, slightly minerally, and grassy/vegetal.
Wild Goose (Crassostrea virginica) from West Passage, Narragansett Bay, RI
Virginica oysters are native to the North American East Coast and take on a much different flavor profile than its West Coast counterparts. The oysters from Rhode Island are consistently at the top of my list of being the most sweet, plump, and complex of all Virginicas. The Wild Goose did not disappoint. Its liquor was bright and briny and the meat was chewy, earthy, and mildly sweet.
Belon (Ostrea edulis) from Damariscotta River, Edgecomb, ME
The belon is native to Europe, but has been successfully grown on the East Coast. I’ve have Belons from Maine before, but also from Ireland and France. They are also referred to as “plate” or “flat” oysters in Europe due to their shape. The shells are almost round and scallop-like. The taste is unlike any other oyster there is. Powerful, bold, briny, and extremely metallic. The abrasive zinc-flavor hits your salivary gland like a thundershower and STAYS. It can be overpowering and polarizing for some. I happen to crave it. Partially because of the flavor and also because of the firm texture.
The third course was a dainty open-faced crispy po’boy using Sewansecott Oysters from Hog Island Bay, Willis Wharf, VA. I love raw Sewansecott oysters, but the fried version ain’t bad either! I wish that there would’ve been a little less herb dressing though. It slightly overpowered the delicate arugula.
The fourth course was a dashi poached Montauk Pearl Oyster from Montauk, Long Island, NY with braised pork belly, enoki mushrooms, simmered in a broth of dashi, daikon, ponzu, and chives. The broth was amazing. I wish I could have it every morning for breakfast or every evening as a night cap… or both!
Lastly, the dessert was a lemon-orange blossom sorbet accompanied by an almond biscotti. Refreshing, mildly tart, and pleasantly sweet. A wonderful way to bring this wonderful tasting to a close.
I’m so glad that I decided to trek to Williamsburg for this meal despite being sick. I experienced one of the best raw oyster tastings that I have ever encountered and met some very interesting people as well. For those who are in New York and lust over these meals, stop watching and start joining in!
In other news, I am leaving for a week-long relaxation fest in St. Lucia this Sunday with B. Looking forward to some sun, snorkel, scuba, kayaking, sailing, and eating! I wonder if they’ll have oysters on the island… somewhere. If there are, I will be sure to find them out and report back.