Just a few days after returning from my whirlwind Asia oyster tour (which I promise to write about soon!), I headed up to Boston for the 33rd Annual Seafood Expo North America.

Seafood Expo North America is the latest seafood trade event in North America. The three-day event, which attracts more than 19,000 visitors annually, connects various buyers and suppliers from over 100 countries who sell fresh, frozen and packaged seafood products. Everything and anything related to seafood were present and discussed — from sustainability to innovative packaging to new products. As for me, I wasn’t selling or buying. I roamed the long exhibition halls in search of new oyster stories. Perhaps a peek into the future of the bivalve. It was a lot of networking, learning and, of course, slurping. Here are my top eight oyster-related takeaways from the event.

#1 Pangea Shellfish’s Oysterpalooza

Pangea Shellfish‘s oyster and shellfish exhibit was inarguably the most impressive oyster display at the expo. The photo below doesn’t even do it justice. There was a whole other table filled with many other varieties to the left! Talk about feeling like a kid in a candy store. For me, their standout was their signature Standish Shore oyster. It’s a sublimely briny and sweet nugget of goodness from Duxbury Bay.

#2 Shucker Paddy’s Oyster Master Class Demonstration

One of the most knowledgeable and charismatic oyster gurus out there, 2-time World Champion Oyster Shucker and Restaurateur Patrick McMurray gave a terrific talk and demonstration on day 2 of the show. He premiered his brand new shucking knife “ShuckerPaddy,” which he designed to have an ergonomic pistol grip (putting his degree in Kinesiology to work). Update: check out this great wrap-up video with Patrick, where he goes over some of the oyster info & demo’s covered during the class.

#3 Blue Island Oyster Company’s Wild Fire Islands and Chocolate Bays

Here’s another impressive oyster exhibit from Blue Island Oyster Company, based out in Long Island. Unlike Pangea, the BI team were madly shucking oysters for all. I was pleasantly surprised by the Wild Fire Island oyster (shown below) in both taste and appearance. The outside shell displays a wild and coral-like layering effect, while the inside shell possesses a psychedelic marbling of colors. They’re a rarity on the market because they’re only harvested a few months out of the year. Lucky me!

On a related note, I became obsessed with another delicious product on their table. Chocolate oysters shaped like Naked Cowboys and seasoned with their own locally-produced sea salt. The mini oyster bag and “Chocolate Bay” bag tag were a great finishing touch! Chocolates and oysters… they know what hungry girls want!

#4 Richard Rush’s Shucking Knife Collection

Oyster aficionado Richard Rush put his wonderful oyster shucking knife collection out on display during the 8th Annual Oyster Shucking Competition. The set were kept in a lovely brown leather vintage suitcase engraved with his initials “R.R.” in gold foil. I got a sneak peek into the case and below is also a shot of the moment when Patrick McMurray presenting Richard with a “shucking puck.” (That’s how they do it in Canada…) Alongside the knife collection, Richard had also brought a nice case of oyster shells. I couldn’t stick around for an explanation, but I believe that different knives have been designed to shuck different shaped oysters. If you’re curious to learn more, check out Richard’s website all about shucking oysters!

#5 International Oyster Discoveries

American oyster growers weren’t the only ones present at the Expo. In fact, there were quite a few number of international oyster growers who were showcasing their products. I happened to come across oysters from Morocco (shown below, Mr. Mohamed Saidi of Huitres Saidi) and Mexico on the conference floor.

The Moroccan gigas oyster tasted crisp and briny. The liquor definitely had a flavor unlike anything that I’ve had before. There were no lingering flavors on the palate, possessed very subtle cucumber notes, and a pleasantly plump texture. Grown out using rack and bag, the Moroccan oyster meat reminded me of the beautiful black-mantled Moyasta oysters from Ireland.

The Kumiai oyster grown by Inter Mareal out of Baja, Mexico took me back to memories of a spring break to Ensenada many, many years ago. Cultured using the rack and bag method in the pristine waters of the Guerrero Negro Lagoon, these oysters possessed a vibrant, creamy flavor. A good balance between oceanic brine and earthy beachiness. The shells were also a real beauty. I think that they would go perfectly with a squeeze of lime and a Corona!

#6 Making New Oyster Friends at Row34

Networking is a big part of the expo and I couldn’t have been happier to doing just that over free beer and shucks at Row34.

Most memorable: Mike McGee from Ballard Fish & Oyster. Most badass: CJ Husk from Island Creek Oysters. (see below, he’s shucking two oysters at once… and um, is totally showing up Chris Sherman from ICO). Most serendipitous meetup via social networking: Mark Urwin and Jeremy Hill from 46° South Fish Co. Bring both of your passports out next time guys!

Last but not least, best oyster “saying” from Paul Packer from Northeast Seafood Products. “Eating oysters help put lead in your pencil… which is good as long as you have somebody to write to.” I followed with, “Otherwise you’d be just scribbling.” Heh.

#7 Talking Shop: Oyster Branding and Processes

As a brand strategist, I am interested in all things related to marketing, consumer behavior, and product positioning. The expo provided fertile ground to strike up conversations about oyster branding and marketing tactics. Having professional experience doing marketing communications for a variety of categories (luxury cars, tech, big oil, financial services, fast food, sports, pharma, etc), I found the seafood industry to be quite different. It’s a mixed bag of old school and new school, but one thing is clear: a handful of energetic, ambitious storytellers are out there looking to change the game.

I got a chance to chat with Tim Devine from Barren Island Oyster, Steve Vilnit from Maryland Seafood, Tal Petty from Hollywood Oyster Co., Tom Gallivan from Shooting Point Oysters, Wec Terry from H.M. Terry, The Feigenbaums from Little Shemogue Oyster Co., and many others about how they tell their unique stories.

#8 Undertaking Gulf Giants

Last but not least, I was invited to try some freshly shucked Gulf oysters from Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana by the Gulf Seafood Marketing Coalition. The Gulf is perhaps the only oystering region left in North America (and maybe around the world) that is still dominated by wild harvest. These oysters have been the backbone to the American oyster industry for decades and I am curious to see how they evolve to meet the new expectations of today’s oyster consumers. Despite what some of my fellow “northerners” say about Gulf oysters, I kept an open mind as I slurped. These warm water giants were meaty and mild for the most part. Some possessed more salinity than others and I was told that it varies from season to season. I was most surprised by the soft, subtle sweetness of the meat. When done right, these oysters are truly delicious!

All in all, the Seafood Expo North America provided a terrific platform for members of the international seafood community to mingle, cross-pollinate ideas, and do business. As for me, I hope to explore many of these story leads even further this year — and bring you exclusive in-depth coverage of the world’s best oyster destinations.

If you’d like to discuss a potential partnership or project, you can reach me at julie [at] inahalfshell.com!