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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…

Oyster EventsJanuary 8, 2015

New York | New Year Oyster Crawl Recap + Looking Forward

To start 2015 off right, I decided to organize a city-wide oyster crawl for anyone who wanted to celebrate the new year with good friends and great oysters. In just under one week’s time, I was able to wrangle up 12 official participating restaurants and 220 crawl sign ups. Not too shabby for its first year! Here’s the story about its inception, the planning, and most importantly, the crawl itself.

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Inspiration

I was inspired to organize the first-ever New York | New Year Oyster Crawl when I learned about my friends’ Lauren and Laurence Edelman‘s very own Jan 1st Oyster Fest tradition. As a chef, Laurence only gets a few holidays off every year. So to make each moment matter, he and his lovely wife decided to spend the first day of every year (for the past six or seven years now) visiting their favorite places to eat oysters. Hopping around a handful of oyster bars on New Year’s Day is pretty impressive, considering what typically goes on the night before.

Just Do It

For months, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the concept. There was a lot to consider — should I ask people to pay to be on the crawl? Should I sell tickets or build a revenue share program? Should I reach out for beverage partners? Media sponsors? All of the questions about commercialism and monetization started to feel really disingenuous and petty. Kind of a buzzkill, to be honest. So then on Christmas Day, I resolved to just go for it.

The goal was to keep it simple, light and fun. For this first year, I resolved to pull together a list of Oyster Destinations and Special Deals for anyone who wanted in, free of charge. This also proved to be the easiest way to make something happen — most of my restaurant & oyster friends responded with a lot of support and positivity.

Once the crawl finished, I also received a ton of helpful feedback (thank you) about what worked, what didn’t, and what people wanted to see for next year. It would be amazing to grow the event and give it more structure, but my goal would be to still keep it affordable and flexible.

Crawl Highlights

While I couldn’t stop by every Crawl Destination, I did my very best to visit what I could. 9 oyster bars in 9 hours has certainly become my new record. Here’s a recap of the day…

MAISON PREMIERE / 11:30AM

My strategy for the crawl was to work from the outer boroughs in. Although there was probably no reason to fret, I was concerned that Maison Premiere was going to be packed. (I mean, it usually is.) Fortunately, there were plenty of seats at the oyster bar. My dear friend A joined me for the first dozen of the day. The Oyster Crawl flight was really terrific.

The selection featured Shooting Point Salts (VA), Onsets (MA), European Flats aka Belons (ME), Blackberry Points (PEI), Effinghams (BC), and Steamboats (WA). The assortment expressed a diverse flavor range, which varied from crisp and briny to buttery-sweet to slightly metallic and full of umami.

I was also really giddy when our server asked to see the special Oyster Crawl badge! 🙂

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GREENPOINT FISH & LOBSTER CO / 1:00PM

When A and I left Maison, it had started to snow. This was my first time at Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Co and Greenpoint, for that matter. Just like the neighborhood itself, this restaurant and seafood mart was super charming and homey. The village-esque vibe just made you want to talk to everyone around.

I ordered the Oyster Crawl special, which was a flight of half a dozen oysters — Shigoku (WA), Blackfish Creek Wellfleets (MA), and Montauk Pearls (NY) with three small draft beer pours that were still too large for me to handle without getting the “Asian glow.” The Black Duck Porter went quite well with the Shigoku, the Victory Prima Pils complemented the Montauk Pearls, and the aromatic Ballast Point Big Eye IPA made the Blackfish Creek Wellfleet taste super sweet.

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GREY LADY / 1:45PM

By the time I had reached my third stop, Grey Lady in the Lower East Side, the snow had turned to sleet. Nothing that a dozen of these Grey Lady Petites couldn’t solve. Although the Grey Lady refers to the thick fog in Nantucket, these namesake oysters are from the Damariscotta River, Maine. They were super plump, fruity and all around delicious. Presentation and flawless shucking also helped enhance the tasting.

Randomly bumped into a few groups of people who were on the crawl as well! Before moving onto the next stop, my bartender bestowed upon me the best gift a crawler would ever receive: a big ass golf umbrella. It turned out to be a huge crawl saver.

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LIVE BAIT / 2:45PM

After eating so many raw oysters, I felt like I needed to nosh on something more substantial. Fortunately, the specials at Live Bait really hit the spot. A spicy oyster shooter, followed by grilled oysters with smoked bacon, and a crisp oyster po’boy and beer… all for $13. A pretty good bargain, if you ask me.

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L&W OYSTER CO / 4:00PM

Walked up to L&W Oyster Co where I met up with some more friends at the bar. L&W were offering a six oyster tasting flight as well. Their platter consisted of a Widow’s Hole (NY), Little Shemogues (NB), Glidden Points (ME), Matunuck (RI), Fanny Bay (BC), and Cranberry Creek (WA). The Little Shemogues were not so little, but oh so tasty. Flipping over the shells, I discovered an equally gorgeous sight.

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CRAVE FISHBAR / 5:30PM

The seventh stop of the night took me uptown to Crave Fishbar in Midtown East. I caught a taxi with some new oyster friends that I met at L&W. Instead of raw oysters, Crave upped the ante by offering two very unique creations. The first was an Oyster Pickleback, which consisted of one shot of Benchmark Bourbon, followed by a Black Duck Salt Oyster with Apple Mignonette chaser. It was AWESOME. I’d do those all night long if I could.

The second special featured six Black Duck Salt (VA) oysters dressed with a mildly sweet Kabocha squash puree and pistachio nut powder. The chef took care to top just half of each oyster, leaving the other half exposed. This peek-a-boo style was a clever way to give a nod to the oyster itself. While sipping some briny Junmai from Rihaku, these shucks were gone in no time.

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VIRGOLA / 6:45PM

Feeling a bit tipsy, I wandered back downtown to Virgola, a secretive sliver of a hideaway on Greenwich Avenue. I sampled the oyster menu of Puffer’s Petites (MA), Ichabod Flats (MA), Beach Points (MA), and Montauk Pearls (NY). Although they were really meant to be savored with the brand new Virgola prosecco, I simply couldn’t imbibe anymore at the moment. Despite its petite size, Virgola brings back big, joyous memories of my birthday party last year.

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FLEX MUSSELS / 7:30PM

Although I enjoyed meeting up with friends at each of the oyster bars, there was something wonderful about exploring them solo. I hadn’t been to Flex in quite awhile, so entering this lower level seafood haven felt like the very first time. Their crawl special was a little vague — a dozen oysters (shucker’s choice) and a glass of prosecco for $25 — but it turned out to be amazing. Shucker’s choice? It was more like slurper’s choice. I had my pick of the menu, so I selected four Kumamotos (WA), four Shigokus (WA), three Watch Hills (RI), and the very last Wiley Point (ME) of the night.

The perk of sitting at the oyster bar is that you get to watch the magic happen. I was mesmerized by Danielle’s shucking skills. Each one that she effortlessly popped open looked pristine. No bellies popped, no shards of oyster shrapnel. Must be the mussel memory. 😛 In all seriousness, the platter arrived in perfection and one of the Watch Hills was especially jaw-droppingly gorgeous. It was the most beautiful shuck of the night.

By the way, you can’t leave Flex without trying their crazy good doughnuts. The salted caramel was divine.

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CULL & PISTOL / 9:45PM

Finally, I rushed into a near-empty Chelsea Market for my last fix of the night at Cull & Pistol. I sat in front of the oysters and peered through the glass. A dozen and a Narragansett beer for $20. I selected four Pemaquids (ME), four Watch Hills (RI), and four Barron Points (WA) from the lengthy list. The most notable oyster had to be the monstrous Barron Point. It was about the size of small poached egg, I swear! Super sweet, pillowy, and savory with a slight mineral finish. It was an amazing way to finish an epic night.

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Other oyster bars involved that I couldn’t get to include: Grand Central Oyster Bar Brooklyn, Bait & Hook, and Flex UES. Thank you to all of the participants, restaurants, and friends for your support and involvement! I can’t wait to take the learning from this first round and make the next one even better.

Now I’m off to Thailand for my next oyster adventure…

Oyster EventsNovember 25, 2014

Virginia Wine & Brine Retreat

Oh, sweet Virginia, I just can’t seem to get enough! I recently made a second trip to Virginia’s Eastern Shore to partake in a series of Wine & Brine Month festivities with a diverse group of writers from around the country. For an oyster loving-wanderluster like myself, this was like a dream come true.

©2014 Julie Qiu Photography for In A Half Shell. All Rights Reserved.

It seems like every state along the East Coast has been touting their oyster offerings lately, but one in particular has really stepped up their bivalve game. About a month after my inaugural trip down to Virginia (Lynnhaven and Eastern Shore), Governor Terry McAuliffe announced the launch of the Virginia Oyster Trail and declared November as Virginia Oyster Month. Agriculture and tourism are VA’s two largest industries — generating 52 billion and 22 billion in revenue, respectively — so it makes perfect sense to create synergies between them. For travelers who desire authentic, one-of-a-kind sensory experiences, the Eastern Shore offers a treasure trove of options.

 

Welcome Lunch at The Shanty

I arrived to Norfolk Airport on Friday morning with a small cohort of NYC-based writers. After a quick drive across the expansive Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, we arrived at Cape Charles, ready for our first order of business: lunch. The Shanty is an airy, casual seafood outpost that is situated a few hundred yards from the main road. They serve an array of seafood and try to source local ingredients whenever possible.

We started off with some raw Hungars Creek oysters on the half shell, which were mildly briny and possessed a subtle vegetal finish. The texture of the meat was delicately chewy, although somewhat scrambled. Oysters have a funny way of connecting people. I sat next to John Fall, publisher of Distinction Magazine, and we both quickly realized that we shared a mutual friend through oysters. By the way, Distinction recently published a wonderful article on oysters that everyone needs to check out.

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Timing is Everything: Slurping by Sunset and Moonrise

Later that evening, our group shuttled over a seaside town called Oyster for a private reception and dinner hosted at the newly renovated “Harvey” house (a repurposed/relocated general store built in 1907) that was catered by the amazing Amy Brandt of Amy B Catering & Events. We arrived just in time to catch a stunningly sunset as we savored some refreshing wild-harvested seaside oysters and cage-farmed Fisherman Island oysters in the back patio. The salinity of the two were similar, but the overall flavor profile and meat density/texture were quite different from one another. Wild oysters are often said to be less aesthetically-pleasing of the two — even “snipey” in some instances — but this lot was ruggedly handsome. Many had grown out to be quite round, deep-cupped, and full of meat. These two and three year old bivalves won over the majority of the slurpers.

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As we all chatted away, someone pointed to the night sky behind me and remarked, “Did you guys see that?” I turned around and couldn’t believe my eyes. An enormous, bright orange moon was rising out of the seaside salt marsh in the horizon. I had never seen a moonrise before and this one was absolutely incredible. For a moment, I felt like I was standing on another planet entirely. All of us attempted to capture this breathtaking sight on our cameras, but with no success. We all ended up taking it in “analog” by simply using our own two eyes.

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Shooting Point Oyster Company

After a restful night at Hotel Cape Charles and hearty breakfast at Cape Charles Coffee House, we headed over to Shooting Point Oyster Company to learn about oyster farming from Tom Gallivan and Ann Arseniu Gallivan. They’re one of the first families to explore intensive aquaculture along the Eastern Shore and have been farming oysters along the Nassawadox Creek for about 14 years now. They are the ultimate aquaculture power couple. While Tom focuses most of his time on the grow-out process, Ann is all about the hatchery. She’s a master oyster chef who’s highly skilled in growing nutritious mixtures of baby oyster food from 12 strains of algae. Oh, and they also help raise millions of clam seeds for JC Walker Brothers Co., but that’s a whole other story!

Shooting Point Oyster Company grows two “handcrafted heirloom” varietals: Nassawadox Salts from Nassawadox Creek on the bayside, and Shooting Point Salts from Hog Island Bay on the seaside. Both are Crassostrea Virginicas, but they have distinctly different flavor profiles. I had a chance to taste test the two earlier this year at the Virginia Craft Event in NYC and could easily detect the difference in salinity. They also produce a boutique petite oyster known as the “Avery’s Pearls” for Ryleigh’s Oyster in Federal Hill, Baltimore. 

In their first year of commercial production, Shooting Point Oyster Company ended up with about 200,000 market-size oysters. Tom admitted that at the time they wondered, “What the hell are we going to do with 200,000 oysters?” You see, not so long ago, it was a challenge to sell a Virginia oyster. They were the unwanted stepchild of the half shell market, due to misinformation and lack of awareness. Today, it’s a totally different story. The Gallivans plant 4-5 million oysters every year, handle 8-10 million and still manage to run out. Demand is on the rise and more people are getting into the game. “When we first started, we had the whole creek to ourselves. Now a dozen or so families in this area are growing oysters in some regard.”

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A few hundred yards away from Shooting Point Oyster Company’s sorting and storage facility stood the historic Bayford Oyster House. The shucking house was built in 1902 as a facility to process the millions of wild oysters harvested along the Eastern Shore. In its heyday, the Bayford Oyster House produced 150 to 200 gallons of oysters a day. It is only used now to shed soft shell crabs by proprietor HM Arnold. Inside the main room, a large stone table could accommodate five or six shuckers at a time. Each worker would stand in their own wooden stall and armed with a few basic tools to get the job done.

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It was time to set off for Chatham Vineyards by boat. Earlier this summer, I had lots of fun kayaking this scenic stretch of water with Ethan Watkins from SouthEast Expeditions. Being able to witness the foliage change over time was a special treat. The quiet, unassuming beauty of the Eastern Shore was really something special to behold.

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A few minutes into our leisurely cruise, Tom slowed boat down. He anchored the boat by dropping a long PVC pipe into a round opening at the bow and then reached underwater to tie a rope to one of the cages. Once the load was securely fastened, Tom used a winch to slowly lift the rectangular box of sunken treasure up on deck. As everyone’s camera shutters clicked away, Sherman the Chesapeake Bay Retriever decided to be the first to investigate.

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Tom “unlocked” the cage and plucked a few Nassawadox Salts to shuck for us and recruited HM to help open the first few. HM demonstrated a unique shucking method that wasn’t widely practiced in the Northeast. He held the oyster down against the edge of the boat bench with one palm and used the oyster knife handle to knock off the thinnest part of the oyster shell (the bill). The quick blow chipped open a small gap that allowed the blade of the knife to enter the oyster from the front. HM then cut the bottom adductor muscle first and presented the plump oyster meat on the flat, top shell. To be honest, the oyster looked a little alien this way! Naked and exposed, the edges of the oyster crinkled back into a tight curl. Most of the precious oyster liquor had dripped onto the floor, but the meat still retained a supple taste of the bay. To slurp these suckers up, everyone employed a hovering top-down approach rather than the standard tilt-the-shell-to-your-lips method. A little awkward at first, but great fun.

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Terroir Merroir Oyster & Wine Tasting at Chatham Vineyards

Winemaker Jon Wehner was waiting for us at the dock in front of the Chatham estate. Tom pulled a slick 90-degree docking maneuver that would even James Bond proud. We unloaded one by one and began our short walk up to the winery. Chatham Vineyards sits on a very unique property that was discovered long, long ago. The land at Chatham, which overlooks Church Creek, was patented in 1640. To give you a frame of reference, English settlement on the eastern coast of North America began with the Virginia Colony in 1607 at Jamestown and the Pilgrims’ Plymouth Colony in 1620.

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“What grows together, goes together,” is a popular saying in the culinary world and this event really captured the spirit of it.

Upon seeing the crush pad at Chatham Vineyards completely converted into an array of al fresco tasting tables, I knew that we were in for a treat. Each place setting had three glasses of Chatham Vineyard’s most popular wine, their Steel-Aged Church Creek Chardonnay (’11, ’12, ’13), and a platter of five oyster varietals from four local growers.

Jon kicked off the tasting with short overviews about each vintage. “Every wine has a story,” he prefaced and explained that weather has a huge impact on the final flavors. In 2011, they rushed a harvest of 30 tons of Chardonnay grapes just 24-hours before Hurricane Irene. Jon characterized 2012 as a typical growing season that helped produce wines with great balance in acidity and minerality. Lastly, 2013 was deemed a unique year due to the cool summer and surprise heat wave in August. The 6 weeks of hot, dry weather candied the fruit, which produced a sweet, pineapple note in the wine.

Following Jon’s talk about the wines, Mills Wehner stood up to introduce the oysters and their respective growers. She explained that they were arranged by salinity, from mildest to most potent. I also grinned when she called out the fact that there were no condiments on the table. (You can’t truly taste oysters if you glob cocktail sauce or horseradish on them. No mignonette or lemon either, sorry!)

©2014 Julie Qiu Photography for In A Half Shell. All Rights Reserved.

Eastern Shore Oyster Tasting Notes

Henderson Brothers Oysters from Church Creek, Bayside of ESVA
Salinity: 1/6 | Sweetness: 3/6 | Complexity: 4/6
Grown by Peter Henderson, a long-time Eastern Shore resident, neighbor of the Wehners, director of the VA Eastern Shore Land Trust, and partner of Eastern Shore Events & Rentals. These delicately mild oysters had a great crunchy texture. The velvety, earthy meat gave off hints of shiitake mushroom and chalky minerality. I enjoyed pairing them with Chatham’s Church Creek Steel Chardonnay ’11 and ’13.

Westerhouse Pinks from Westerhouse Creek, Bayside of ESVA
Salinity: 2/6 | Sweetness: 3/6, Complexity: 3/6
Grown by Bernie Herman, one of the most interesting individuals that I met over the weekend. When he’s not tending to his private oyster restoration project, Bernie chairs the Department of American Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. His signature Westerhouse Pinks possess a clean and refreshing sweetness, with and a tender, gelatinous texture. Paired nicely with all of the wines, but I think ’11 was my favorite.

Nassawadox Salts from Nassawadox Creek, Bayside of ESVA
Salinity: 3/6 | Sweetness: 3/6 | Complexity: 4/6
Grown by Shooting Point Oyster Company, this bayside oyster has a resilient, meaty texture and rounded minerality. The difference between tasting the oyster here and on the boat in Nassawadox Creek is mostly its temperature. When it’s a bit cooler, the sweetness is more pronounced. When it’s warmer, the earthy and mollusky qualities shine through. Pairs elegantly with the ’13.

Shooting Point Salts from Hog Island Bay, Seaside of ESVA
Salinity: 5/6 | Sweetness: 2/6 | Complexity: 4/6
This is the punchier seaside oyster from Shooting Point Oyster Company that boasts a bolder, more rocky minerality. The meat is slightly leaner than the Nassawadox Salt, but has an interesting herbaceous quality to the finish. Paired well with the ’12.

Sewansecotts from Hog Island Bay, Seaside of ESVA
Salinity: 5/6 | Sweetness: 4/6 | Complexity: 3/6
Grown by HM Terry Co., this seaside oyster from the pristine waters of Hog Island Bay conjures ocean wave brininess against softer, more vegetal sweetness. Notes of seaweed and herbs come through with every chew. Loved pairing this oyster with the ’12 and ’13.

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After the oyster and wine tasting, it was time for lunch! Amy Brandt prepared a ridiculously beautiful and delicious three-course meal that showcased local ingredients in all their splendor. The first course featured white-wine braised yellow onions (onions were once my mortal enemy, but now my obsession) served in a thyme cream sauce with roasted sweet potato polenta. The second course was a luscious rabbit and pistachio terrine served with grape mostarda, fall lettuce greens salad, and Amy’s rye bread. Last but not least was a simple and charming apple and black walnut layer cake with cider frosting. Ugh, heaven.

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Hazy, Happy Memories of My First Oyster Roast

There’s one oyster tradition that I have been meaning to take on for awhile now. The oyster roast is a classic southern ritual where hundreds of oysters are consumed — usually in a free-for-all manner — by the community. Watching the setup was almost as fun as the eating part — Eastern Shore Events & Rentals brought out their special oyster roasting boat for the occasion.

The feast underneath the big white tent was hectic, but pretty straight forward. Long tables were covered with gaping oysters and clams, and guys would periodically come around to replenish the lot with steaming trays of newly roasted shellfish. A few bottles of hot sauce were scattered about. Red plastic bins on the ground were laden with empty shells. About two dozen or so friends and strangers huddled around the tables wielding oyster knives and paper plates. Etiquette was pretty minimal and so participants probably felt like they were playing a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos — something that I’m quite good at, if I don’t say so myself.

A lightly roasted oyster is a wonderful thing. If done properly, the meat would be juicy, succulent and tender. I pried my first oyster shell open and plucked out the date-sized nugget. I ate it like a piece of sushi. The taste was briny, earthy, and mollusky — similar to a steamed mussel or clam, but softer in texture. The flavor was actually not that far off from its raw counterpart. I was instantly hooked. One after another, I practically inhaled the better half of a tray in no time. The best pieces, I quickly learned, were from the clusters. These oyster condos (several oysters grown together to form discombobulated shapes) contained five or six tasty nuggets in close proximity.

After the 20th… 30th… er probably the 40th oyster, I decided to take a break… and moved onto the roasted clams.

©2014 Julie Qiu Photography for In A Half Shell. All Rights Reserved.©2014 Julie Qiu Photography for In A Half Shell. All Rights Reserved.Photo by Sarah Hauser, Virginia Tourism
Photo by Sarah Hauser, Virginia Tourism

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The morning after our long and happy day of eating, drinking, more eating and more drinking called for (yep) more eating. Of course, I’m not complaining. One look into Amy’s gorgeous kitchen studio and my appetite kicked back into high gear. We were treated to an array of amazing breakfast foods, from spicy sausage to virginia ham, and homemade granola to the world’s most addictive biscuits.

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With full and happy bellies, we then went on a very special tour of Eyre Hall and Gardens with Furlong and Eyre Baldwin. Eyre Hall is one of the oldest and most well-preserved estates on the Eastern Shore. The property has been owned by the Eyre family since 1668 and the house (built in 1796) maintains much of the same trappings as it had two centuries ago. In 2012 Eyre Hall was deemed a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, although our hosts preferred to think of it as just home sweet home. What incredible American history though! The gardens have also been maintenance since 1800. We were a bit late in the season to see much color, but this lovely post by A Tidewater Gardner captures the garden in bloom.

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Exploring Hog Island with HM Terry Co.

Our last activity of the weekend was a brisk boat ride out to Hog Island with Heather Lusk and Rich Terry from HM Terry Co, a family-owned and operated clam and oyster company. Over the summer, I had a chance to wade in Hog Island Bay with the two. Unfortunately, the tide (and water temperature) were a little too extreme on this outing.

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We encountered several flocks of ducks and other waterbirds along the way. I managed to capture some great photos of them in flight.

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Once we reached Hog Island, everyone set off on their own exploration. I walked along the sand towards the Atlantic. Drawn to the soothing sound of the waves and peaceful solitude, I tried to imagine what it must have been like when settlers first made landfall here.

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To thaw out from the boat ride, we grabbed some soul-warming Texas-style BBQ at Willis Co Barbeque. I really like their food and the ambiance — the main dining room featured floor-to-ceiling shelves with great knick knacks, including a very cool collection of vintage oyster tins!

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Special Thanks

This oyster trip was amazing and it wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity and coordination of many people. I’d like to thank Virginia Tourism, BCF, Chatham Vineyards, Shooting Point Oyster Co, HM Terry Co, Amy Brandt, The Baldwin Family, and Hotel Cape Charles for housing, feeding, educating and entertaining us.