Who: Island Creek Oysters
Where: Duxbury, Massachusetts
One hot sunny day last week, I drove to Duxbury, Massachusetts to find out how oysters grow. My destination was the Island Creek Oyster farm, an oyster farm set in the cold, salty water of Duxbury Bay, about 30 minutes southeast of Boston. For years I've slurped oysters from their shell with little knowledge of how these bivalves came to be, but that was all about to change.
The History of Island Creek Oysters
Island Creek Oysters' founder and lifelong Duxbury resident Skip Bennett started farming oysters here in Duxbury Bay in 1995. Since he was the first person to try growing oysters in this part of the country, it took about six years before he had his first big crop. "Skip likes to say he killed a lot of oysters in the process of figuring out how to make them live," says Chris Sherman, Vice President of Island Creek Oysters, and my guide and oyster guru for the day. Back then Skip sold around a 100 bags a week (each bag held 100 oysters). Now Island Creek Oysters sells 120,000 oysters a week, and services 350 chef accounts around the country.
So how does one grow oysters? What's the process? What makes a good oyster? At Island Creek, it all starts in the hatchery.
Chris Sherman, VP of Island Creek Oysters and my guide and guru for the day.
Hatching Baby Oysters
Growing Baby Oysters in the Upwellers
Oysters grow rapidly in the upwellers, doubling their volume in the course of a day. Here's how the upwellers work, according to Chris: "You take a little wet nap which weighs around two pounds and has 800,000 oysters in it, you put it in one of those boxes [and set it on the screen], you come back 18 months later and that same little two pound wet nap will weigh 280,000 pounds and they take up an acre of the bay." When the oysters are about the size of the nail on your pinky finger (about 1/4 inch) they're ready to move out into the river.
Bulking Up in the Nursery
Mud Planting and Harvesting
As with any kind of farming, it's a tricky business, and very dependent on factors that are often out of your control, so a diverse mix of oyster lines and breeds is essential: "The weird thing about oyster farming," Chris says, "is that we do so much bet hedging because it's so unscientific and there's so many variables that come in. Something in the water is significantly more sensitive to its surroundings than if you're growing corn: there are 37 different variables in the water, from temperature to salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen, turbidity that gets affected by the natural conditions, so it's very hard to predict."
Still curious about oysters? Here are a few other surprising things I learned:
6 Facts You May Not Know About Oysters
1. Oysters are sequential hermaphrodites.
This means that at some points in their life they're male, at other points they're female, and they switch back and forth. "We don't know what we have until we spawn," says Chris.
2. Newly spawned oysters only need the teensiest (as in, almost microscopic) bit of calcium carbonate to start growing their shell.
Oyster larvae essentially "wrap" themselves around their few little individual molecules of calcium carbonate to get the shell started. They then add to their shell by filtering calcium out of the water.
3. In the wild, oysters set on (or attach to) old oyster shells.
When oysters grow in the wild in oyster reefs, they typically attach to old oyster shells (for the calcium carbonate — see above). Because of this they tend to grow in clusters and one on top of the other. This is also why wild oysters typically have "gnarly shapes," says Chris, instead of the nice round shape and deep cup you associate with farmed oysters.
4. An oyster can live for about 30 years, and the lighter the oyster, the younger it is.
A really light oyster means that's very young, as oysters get heavier as they get older. "They start adding shell and adding meat. They don't get longer necessarily, but they bulk up," says Chris. Island Creek even sells jumbo oysters that measure around six inches and weighs a pound. They're safe to eat, just maybe not the best tasting. "It's really not much different; it's just weird to have to take a steak knife to your oyster."
5. The best time to eat oysters is in September or October.
Like all New England seafood, oysters vary quite a bit in flavor seasonally. The "selects" — the 2.5 inch oysters with a nice round shape and deep cup — will bulk up by the fall and then they'll be perfect, "really plump and sweet" according to Chris. By September or October, oysters are through the hot months and the time they're thinking about spawning, and they're more focused on gearing up for winter. "So like a bear puts on fat, [oysters] do the same thing... [which means] most seafood is ready to eat in October. Everything is ready to rock for winter, and they're at their prime."
6. Oyster farming is a lot like making wine.
"We draw a lot of parallels between oysters and wine," says Chris. "Being out [in the oyster flats] you can really see — it looks like a vineyard! All these rows are positioned to maximize the exposure to the tidal flow that comes up into the bay everyday." Oyster farmers call it the merroir. "When you eat an Island Bay oyster, you smell Duxbury Bay," says Chris. "You smell what we're smelling right now, and that's a big part of what makes an oyster good or not so good."
Thanks, Island Creek Oysters!
(Images: Cambria Bold)