How Oysters Grow, a Love Story
I’ve eaten a lot of oysters in my life but I distinctly remember the first: it was at Judy Rodgers’s Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. I was thirteen, on a date with my parents, decked out in an Esprit outfit with a black bolero jacket striped with rainbow rickrack. It was the Eighties and if nothing else, I got that you dress for a special occasion, but I had no idea how exotic this experience was. When I returned to school with my story, I was greeted with “ewwwww” and wrinkled noses.
With that, I shelved my fascination with mollusks.
Fast forward to the post-college, younger adult years, when I re-kindled my interest in oysters. Free of the teasing words of my young playmates, I fastidiously tested out the oysters-as-aphrodisiac thing on many occasions and concluded the turn-on wasn’t a chemical response, but rather it is a byproduct of the overtly intimate act of slurping raw shellfish with someone you fancy that gets you in the mood.
Ten years after that first oyster, I remember spending my first real tax refund — all $43 of it — on a modest raw dinner for one at the Grand Central Oyster Bar and feeling only love for myself.
It was sometime after becoming a real adult (no more futon, paying for my flight home to see the folks) that I started bringing oysters home, opening them properly, and serving them. Never cooking, just serving them raw atop a bed of coarse kosher salt. It was a welcomed bonus that eating them this way was less expensive and didn’t confine me to the early evening oyster happy hours — $1 a pop — I’d started to frequent.
At a certain point I asked myself, where did these little suckers come from? It was that moment where your interest in something reaches a point at which you actually care about its life story.
The first time I encountered the story of how oysters are born and raised, it was in M.F.K. Fisher’s magnificent one-sitting book, Consider The Oyster. Here’s how the book opens:
“An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.
Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrows of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a clean smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion and danger.” – MFK Fisher, Consider the Oyster
What drama! You wouldn’t know it by the peaceful scene above water in Mali Ston, the Croatian oyster farming town I visited recently. These oyster beds seemed like a pretty stunning place to be born and die an oyster.
Mali Ston is a little seaside village at the end of the isthmus that connects the Pelječac Peninsula with the mainland of the Dalmatian coas close to Dubrovnikt. A friend and partner in oyster slurping had blown through for lunch and said I might consider spending a little time there.
Oysters have been farmed here for centuries. In fact, the Dalmatian coast has a long history of shellfish cultivation, or mariculture. Mali Ston Bay is the historical epicenter of this kind of farming, where using ancient methods, oyster farmers raise the European Flat Oyster, Ostrea edulis. You can smell the salty oyster beds exhaling as you walk along the ancient Roman walls of this town and its sister town next door, Ston.
It is said that oyster farming was born hand-in-hand with pearl farming. Makes sense. Oysters in Mali Ston Bay are farmed using vertical ropes where the seed attaches and matures, then are pulled up from the waters, and the mature oysters removed. Little motorized wooden fishing boats in the harbor all have simple wooden trays retrofitted for the bow of the boat where the farmer plucks off the mature oysters and sorts them for market.
In the 1980s, the bay’s production was putting out an average of two million oysters, over half of the Croatian oyster production. Sadly, the area was severely damaged in the Croatian War of Independence. Today the town still holds significance as the epicenter of Dalmatian oyster production and still kicks out enough oysters — truly some of the sweetest, briniest, most delicate shelled oysters I’ve ever had — to feed anyone in search of a little mealtime romance.
Here is some of our past oyster coverage on The Kitchn. Hopefully it’ll get you in the mood:
(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)