Oysters – the Ocean’s Version of Fine Wine

by Lee Meehan

Just as the soil in the Napa Valley or Bordeaux make their wines unique coveted, oysters take on the unique flavors of the waters where they’re grown. To appeal to increasingly knowledgeable consumers, oysters are now often sold like wine, with details of their variety, origin and season marketed as distinguishing features. The hundreds of varietals each have enthusiastic fan bases.

The tiny Kumamotos with a buttery flavor cultivated in the intertidal lands north of San Francisco and the super-sweet Sea Cows from the nutrient rich estuaries of Puget Sound in Washington State are two well-known favorites. And not to be left out of our oyster story, is the renaissance of the oyster industry in the Southeastern U.S. where intrepid entrepreneurs are restoring a decimated environment after drought, hurricanes and oil spills.

In addition to being nutritious and delicious,

oysters are one of the most sustainable foods in the world. Like all bi-valves, they require no greenhouse gas-producing feeds or inputs, but instead filter nutrients out of coastal waters, improving water quality and conditions for other aquatic plants and animals. Oysters also help protect the coastline and provide habitat and nurseries for many other species. It is no surprise that oyster farming is increasingly part of conservation as well as economic revitalization strategies for coastal areas.  

Oysters have been sustaining human communities for thousands of years,
these three seafood purveyors are dedicated to keeping up the tradition.

The Hama Hama Story

Hama Hama Oyster

Olympic Peninsula in the 1890’s, he had timber in mind, not oysters. Now, over a hundred years later, Hama Hama is a fifth-generation family-run sustainable tree and shellfish farm. Their oyster beds are located at the mouth of one of the shortest, coldest, and least developed rivers in Washington State and that purity is reflected in the clean, crisp flavor of their oysters downstream. It’s been said that oysters are so plentiful in the Hood Canal you can pick them up by the handful on the beaches — “oysters out number rocks” is only a slight exaggeration. Hama Hama oysters are beach grown and accustomed to moving with the tides and shifting currents – their schedules set by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon. Over the years, Hama Hama has branched out to add different merroirs and utilized farming methods that produce oysters unique in the market and distinct from one another. Among the varieties grown here are the super briny Summerstone and the smooth-shelled, crisp Blue Pool oyster that has a cucumber after taste and a pleasant saltiness. Though they’re available year-round (like most other oysters) they are sweeter in the spring and have a brinier finish in the fall and winter.

Merroirs – akin to terroir for grapes. This a handy and delicious new word from our seafood purveyor friends.

Hama Hama sells their oysters at their farm store and oyster saloon and at pop-ups throughout the Puget Sound and Portland regions and direct to consumers and chefs across the nation. They tell me their mission is pretty simple: utilize low impact farming methods to grow world-class oysters, have fun and leave something for the next guy.

The Hog Island Story

With California’s long coastline and thriving seafood industry, it’s surprising, there are few places to grow oysters in the state. There are simply not enough bays where oysters can thrive. San Francisco Bay that grew millions of oysters in the mid-1800’s is now far too polluted.

Hog Island Oyster Company is an anomaly, tucked away in Marin County an hour north of San Francisco. In 1983 John Finger and Terry Sawyer, two young marine biologists planted oyster seed on a 5-acre lease in Tomales Bay.  They began with the aim of growing the highest quality, local oysters. Today, Hog Island leases 160 acres in the bay and sells more than a million oysters Manila clams and mussels per year.  And, they are passionate about the environment and what’s going on in the seas and water around them. Under their watch, Hog Island has grown to become one of the premier producers of certified sustainable shellfish. Their signature and most popular oysters are the Hog Island Sweetwaters. It takes about 18 months before they’re ready to eat and are farmed year-round.

Although the company now has four restaurants and 300 employees, you can still gather some friends at their original site, pack your own picnic and, shuck your own oysters alongside the bay in which they grow. The ultimate oyster lovers’ experience!

Hog Island Oyster Company is a founding member of the Shellfish Growers Climate Coalition. A partnership between shellfish growers across the United States and the Nature Conservancy to inspire climate action now. You can learn more by going to Nature.org.

The Lost Coast Story

There’s a new breed of oystermen and women across the South East. The use of modern equipment, techniques are reinventing the traditions of the Southern oyster industry. The Lost Coast Oyster Company is a member of Oyster South an organization spearheading this revolution with over 50 oyster farmers from eight states – Maryland to Florida to Louisiana.

A Little History

For decades Apalachicola Bay on the shores of the Florida Panhandle supplied 90 percent of the oysters in Florida. It wasn’t uncommon to see 600 oyster boats crowded together on the water. One oysterman for the better part of sixty years says, “We were packed in so tight, you could walk from one boat to the other clear across the bay. When I was a young man raising a family, we used to catch twenty-five wheel barrels a day – day after day. Huge oysters. Now, you’re lucky if you get a bushel of them.” After the double calamities of hurricanes and oil spills, the aging oystermen along the Gulf have been forced out of their livelihood.

In 2019, most of the players in the burgeoning oyster industry in the Southeast are young newcomers may lack traditional experience but have a stake in modernizing and adapting to a changed environment. One of these entrepreneurs is The Lost Coast Oyster Company that plans to plant their first batch of seed this fall and be providing their oysters to Tampa Bay area restaurants in early summer 2020.

How are they are doing it?

Floating Bags — They employ a floating bag system to culture their oysters. This growing method allows for ultimate control and crop management.

Spat — (aka juvenile oysters) are spawned at a nursery before they are stocked at the farm.

Stock – Hundreds of thousands of fingernail-sized oyster are stocked in floating bags, providing them with an ideal environment.

Grow – With each oyster filtering upwards of 50 gallons of water per day, these little guys consume microscopic algae, causing an explosion of growth.

Sort – To eliminate crowding and provide adequate space for growth, the babies are gradually sorted into larger bags.

Tumble – Wind and wave action naturally tumble the oysters, encouraging a deep cup and firmly textured meat.

Finally, HARVEST! When the oysters reach the magical 3:2:1 size ratio, they are ready to harvest and sold to market and savored.

Nutritional Stats for 6 Raw Oysters

Calories: 57

Protein: 5.9 g

Carbohydrate: 3.3 g

Total fat: 2.1 g

Zinc: 76 mcg

B12: 16.3 mcg

May 6, 2020

Categories: The Chronicles

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