This past Sunday, I attended the Aquaculture seminar as part of the weekend’s Montclair Food & Wine Festival events. As a recent convert to raw oysters and clams (until a year ago the thought of them disgusted me, now I enjoy them every chance I get) I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the local sources of my favorite bivalves.
The seminar began with a brief history lesson from Eric Levin, senior editor at NJ Monthly Magazine. He explained how in the 1700s, our very own Hudson River practically teemed with oysters. Where fresh water meets salt water, as in the Hudson River, oysters thrive. Upon discovering how delicious these odd edibles were, locals nearly ate the Hudson River oysters into extinction. Combine this over-consumption with pollution and waste from the growing local industry, and the future of our local east coast oysters grew grim. To counteract this landslide into an oyster-less Hudson, in 1927 the government halted all oyster fishing, making it illegal. While helpful, disease dealt oysters another blow in the 1950s, and the annual harvest radically dropped again.
Fortunately, the region developed a plan to boost local aquaculture and help the oysters rebound their numbers. Rutgers University in particular helped save the local oysters with its agricultural experiment station. Using Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest, they bred the surviving oysters to be resistant to the MSX disease.
Gef Flimlin, of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, explained how oysters greatly contribute to the health of the water they grow and live in. Just one fully grown oyster can filter 50 gallons (!) of water per day. And by consuming phytoplankton and algae from the water, oysters cleanse the water even further, making it more hospitable for other water dwellers. Think of what a few thousand oysters can do for the entire local aquaculture.
Unlike all the negatives associated with farmed fish, “farm raised” oysters grow in environments identical to those of their wild counterparts. Shellfish hatcheries simulate natural aquatic conditions, growing the oysters in the same oceans they would naturally grow in, only in more structured growing colonies.
Matt Gregg, an aquaculture farmer so to speak, believes in encouraging local oysters to help rehabilitate parts of the Jersey Shore, and to give people in New Jersey some homegrown oysters to enjoy and be proud of. He grows oysters in Barnegat Bay, in Mantoloking, NJ at his 40 North Oyster Farm. In a region of the ocean formerly so saturated in algae that no other marine life could live, the whole habitat now thrives. Because of the introduction of these oysters, the algae subsided, bringing back all the fish, turtles, and crabs that formerly lived in the area. Matt explained, “you can take an area with no viable life, introduce oysters, and the whole ecosystem thrives.” This year, Matt will partner with a new restaurant set to open in Jockey Hollow, providing top quality Barnegat Bay oysters for its patrons. With a weekday price of a very affordable $1 an oyster, you can quickly become a patron of local aquaculture.
If you’ve ever eaten oysters, you know they come with all sorts of funny names. Naked Cowboy, French Kiss, Blue Point, Beavertail, Wellfleet, the list goes on and on. But in truth, all the oysters up and down the east coast are the exact same species. The differences in flavor, texture, appearance, and size all depend on the local aquatic micro-climate. Rather than terroir, the French term to describe the local flavors of wine, think of these oyster flavors as merrior, or of the ocean, Greg, Matt, and Eric all explained. Even local weather patterns can change the flavor of oysters. The same oyster grown in the same estuary will taste differently one season to the next. Even a rain storm can immediately impact the oysters flavor; more rain means less salt in the water, which means a lower salinity in the taste of the oyster, with sweetness overtaking saltiness. The phytoplankton that oysters consume throughout the year also impact their taste, like a cow raised on grass instead of corn.
In you’re wondering the best season to enjoy oysters, the old adage holds true. September, October, and November are when oysters reach their plumpest and fullest, before they shutdown their growing for the winter season.
At the seminar, we enjoyed several wines and a sparkling prosecco with our oysters and clams. When selecting a wine to serve with your oysters, chose something with higher salinity, minerality, and acidity, and with low alcohol and a slightly fruit forward taste to compliment the oysters inherent saltiness and sweetness. When eating oysters, keep a few things in mind. To reap the best flavor, slurp your oyster when you tip it back, and chew it slightly to release all of its subtleties. And if you really want to enjoy and appreciate your oysters, don’t drown out their delicate qualities with heaps of cocktail sauce, lemon, and mignonette. Those flavor maskers should only be used when forced to eat sub-standard oysters, none of which come from our local waters.
For the full article, visit Devil Gourmet.