In colonial Virginia, oysters were plentiful; Capt. John Smith said they lay “thick as stones.” But as the wild oyster harvest has shrunk, Weekend Edition food commentator Bonny Wolf says the market for farm-raised oysters is booming.
The local food movement is expanding from fertile fields to brackish waters.
Along the rivers and bays of the East Coast, where wild oysters have been decimated by man and nature, harvests of farm-raised oysters are increasing by double-digits every year. At the same time, raw oyster bars are all the rage.
Shore Gregory, vice president of Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, Mass., says when his oysters first went to market in 2001, just five Boston restaurants served oysters. Island Creek now works with 70 local restaurants and 300 chefs around the country. His company began with harvests of 50,000 oysters. Today, it’s closer to 5 million.
When Travis Croxton and his cousin, Ryan, took over Rappahannock River Oysters in Virginia about 10 years ago, there were only a couple of farms in Virginia and Maryland. Now, he says, there are close to 300.
Tim Devine had been a successful photographer in New York for 11 years when he returned home to Maryland’s Eastern Shore last spring to start Barren Island Oysters.
Like the Croxtons, he learned the business from the Internet. Even with the Internet, they have a lot to learn, so some of the new oystermen hire veteran watermen to teach them. Many of these old salts remember better days in the oyster fields.
When wild oysters were plentiful and cheap, they were a poor man’s food. Modern, farm-raised oysters are for upscale eaters. They have catchy names and clever marketing. Consumers discuss the “merroir” of different oysters, the water conditions that determine an oyster’s flavor. Like wine connoisseurs, oyster enthusiasts talk about an oyster’s mild finish, hints of copper, pleasant melon flavor. What happened to “briny”?
Oyster entrepreneurs are confident that they’re tapping into demand that’s been unmet since oysters’ glory days, when reefs were actually a danger to ships and oysters were a staple food. They also know they are helping the environment, since oysters are one of nature’s best water filters.
They all wish each other well. A rising tide lifts all oyster boats.
Bonny Wolf is managing editor of American Food Roots.