Heroes on the Half Shell

In search of the sustainable, local oyster.

By Dan Packel
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Dec. 3, 2008

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Saved by the shell: The flavor of an oyster varies greatly depending on its origin. (photo by michael persico)

In 1941 food writer M.F.K. Fisher saluted the daring of the Atlantic Coast oyster, which, unlike its West Coast relatives, spends its childhood and adolescence alone in the tides, far from the spot of its conception. In her book Consider the Oyster, Fisher emphasizes that American oysters differ in habit just as much as American people do.

For American oysters, different habits beget different flavors. When it came to oysters served raw on the half shell, Fisher was partial to those from Long Island Sound, but the denizens of our own Delaware Bay also rate an enthusiastic mention.

But even at the time of Fisher's writing, the Delaware Bay oyster fishery was in decline. In 1950 the harvest had dropped to 1 million bushels a year, down from a peak of 2.4 million in 1880. The situation grew even grimmer for bivalves that hoped to moor themselves to the floor of the bay during the second half of the 20th century: Waves of disease decimated the population, leading to a complete cessation of commercial oystering in 1990.

Philadelphia-area oyster lovers could still rely on Bluepoints from Long Island, Chincoteagues from Virginia and Malpeques from Prince Edward Island to satisfy their jones for slippery, meaty mollusks served up with a wedge of lemon and a vessel of mignonette. But the increased distance from bay floor to table often led to increased transport costs and reduced freshness. Locally, the Delaware Bay reopened to oystering in 1996.

The current champion of bay oysters, the Cape May Salt, doesn't exhibit the same independent streak that distinguished its predecessors in 1941. It remains the species Crassostrea Virginicus, genetically identical to both its forefathers in the bay and relatives up and down the Atlantic Coast.

Having been reintroduced to the southernmost oyster habitat in the bay--about 12 miles upstream from Cape May--the Salts are now raised through "rack and bag" oyster farming, a technique that originated in France.

Traditional oystering entails heading out in a boat and scooping wild oysters off the floor of the bay with either tongs or a dredge. But in rack and bag oystering, also known as the intertidal method, the mollusks make their homes in mesh bags secured to the bay floor by a metal rack. At high tide, the oysters are covered under five feet of water; at low tide the oysters are exposed and the farmers can walk out and harvest the oysters.

"Our fleet is two pickup trucks," says James Tweed, aquaculture and husbandry manager for Atlantic Capes Fisheries, the company responsible for the reintroduction of Cape May Salts. Tweed explains that the exposure to low tide and different types of weather that results from the intertidal method helps the oysters develop a harder shell and a higher meat-to-shell ratio than those obtained through traditional harvesting.

At Queen Village's Ansill last week, the Cape May Salts were impressively meaty and firm. The saltiness of the meat obviated any more than a cursory application of mignonette. Tweed says the having the fishery at the bottom of the bay gives the oysters greater salinity than oysters that are harvested farther north.

While the fishery may be at the far southern end of the bay, it's still close enough that an oyster can be harvested out of the water one day, delivered to the distributor in Philadelphia the next morning and shucked and plated later that evening-- carefully arranged next to 11 of its closest oyster friends.

"People have shifted to looking for more local options," says Anthony d'Angelo, sales manager for Samuels and Sons, distributor of Cape May Salts. He points to Pub and Kitchen, Bar Ferdinand and Butcher and Singer as examples.

There are still plenty of opportunities to find Bluepoints, Malpeques and Chincoteagues in the area. And there's no good reason not to try them--all good oysters, served fresh, vibrantly express the unique character of their place of origin.

And yet, as Fisher writes, "the flavor of an oyster depends upon several things. First, if it's fresh and sweet and healthy it will taste good, quite simply ... good, that is, if the taster likes oyster."

I like oyster, and Cape May Salts taste good, quite simply, to me.

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1. gaetano said... on Dec 16, 2008 at 05:36PM

“Dan, enjoyed your story. I love CM salts but all the clucking in the foo booz henhouse like they are Delaware bay belons is BS. Also Cape May Salts like most local oysters often suck in summer (spawning, warm water), that could be why Craig Laban found that "carbonated froth of Meyer lemon and a dice of pickled watermelon on top." was an improvement on perfection. Neutered oysters don't spawn but still they don't ship as well when taken from summer's warm water. http://phillymarketcafe.blogspot.com/search?q=%22salts%22”

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