By Rowan Jacobsen, "Digging Dinner,"May/June 2011
On a foggy summer day, I walk the cobbly edge of Totten Inlet, a narrow estuary at the southern tip of Washington's Puget Sound. It's low tide, and the flats are an endless bed of greenish oysters. Tiny jets of water arc to and fro from clams spitting beneath the ground. I'm walking on a living beach, one of the prized growing areas of Taylor Shellfish Farms. Across the inlet, workers are harvesting the market-sized oysters. Others are digging with hand rakes for clams. "My family arrived in the Puget Sound region by covered wagon in the 1880s," says fourth-generation owner Bill Taylor. "We've been farming shellfish here ever since." It's a testament to the family's stewardship—and to the sustainability of shellfish farming in general—that the same beds they were cultivating a century ago are as productive as ever. I scoop up an oyster, shuck it with my knife and tilt it into my mouth. It tastes like the living sea, sweet, salty and clean. As a French poet once said, eating an oyster is like kissing the sea on the lips.
A taste of shellfish lets me connect with the coast, even if I'm hundreds of miles away. And I love knowing that every time I eat farmed shellfish, I'm not only supporting my own health, but also the health of the oceans. Most wild shellfish populations were overharvested long ago. Even the great oyster reefs of the Gulf Coast—some of the last extensive shellfish communities in the world—have declined in recent years, thanks to hurricanes and oil spills. But shellfish farming is picking up the slack, growing about 15 percent per year.
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Today, most of the oysters, clams and mussels in North America are farmed, and that's a good thing. These farms take the pressure off wild populations. Salmon farms have given aquaculture a bad name, but that's because of the tons of feed dumped into their pens, which contribute to nutrient pollution and algae blooms. Bivalves (the shellfish category that includes oysters, clams and mussels), on the other hand, get all their food by straining algae out of the water, which keeps bays clean, clear and more productive for other life.
Unlike terrestrial farms, bivalve farms need no feed, no fertilizer, no pesticides, no irrigation. "Never in human history has our need to minimize our impact on ocean resources been higher, and shellfish farms are a fantastic means to do this," says Brian Kingzett of the Centre for Shellfish Research in British Columbia, who is working with the Food Alliance to certify shellfish farms for sustainability. "They produce heart-healthy seafood in a way that has a minimal and often positive impact on ocean resources."
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Despite this, many people don't cook shellfish, which has always surprised me. Few foods are so easy to prepare, so healthy and so likely to put a goofy smile on every diner's face. When guests are nigh, shellfish are my go-to dish. I toss a can of coconut milk and a spoonful of Thai curry paste into a pot, add hard-shell clams, simmer for five or ten minutes, dump the whole lot into a big bowl, supply a loaf of crusty bread for sopping up that lip-smacking sauce, and presto! For way less than a restaurant dinner, happiness reigns. Oysters and mussels are equally easy. They need little more than a quick rinse under running water and a few minutes of cooking time. When their shells pop open, they're done!
But I have to admit, as I finished my oyster and tossed its shell back onto the flats, neither convenience, health, nor finances were much on my mind. The briny taste lingered in my mouth, the salt air filled my lungs. I'd kissed the sea on the lips, and all I wanted was to do it again.
Rowan Jacobsen's previous books include A Geography of Oysters and American Terroir. His latest is Shadows on the Gulf: A Journey Through Our Last Great Wetland (Bloomsbury USA, 2011).
Each shellfish species has its own distinct flavor profile, but because they are filter feeders, all bivalves take on the salinity and minerality of their home waters. Most East Coast farms raise the briny Eastern oyster; the iodiney littleneck, cherrystone or quahog clam (three sizes of the same species); and the sweet blue mussel. Most West Coast farms grow the cucumbery Pacific oyster, the tender and colorful Manila clam and either the Blue or Mediterranean mussel (similar flavor). Here are four other growers who are producing shellfish sustainably, with a distinct taste of place.
Apalachicola Bay is one of the last places on Earth blessed with a thriving population of wild oysters, and the locals have always managed them carefully to keep it that way. Harvests are strictly controlled, the methods virtually unchanged since the Civil War: men in small boats pull up the oysters from the shallow bay's bottom using long tongs, instead of the mechanical dredges used in many places. The plump, meaty oysters have a rich flavor thanks to the abundance of nutrients provided by the Apalachicola River. Clams from the bay are also famously succulent. Especially in the wake of the BP oil spill, when a significant percentage of the wild oysters in Louisiana were wiped out, Apalachicola Bay, which remained pristine, is a precious gem. apalachicolabay.org
Nestled behind the pristine wilderness of Point Reyes National Seashore, just north of San Francisco, Hog Island grows some of the cleanest and briniest oysters, clams and mussels in the country. With the surrounding brown hills and the hard, blue glint of that California light off the water, it's one of the most beautiful spots in the world. Hog Island purges all its shellfish in saltwater tanks after harvest, which is why you very rarely find grit or mud like you do in wild shellfish. hogislandoysters.com
American Mussel Harvesters works with mussel, oyster and clam farmers from Virginia, New England, the Canadian Maritimes and the Pacific Northwest. Now it's teaming up with the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, in Massachusetts, and Rhode Island Sea Grant to grow mussels on long lines in the open ocean off Block Island and Sakonnet Point. Open-ocean aquaculture has the potential to provide the world with a virtually unlimited source of healthful protein. The first mussels from the program arrived in restaurants in fall 2010. americanmussel.com
For over a century, Chesapeake Bay produced millions of pounds of wild oysters each year, but by the 1990s overharvesting and disease had reduced oyster populations in the bay by 99 percent. But there is good news at last. Oyster farms, which were rare in the Chesapeake a decade ago, have increased dramatically and are now producing more than 10 million oysters per year. Leading the way are Travis and Ryan Croxton, great-grandsons of a well-known Virginia oysterman, whose Rappahannock River Oysters are grown on a handful of sites along the Virginia coast, each with its own distinctive flavor. Their Olde Salts are exposed to the ocean and have a salty-dog, where's-my-beer brininess. Stingrays, from midway up the Chesapeake, are balanced, a little sweet, a little salty. Their eponymous flagship oysters, grown in the mouth of the Rappahannock River, capture the fresh mineral flavor of the Blue Ridge Mountain waters. rroysters.com
To taste shellfish from these growers, look for them at your local markets, try special-ordering from your local seafood purveyor or, to mail-order, check out their websites.