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A Superb Oyster Experience in Cape Cod Bay

With Grand Cru Chablis Sipped Out of Mason Jars
by Terry and Julie Robards

Most connoisseurs of oysters, those delicious mollusks that open so many sophisticated feasts, are not aware of how breeders can fine tune their flavors and styles to please certain demanding palates or launch a meal so that the ensuing courses flow forward in the most appetizing progression.

Indeed, the role of that first morsel to impact the taste buds is crucial because it serves as an alert of the special nature of the provender to come. Oysters are all about subtlety, yet they are packed with flavor nuances that can be bred into them so that the total gastronomic experience is enhanced.

This was brought home by oyster expert Chris Sherman, who toils in the salty mollusk vineyards of Duxbury Bay in the waters just off Cape Cod. Much of the time, he is attempting to please the palate of Thomas Keller, chef and proprietor of The French Laundry in Napa, California, and Per Se in Manhattan, two of this country’s foremost dining establishments.  Sherman is marketing director and de facto manager of Island Creek Oysters, where special things happen in the oyster beds to create special flavors.

Island Creek has grown into one of the largest oyster breeders in the United States, supplying over 100,000 of the bivalves weekly to restaurants on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Canada and the Caribbean. Even the White House is a customer.

It was a sun-drenched day in August when we met with Sherman for a tour of the Island Creek operation. The first order of business was a visit to where baby oysters—called seed—are given their start in huge holding tanks. A seed oyster is only about two millimeters long, and 800,000 of them weigh only about two pounds. In 18 months these oysters will grow to maturity and will weigh some 250,000 pounds.

Because the seed are so small, they are kept in specially designed boxes in a space beneath the Duxbury Bay Maritime School’s docks. Key parts of what is called an upweller system, the containers are built with finely woven mesh on the bottom so the little critters don’t fall through. Sea water and food are pumped continuously through the upwellers to supply the tiny oysters with a constant flow of nutrients. About the size of a pepper flake at first, they spend several weeks in the upwellers, doubling in size daily. By week four, they are about one-quarter inch long.

The mollusks are then “graded” by sifting over a quarter-inch mesh. The smaller oysters that fall through the screen are returned to the upwellers to continue growing in a controlled environment and the larger oysters are taken to an area in the bay called the nursery. The nursery is an impressive system of cages that hold mesh bags filled with the baby oysters. The cages are arranged in rows along the bottom of the bay where they will get the maximum flow of water and air for growth.

Between June and September they will grow to about two inches in length. It is now time for the oysters to be “planted” and this is accomplished by tossing snow shovels full of them out into the bay. Once all the youngsters have been planted and cold weather sets in, they go dormant.

After about 18 months, many of them are big enough to be harvested. This is accomplished with two methods: hand picking and dragging. Hand picking takes place during the new moon when tides are low. Called “drain tides,” the water completely drains out of Duxbury Bay to reveal expansive mud flats filled with oysters.

About 6,000 oysters can be harvested in just a few hours. Dragging involves harvesting from a boat by dragging a metal rake with a net attached. This is done when the tides are not low but demand from clients dictates a harvest.

Once harvested, the oysters are “culled”—or sorted—by size. The ideal Island Creek oyster is about three inches long, with a deep, round cup that allows for a plump, well-shaped mollusk with plenty of liquor, which connoisseurs consider an important aspect of the total experience. The deeper cup means plumper meat, more liquor and added eye appeal. These are the oysters that are the choice of Thomas Keller.

Dark green and orange baskets of sorted oysters lie under a float out in the bay. It was here that we visited with Chris Sherman and sampled the fresh oysters—they don’t get any fresher than this—with Grand Cru Chablis that we had brought for the occasion, a crisp and minerally William Fevre Les Clos 2009 and an equally crisp Fevre Les Preuses 2008 sipped from fruit jars, for we had neglected to bring wine glasses.

Island Creekers from Duxbury Bay are the ideal oysters. Plump, meaty and flavorful with nuances of seaweed complimented by a perfect balance of salinity and sweetness . Because of the deeply cupped shells, the texture is meatier than most, which adds to the experience. I didn’t keep track of how many I downed, but it could easily have been two dozen. It doesn’t get any better than this.