By Colleen Thompson
They’ve been around since antiquity, highly sought after by the Romans who called them calliblepharis, literally meaning “beautiful eyelids,” because of the sides of their mantles. Legend has it Emperor Vitellius feasted on a thousand of them in one sitting and Casanova ate fifty each morning to boost his libido. They were Gotham’s most celebrated export, a staple food for working classes and a natural filtration system for the city’s congested waterways. They’ve been called exotic names like Moon Shoal, Hama Hama and Kusshi to satisfy any ostreophile; we are, of course, talking about oysters.
Like wine and terroir, where grapes are influenced by the soil, sunlight, and climate, so too are oysters, who have their own merroir. Each crustacean is influenced by the water it exists in, the algae it feeds on, the tides and currents, the mineral content of the ocean, rainfall and overall temperature. There are over 300 unique oyster species in North America, and each of them produces a particular taste: meaty, briny or sweet. The oysters we find along our North Carolina coast are in fact all from the same species, but each one is completely unique in taste.
“Most consumers don’t realize that every oyster on the east coast is the exact same species,” says Matt Schwab, owner of Hold Fast Oyster Co. “All of the variations you see in size, shape and flavor of the oyster are attributed to the water the oysters are grown in. The minerals and types of marine phytoplankton (oyster food) present in the water change quickly from farm to farm. This means that farms only a few miles apart can grow completely different looking and tasting oysters. There is also the green-gill phenomenon, which occurs from New England to Florida. The blue-green algae are the oyster’s primary food source, but with greater frequency in North Carolina, particularly in the winter months, and they produce a pale green shelled oyster.”
Matt Schwab has a background in marine sciences and has always lived close to the water. While living in Richmond, Virginia, he began working with a friend who managed an oyster farm. “I quickly decided that this was the life for me and moved on to intern on a few different farms in the Chesapeake area,” says Schwab. “Seeing how successful oyster aquaculture had been in Virginia and seeing how underrepresented it was in North Carolina, I saw an opportunity and relocated my family to Wilmington in 2014. I spent about a year finding the perfect spot for my farm, and in May of 2015 I started Hold Fast Oyster Co and planted our first little oyster seed.”
The oyster trend has been building for a few years now, and the market for local oysters in the Cape Fear region has never been stronger with over forty oyster farms in operation. Demand grows year upon year from consumers and local restaurant owners who have set up raw bars and seafood establishments specializing in local seafood. The demand has spawned a new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators who are bringing oyster aquaculture back to life in the Cape Fear region inspired, rather than daunted by the challenges.
Rising to the challenge is Carolina Mariculture, a small family oyster farm owned and operated by Jay and Jennifer Styron—entrepreneurs following their passion and seeing the potential on Cedar Island. “I was looking at options after retirement and just stumbled onto shellfish mariculture,” says Styron. He had also seen the rise of oysters farming and how it was taking off Virginia and knew it could work. “I found a gentleman that was experimenting with modern techniques growing oysters in Stump Sound and I just started talking to him and later joined the NC Shellfish Growers Association.”
“When we first started, we had to explain to chefs why our product was different from the wild product they were so used to buying for much cheaper. Once we showed them our quality, consistency in size and ability to deliver year round, along with our flavor profile, they understood, so now there’s less selling on the front end,” says Styron.
Rowan Jacobsen, author of The Essential Oyster: A Salty Appreciation of Taste, predicted back in 2016 that “the oyster industry is now casting its eye down the Southeast coast and seeing paradise. More than 6,000 miles of shoreline unmarred by a single metropolis and all ripe for growing oysters.”
He wasn’t wrong. Aquaculture, or more specifically, mariculture, has been responsible for this rapid growth. The Oyster Restoration and Protection Plan for North Carolina was set up as a seven-step “blueprint” designed to combat habitat loss, overharvesting, poor water quality and other factors that had all contributed to the decline of North Carolina’s oyster populations in the past.
“With low levels of wild oysters due to overharvesting, excessive development along our waterways and natural disasters such as Hurricane Florence, a lot of the restaurant industry is now switching to farmed oysters for more availability and a higher quality product,” says Ryan Gadow of Three Little Spats Oysters Co. “As a result of the increased demand, you’re seeing more and more farms popping up all along the North Carolina coast.”
Working on the water comes naturally to Gadow. Both sides of his family have historically been waterman on the Chesapeake Bay, dating back to the early 1700s.
“Our farm, Three Little Spats,located in Stump Sound, is in the most historic district for oysters in North Carolina,” says Gadow. “There’s a reason for that; our area is fed from a unique lagoon system. The fresh water from the marshes of the New River along with the salt water from the Atlantic Ocean gives our Permuda Island Selects a perfect balance in flavor.”
The North Carolina Coastal Federation launched a campaign in 2017 to add 50 million oysters to the state’s sounds by 2020. With a single oyster able to filter 50 gallons of water, that’s enough to filter an estimated 2.5 billion gallons of water every day, providing cleaner water and better fish habitat and contributing to a stronger commercial and tourism economy. When it comes to choosing sustainably farmed seafood, the oyster is pretty hard to beat. Unlike many farmed fish, these shellfish have no negative impact on their surrounding environment, and well-managed, family operations like Hold Fast, Carolina Mariculture and Three Little Spats are all contributing to sustainable seafood practices.
“We have the most ecologically friendly industry in the State,” says Styron. “Our oysters and the gear they’re in provide shelter to many other recreationally and commercially important species such as red drum, flounder and sea trout. We buy our juvenile oysters from a shellfish nursery, so we never need to harvest from the wild (there is about 15% left of the wild population there was in North Carolina in 1900). Our gear is purchased with personal capital, so our businesses don’t rely on the government to keep us going. We also hire local people, which puts money back into the local economy.”
Schwab agrees that the industry has come a long way in just a few short years. “The biggest push for change I’ve seen and have been working toward is to abolish the assumption that oysters are only safe to eat in “R” months (SeptembeR-ApRil). This belief hasn’t been valid since the invention of modern refrigeration in the 1940’s, but somehow it still persists.” Oysters really can be eaten all year round, and because of that, local chefs are getting behind producers and offering diners a variety of oysters from different locations.
“I tended bar for Chef Dean Neff at Pin Point while I was getting my farm established,” says Schwab. “He was the first to carry my oysters 3 years ago, and he’s shown local farmers a ton of support. Chef Bobby Zimmerman at True Blue Butcher and Table does an oyster happy hour 6 nights a week and has an awesome local oyster selection. These 2 restaurants are the epicenter of the Cape Fear oyster scene.”
Carolina Mariculture has also been well supported with Catch, Circa 1922, RX, Pinpoint, Boca Bay, Shark Bar, Moore Street Oyster Bar and Shuckin’ Shack all adding Permuda Island Selects to their menus.
As for how the oyster farmers best enjoy their bivalves, that would be raw—slurped right off the shell. “Raw with a little mignonette is the best and simplest,” says Styron. “After that, charbroiled with garlic, butter, Parmesan cheese, Worcestershire sauce, white wine mixture and hot sauce to taste. Dab a spoonful of the mixture on each half shell oyster and place under the broiler until bubbly.