BY KAREN SCHWALBE
Growing local food doesn’t always look like you would expect it to look. There can be seeds, rows, transplanting and harvesting – and yet aquaculture might not be what first comes to min
d. However, the similarities to a vegetable farm or a vineyard become startlingly apparent when you see the operations at Island Creek Oysters (ICO) in Duxbury. From the preparation of the nutrients (algae) for the seed (oyster spat) to transplanting (in cages) and harvesting, the procedures are comparable, as are the vagaries of weather, effect of growing conditions and influence of markets.
The similarities to wine go beyond methods of cultivation – there are also the similarities of terroir – taste coming from a sense of place. As the same variety of grapes grown in different locations have unique tastes depending on cultivation, soils and climate, so do oysters. Island Creek Oyster uses merrior – semi-seriously – when they talk about the variations in flavor that come from different areas in the bay and their different cultivation methods. Island Creek Oyster oysters are renowned for their clean strong briny flavor and buttery texture and taste. Harborside grown oysters are brinier and those from the beachside are sweeter. Depending on whether they are rack or bagged or left on the floor of the bay, conditions influence the taste and shape of the oyster. Besides their Island Creek Oysters, they have a second variety named Row 34, produced in bags suspended in the water column instead of on the bay floor.
Founded in 1992 by Skip Bennett, Island Creek Oysters is both a grower and wholesaler of premium oysters and is one of the oldest and most innovative of aquaculture operations in Massachusetts, with their cultivation from spat to transplanting in the bay worthy of an entire article in itself. From harvest to market ICO has taken advantage of an opening market, and in many way driving the marketing and consumption of oysters. Besides being the grower of oysters, they are also a wholesaler, enabling them to control post harvest conditions and market their products directly to consumers. Part of this direct marketing involves two restaurants in Boston and a direct sale shop in Duxbury, a few short miles from the harbor-side operations.
Arriving at the floating harvest shack, called the Oysterplex, on a blustery December afternoon staff were busy culling baskets of oysters. Mostly ‘jumbos’ – larger than 4”, were sorted, rinsed and stacked for transport back to shore. Jumbo oysters are primarily used for chowder, stew, grilling or frying. Muddy spent oyster shells are set aside to be dumped back to the bay and crates of Return to Grant (RTG) oysters to be sent to a separate grant to grow out to more attractive specimens.
Permeating the entire organization is a tongue in cheek sense of humor that is developed intentionally. The challenges of working together in tough conditions, a commitment to growing quality oysters and a passion for their work has honed the staff to a tightly knit group with a camaraderie and wittiness that is readily apparent. It is obviously a fun place to work.
With the holiday season fast upon us, local oysters are a great way to celebrate. Island Creek Oysters can found at their Duxbury retail shop, at one of their restaurant locations or their pop up shop on Newbury Street (only until January 2nd). Or you can order online and they will ship overnight.