Tuesday

The Darker Side of Oysters

Blue Point Oysters.  I'm sure you've all heard of them, maybe even tried them.  When we have them in stock, they're sold more quickly than they can be shucked.  But, Blue Points are frequently one of the most fraudulently labeled Oysters in North America.  I kind of feel like Paul Giamatti in Sideways when I see Blue Points on a menu, just subbing the Merlot for Oysters.  "No, if anyone orders Blue Point Oysters, I'm leaving.  I'm NOT eating any fucking Blue Points!"  Probably a stretch comparing myself to Miles Raymond's snob-status, but the sentiment is there.  It's not that I haven't had a good, actual Long Island Blue Point.  They do exist and I have.  It's more about what a Blue Point Oyster is, or more importantly, what it once was.

In the 1800's, New York was famous for its Oysters, most notably its Long Island Great South Bay Blue Points.  And they were everywhere.  Abundant, available, and eaten by everyone.  New York's ritziest of restaurants to the lowest end Oyster cellars all served Blue Points.  Funny little aside, Mark Kurlansky discusses in The Big Oyster that these Oyster cellars, which attracted New York's bridge-and-tunnel best, advertised by placing a red balloon with a lit candle at the street entrance.  Coincidence?  Definitely not.  The Oyster aphrodisiac idea goes back centuries.  Let's just say that the menu at these establishments included a bit more than just Oysters.  Anyway, with all these Oysters being consumed, the Great South Bay Oyster industry soon collapsed.

So, what to do with a city's worth of insatiable Oyster-eaters and no product?  Given the difficult discernability of Oysters, it's easy.  Just look elsewhere for product and pawn it off as the genuine thing.  Thus, the famous, now infamous, ambiguously sourced Blue Point Oyster was born.  New Jersey Blue Points, Virginia Blue Points, hell, I bet some Gulf Oysters have even bore the label.  It's one of the greatest marketing scams in the industry.  The name became so recognized that it was practically foolish not to label your Oyster a "Blue Point."  And, unfortunately, Oysters are not like Tequila, Champagne, or even Vidalia Onions.  There are no regulations on appellations.  All a fisher or farmer needs to legally note on his Oysters is when and where they were harvested.  There is no law preventing an Oyster farmer, fisher, purveyor, or shucker from calling an Oyster whatever he pleases (with the exception of a few trademarked names some growers have utilized).  This helps explain the great discrepancy you may have noticed in several Oyster appellations you thought familiar.  Admittedly, farming methods, seasons, even genetics can explain the varying nature of Oysters.  However, I bet each one of you has had a mislabeled Oyster.  Maybe it was maliciously mislabeled, maybe it was mistakenly.  Point is it happens.  But how and why? 

I spoke with Anthony Marchetti of Rappahanock River Oysters for more insight.  Rappahanock River Oysters are a century old tradition, started by current owners Ryan and Travis Croxton's great grandfather in 1899.  Throughout the peaks and valleys of the 1900's, the once great Chesapeake Oyster industry began to collapse and moved from stardom to stigma.  As Anthony put it, many people hated Chesapeake Oysters, claiming they were flavorless and unpalatable.  The Croxtons and team knew this was a mistaken association and sought to correct it with their revamped aquaculture operation.  However, much of the reason for the past hatred of Chesapeake Oysters brings us to Oyster fraud practice #1:

Floating Oysters:
Often, when Oyster harvests are poor, demand is hard to meet, or there is just a desire or need for more money, some less ethical farmers will ship in Oysters from more fertile and abundant grounds and "finish" them in their waters.  This was the case when there were no Chesapeake Oysters left.  Gulf Oysters would be shipped up to the Chesapeake and placed in the mid-Atlantic waters just to be harvested a few weeks later and called, say, "Chinconteagues."  This is a much more common practice than you'd think, especially in Ireland, the Chesapeake, and even Tomales Bay.  I've encountered more than a few "Tomales Bay Oysters" that were clearly British Columbia Oysters finished in Californian waters.  Oysters floated may take on a little flavor of the area they're briefly placed in, but only in the liquor.  It will never achieve the full depth-in-the-meat complexity of an Oyster grown from spat to maturity in those same waters.  However, this practice is completely legal, albeit dishonest. 

Rappahanock fought a tough, uphill battle to bring Chesapeake Oysters back to the rightful place at the table, only to encounter new, even shadier practices.  Once their now famous Rapps, Stingrays, and Olde Salts started getting the recognition they deserved as quality, genuine Chesapeake Oysters, several other Oystermen started piggy-backing off of their fame.  "Yea, these Oysters are farmed in coordination with the Croxtons.  Sure, these are the same as the Rappahanocks."  Both are phrases I'm sure many purveyors employed to better their sales.  This meant inferior products were being sold as Rappahannock's.  Anthony even said they've had to issue a few cease and desist letters.  This brings us to Oyster fraud practice #2:

Mislabeling Oysters:
Similar to the naming of "Blue Points" previously discussed, many Oystermen will falsely or more often cleverly label their Oysters, making them more desirable through name recognition.  I can think of quite a few that ride the coattails of already popular Oysters:  Blue Points beget Blue Pools, Kumamotos the Gigamotos, Flats from Maine being called "Belons," and the whole Royal/Marin/Cove Miyagi debacle.  Robb Walsh writes in Sex, Death & Oysters that over the last couple decades, many purveyors have often had several differently sourced Oysters in their warehouse with tags (stating where and when they were caught), but no label or name.  So when a vendor called up and ordered Fanny Bays, they un-holstered their Fanny Bay stamp and a random box of British Columbia Oysters became "Fanny Bays."  This could also go for Oyster appellations that aren't selling so well.  Nobody's buying the Discovery Bays?  Let's call them the more recognizable Hood Canals, then.  Again, this is not illegal, unless the seller is infringing on a trademark.  Just dishonest, maybe clever, depending on how you look at it.

This practice can go on with sales at any point past the purveyor as well.  Say a shucker accidentally ran out of Cape Cod Rocky Nooks after you've already ordered them.  He could do the correct thing and tell the chef/owner/manager, get yelled at, and have the waiter embarrassingly explain to you that the restaurant no longer has them.  Or, he could pawn off a similar Cape Cod Oyster as a Rocky Nook.  The subtle differences between same-species same-locale Oysters can be quite difficult to discern.  And if you do notice a difference from the last Rocky Nooks you've had, it could be a difference of season, batch, and freshness.  Very few people have the pallet, the knowledge, or the gall to say the Oyster they received is not the one they ordered.

As Rappahannock Oysters continued to grow in both production and popularity, they started what is now known as the The Barcat Foundation.  Oystering is a tough industry, and Rappahannock has taken on the responsibility aiding fellow Chesapeake fishermen.  Dwindling populations of all Chesapeake marine life has led to stricter and tougher regulations to ensure the survival of these species.  This has left many fishermen barely able to make ends meet, especially if dependent on Oysters.  When times are tough, scruples can be sacrificed.  This leads us to Oyster fraud practice #3: 

Harvesting Oysters Illegally:
It doesn't get much more cut and dry than this.  Whereas previous practices may be unethical, this one is down right illegal.  And believe me, it does still happen at an appalling frequency.  Who knows how often the perpetrators are actually caught.  At least some of the time.  Wild Oyster beds have been pillaged for centuries, and if not regulated (as in the case of the Long Island Blue Point), will be destroyed beyond repair.  This extends to all fisheries, not just Oysters.  The St. George's Bank, the Bluefin Tuna, Abalone (I'm sure you're all familiar with various others). Some fishermen still dredge protected beds, fish out of season, catch and sell threatened species, and then alter their harvest numbers to hide their actions.  It doesn't get much more fraudulent.

Thankfully, Rappahannock has created a better option for fishermen with the Barcat Oyster and The Barcat Foundation.  They teach Oystermen how to sustainably grow Oysters and provide them with a stable market by purchasing their crops.  It's a process that not only protects natural marine life in the Bay, but also ensures that the ever-growing demand for Oysters will always be met.  The old consumption vs. protection battle will not be fought on their turf.  Thanks to them (and many other like-minded Chesapeake farmers and residents), future generations in the area and elsewhere will be able to enjoy the fruits of the Chesapeake.  A precentage of the sales of Barcat Oysters even goes to Chesapeake restoration projects.

Now, what can you do to prevent being a victim of such fraud discussed above?  Two things.  One, you could taste thousands of Oysters, familiarize yourself with regional, seasonal, and growing style differences, consistently ask to see Oyster tags at each location, talk to farmers, chefs, shuckers, read all Oyster literature available, etc.  This is not impossible, but takes a lot of time and a lot of money.  People have dedicated years to this, and still fall victim, I'm sure.  Option two, which is much more reasonable, is to find an Oyster bar/chef/shucker/farm you trust, and rely on them.  If you like Oysters as much as I do, then developing a rapport with a local shucker is a good idea anyway.  Not only will you not be hoodwinked, but you'll also get the best product available in house on that day.  It's not a fail safe, but it is your best bet.  The most important thing is that you are enjoying your Oysters.  No harm, no foul. 

Rappahannock Oysters:


What about the company's actual Oysters?  As Anthony told me, the Chesapeake is the largest estuary in North America.  With all these different coves, bays, inlets, and river mouths, Oyster flavor differences can vary immensely and quite interestingly.  I hate when you see the generic "Chesapeake Oysters" at a market.  In my experience, they are often questionably sourced.  It's best to avoid generic names when eating Oysters.  If you have access to them, stick to the Oysters from companies/farmers with familiar or trademarked names.  It assures quality. 

So, with all these potential growing locales, varieties within a single region like the Chesapeake can only be rivaled by those of the Puget Sound.  The Rappahannock River Oyster company grows Rappahannock River Oysters, Stingrays, Witch Ducks, Olde Salts, and source the Barcats.  I think it best to break down the namesake Rappahannock River Oyster:

Oysters generally grow in marine environments with salinity levels ranging from 5 ppt (parts per thousand) to 35 ppt.  Naturally, the higher the salinity level, the brinier the Oyster.  Rappahannocks are grown in the rack & bag style by Topping, Virginia, at the mouth of the Rappahannock River into the Chesapeake Bay.  Depending on a number of factors, these waters have uncommonly low salinity levels ranging from 10 ppt to 17 ppt.  This gives the Rappahannock Oyster a very understated, almost non-existent brininess.  Deep cupped and medium to medium-large, it's one of the more unique Oysters you will encounter; great for starters who are afraid of that super salty flavor Oysters traditionally have, and great for savvy veterans looking for something new to surprise their palates.  You're not going to get big, bold notes of mineral, salt, fruit, citrus from a Rappahannock.  What you do get is an amazingly creamy, buttery, subtly sweet flavor.  I praise the Rappahannock for its incredible pillowy, decadent mouth-feel, almost caviar-esk.  It's flavors and textures are extremely fun to introduce and describe to customers.  Slurp, eyes close, head tilts back, chew, swallow, and return with an amazed, excited smile.  If you see them, try them.  But be sure to make sure it's the authentic thing, of course.  How, you ask?  The new restuarant, Merroir, a tasting room dedicated to local wines, brews and Rappahannock River Oysters, is probably your best bet.

Happy New Year,
The SF Oyster Nerd

10 comments:

  1. Great story. Very information and interesting. Thanks!

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  2. This seems endemic in the oyster trade. Oysters have been moved about ever since the days of ancient Greece and Rome. But false labelling goes back to 19th cent. Saw evidence of this in France with the "Bélons". One company brought in lorryloads from Normandy, Belgium or Ireland and finished them for a day or so in indoor tanks fed with water from the river Bélon, and then sold as Bélons, which demand a higher price.
    We consumers need to get the retailers and restaurants to tell us where and how the oysters have grown and only buy from growers who are prepared to provide provenance certificates/papers.

    Good angle and more needs to be uncovered about these more and more common practices!

    Cheers

    Nigel Moore

    www.theoystersmyworld.com

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  3. Couldn't agree more, Nigel. Can't wait til your next post and would love to hear your progress on the book!

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  4. While we have enjoyed many a tasty meal at Merroir, there are other reputable oyster growers in the same area of the Rapp. To imply RRO has a corner on these tasty critters does a disservice to those growers. The only difference is these other growers lack the excellent marketing savy of the principals at RRO.

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  5. Forgive me if that's what it seems I was implying. By no means did I say that RRO "has a corner" on Chesapeake Oysters. I was acknowledging RRO for their excellent service to the area in promoting sustainable aquaculture, and for their quality product. I know there are several other less-known growers in the area contributing and I applaud them as well. It's a community, not a competition. Please share so I can learn more about them.

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  6. If you are looking for another top notch Oyster grower in the Chesapeake Bay I would look no further then right next door to RRO. Chesapeake Bay Oyster Company and their Parrot Island Brand Oysters are just plain awesome. Their owner is also know to help out other growers in the, and he has actually created a few new growing methods, with the helps of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, that many other companies use as he shares all his knowledge. It would not shock me one bit if RRO used some of these new equipment. I am proud that I am from the Rappahannock River as I get to brag to all of my friends that two of the best Oysters Companies on the East Coast are both in my back yard.

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  7. Thanks for the comment and could not agree more. The folks at CBOC are dear friends and we’ve been partnering with them for almost a decade now. The contribution they’ve made to the advancement of aquaculture in the region can’t be over-stated. We’re proud to work with them through our Barcat product line to get more people out there growing oysters – whether it’s a crabber who’s no longer able to make ends meet or a stock broker looking for a change of pace. Together we’re able to give them the tools they need to bring product to market responsibly, and even help sell it when it gets to size. The way we look at it, the more people out there growing oysters, the faster we get to a balanced ecosystem. And with only 1% of our historic population still in existence, it’s not something any of us can do alone.

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  8. Oyster Nerd, what do you think of "Jolly Roger" oysters in the jar from Washington State? (Apparently produced by Wiegardt Bros. Inc. of Ocean Park, Wash.) What should consumers look for in "oysters in the jar," or are they always less preferred to oysters on the half-shell

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    1. I am not familiar with this particular brand, but there are a few specifics to look for when buying canned. There are many size grades, but the two primary sizes are the larger Count Oysters (a.k.a. Fryers) and the smaller Select Oysters (a.k.a. Stewers). It really depends on what you want to do with the Oysters. If you're making an Oyster stew or an Oyster po'boy, I would suggest buying canned Oysters rather than in the shell. Saves time and they hold up better to cooking. If consuming raw, in the shell is best. All canned Oysters should be tagged with a "sell by" or "use by" date, so be sure to check for that. You want the liquor (juice they're sitting in) to be clear as possible and the Oysters have no noticeable discoloration. Also, with all seafood, it's best to buy canned Oysters from a fairly well trafficked market that has a high turnover. This ensures that they haven't been sitting there for weeks. If this is not an option, there are several suppliers who would ship some to your home. Cheers. The SF Oysternerd.

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