Thursday

Low Country Oyster Trip

Southeastern U.S. oysters don't get much love.  I've even heard people speak of Gulf oysters with an air of disdain.  Rarely do they enter the conversation when people are talking about their favorite oysters, in my experience.  In modern oyster culture, Massachusetts, Washington, both Canadian coasts, and Kumamotos from anywhere are what most raw bars across the country are talking about.  "The colder the waters, the better the oysters" is a phrase haphazardly thrown around these days.  "I only like the small ones" is another disappointing expression frequently heard.  And, unfortunately, the coastal Carolinas and Georgia don't have or produce either.  It's a shame, because the Low Country has a lot more to offer in terms of seafood than just shrimp'n'grits.

Green gilled Topsail Sound from North Carolina.
The green color comes from the type of algae it feeds on. 
The oyster culture in these parts is different, though.  First, it's one of the last areas in the country where the vast majority of oysters are wild harvested.  Farming oysters and aquaculture, in general, is something relatively new and practiced by a few visionaries.  It's unfortunate as the area is full of high salinity, nutrient rich, marshy waters.  I see it coming soon, though, but more on that later.  Most oysters are currently raked as clusters from wild reefs or grown in clusters and sold in 100-count bushels for $40 retail, a notable difference from the $1 a piece Kusshis or Kumamotos at wholesale.  Oysters are very abundant and available when in season.  Shit, in Charleston they even line the streets and make chandeliers out of them.


Oyster chandeliers at Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar
This means that oysters aren't really marketed by farm or appellation but as locally harvested oysters.  It is certainly something that has existed and is becoming more and more popular as you see Stump Sounds, Coosaw Cups, or Caper's Blades on menus.  And, there is definitely a familiarity and appreciation of subtle differences in oysters, I just wouldn't say it's nearly as common or popular as it is in the northern states.  Traditionally, oysters are oysters and eaten raw on crackers with hot sauce, steamed and dipped in butter, and roasted or barbecued in various styles.  They're not particularly parsed apart for their illusive raw flavor differences varying by where they are grown. 

I found this quite refreshing compared to the almost oyster-snobbery that I've become accustomed to in the Bay Area.  I wouldn't be comfortable calling it snobbery if I weren't one of those snobs.  But my experience in the Low Country eating oysters really made me appreciate quality added oysters.  I'm slowly starting to accept the fact that oysters don't have to be "raw or bust."  "No lemon, no sauce, and especially, no cooking" used to be my mantra, but I'm slowly coming around.  And the Low Country certainly solidified that.

My first introduction to the Southeast style was with my very gracious host, Kim, of Harbor Island Oyster Company, who gave me a Wilmington, NC oyster tour for the day.  She spoke of steamed oysters, something which I had never really considered.  In my experience, oysters are not like clams and mussels when you cook them.  By the time they pop open, they are dramatically over cooked.  But, Kim proved I had been mistaken at Hieronymus Restaurant



Hieronymus is an old school seafood house serving up your classic crab cakes, shrimp'n'grits, and daily fish specials that come fried, blackened, or pan roasted in a sauce of your choosing.  It feels like the kind of place my grandma always wanted to go for the clam strips or where a bunch of old salty dogs would be at the bar chain-smoking and pounding Miller Lites.  The kind of place I grew up going to and first discovered my love of seafood.  The steamed oysters were pretty bad ass too.  Not many establishments provide customers with a knife to drive directly at their hands through brittle, steamed oyster shell, and it certainly added to the charm.  Personally popping open these delicious little brine bombs was a pleasure.  And the steaming enhanced the brininess, just as Kim had said.  Tough to beat a dozen of those, drawn garlic butter, and an ice cold bitter ale.  

Husk in Charleston was next on the list. Chef Sean Brock is a local culinary legend and gaining lots of international praise too.  He, and others, have helped to farm and reestablish the use of Low Country heirloom produce like Sea Island Red Peas and Jimmy Red Corn and to bring back "antebellum cuisine."  Husk even has a farm in McClellanville dedicated to promoting local produce and educating future generations of sustainable agriculture's benefits.  You know Brock luv da' kids.

And nothing screams coastal antebellum cuisine quite like local oysters.  Wood oven roasted Caper's Blades oysters with herbed chicken fat and aji pepper mash.  Yea.  Don't think I need to say much more than that.  The presentation was great, too.  The oysters were shucked, roasted with seasonings, and had the top shell placed back on for serving.  Each one was like opening an aromatic culinary-Christmas present.  Sorry, but no pictures.  Fancy dining with the parents and I didn't want to embarrass anyone, at least before we'd finished off the first bottle of wine.  Your kindergarten teacher would be so proud of you for using your imagination.

Final culinary stop: The Ordinary in Charleston.  Honestly, this place blew me away unlike any dining experience I've had in a long time.  The space is an old, converted bank.  All marble, two story ceilings, and the kitchen is even visible through the bank's original vault door.  The bar has an impressive selection of cocktails based on Caribbean rums, paying homage to Charleston's history as a colonial Triangle Trade post and a Prohibition era rum-runners' hub.


But what topped all else was the restaurant's focus and execution of creative shellfish preparations.  Pangea Pearl Oysters with chives, caviar and crème fraîche.  Low Country style barbecued prawns, the sauce being more of a brown roux type gravy rather than traditional BBQ sauce.  Crispy oysters with beef tartare.  Maine lobster minute ceviche.  Cumin and coriander pickled white shrimp.  The only thing I regret was not trying everything.  However, far and above the rest, were the smoked oysters. 



Humbly and simply presented, they were probably the best bite of my entire East Coast road trip from Philadelphia to Savannah.  They barely smoke the oysters, only 15 minutes or so at 150 degrees.  This imparts a mild smokey flavor while keeping the oyster pretty much raw.  The oysters are then placed in a mason jar with lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, and a few other seasonings.  Served with old bay buttered saltines, crème fraîche, and house hot sauce, they were awesome, as in actually deserving of reverence.  A trip to Charleston for these alone is justified, seriously. 

Lastly, I visited the UNCW Shellfish Research Hatchery on my trip there.  It was a really interesting and informative experience to see the very start of farmed oysters.  Ami Wilbur is heading the project to breed local, disease resistant virginicas to supply to Carolina watermen.  It's relatively new and she is only supplying four farmers with seed, but it's still in its beginnings.  They take broodstock (basically oysters studs and mares), spawn it, collect and set the spat (oyster larvae), and raise the oysters with "house-made" algae.  After they reach appropriate seed size, they are passed on to the farmers or grown out in the sound off Masonboro Island by the hatchery.  

Broodstock being analyzed for selected spawning

Algae growing tanks at the hatchery


Hopefully, a few years down the road, not only will more people be growing sustainable oysters in the area but we may all be able to enjoy full flavored and well cultivated Carolina appellations, as long as all those amazing steamed and smoked oysters don't stop coming, of course.  I highly recommend taking a trip to Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, or anywhere in between and checking out the amazing seafood and oyster culture yourself.  There's plenty more to be had than just vinegar based BBQ in these parts.


Cheers,
The SF Oysternerd

1 comment:

  1. I am the travel editor for GoShuckAnOyster.com and I will be in SF for three days in November. Please let me know what three places I should go to review the local oysters. Thanks. Catch me by e-mail at rand@goshuckanoyster,com.

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