When Nick Schauman was a toddler, his grandfather, Larry Hunton, taught him how to eat raw oysters. Hunton let his grandson tag along on trips to Lexington Market, where the duo would sit at the raw bar (Schauman sat on top of it) and slurp down oysters "faster than the man could shuck them."
Back then, ordering a dozen oysters simply meant asking for "oysters." Forty years later, at oyster bars and fishmongers across the region, "boutique" oysters harvested from oyster farms — many of them local — are the norm.
Drawing inspiration from his grandfather, Schauman now has a career as an oyster shucker who also educates. His company, The Local Oyster, travels to markets and events, shucking and grilling oysters as he shares his knowledge of — and love for — the bivalves. The Local Oyster offers a selection of a dozen kinds of Maryland and Virginia oysters.
As he shucks, Schauman helps party guests explore the different flavors and textures. "I'll tell them what notes they should be looking for on their palates, explaining that the oysters will taste different if from different water."
Steve Allen, the scientific diver and manager of on-the-water programs with the Oyster Recovery Partnership, says oysters "can change their flavor based on the environment they are in, so the same oyster species can start to take on a varietal-like aspect, similar to grapes and wine." Oyster farmers and aquaculture experts like Allen frequently liken the budding oyster farming industry to the wine or craft beer movements.
"I'm old enough to remember when red wine was just red wine," Tim Devine, the owner of the Eastern Shore oyster farm Barren Island Oysters, says with a laugh. "Before you knew it, there were regional wines and brands out there. You see it happening with all these little craft industries. It's happening with oysters."
Also like wine, oysters develop flavors based on where they are grown, a concept often referred to as "merroir" (mer meaning sea) — a play on "terroir," which is the way land and location influence wine flavors.
"Oysters pick up a lot of nutrients from the sediment," says Devine, adding that salinity also influences flavor. "What's around your oysters will really affect the taste — especially the finish."
Devine says that though the differences are subtle, he can distinguish between oysters grown on the eastern and western shores of the Chesapeake Bay.
Local oyster farmers are enthusiastic about what the intersection of merroir and oyster farming means for Chesapeake oyster quality.
"A wild oyster is a delicious product, but you don't know where it came from," says Tal Petty of Hollywood Oyster Co., who harvests what are known as Sweet Baby Jesus oysters on his 300-acre farm in St. Mary's County. "With a Hollywood or other oyster, it's a predictable product, or taste and you can point to the farm where it came from. The merroir matters. Part of the discovery process around farmed oysters is finding the taste with the merroir you're attracted to."
For centuries, oysters have been an integral part of Maryland's culinary culture, but that history has been tumultuous. Starting in the 19th century, overfishing and other environmental factors led to a rapidly shrinking oyster harvest in the Chesapeake Bay. In 2004, only 42,791 pounds of oysters were harvested from the bay, compared with between 15 million and 20 million per year in the early 1950s — and many times that number a century before.
During the heyday of oyster harvesting in Maryland — the mid-19th century — many oysters were sent to Baltimore canneries. The bivalves were harvested in enormous quantities, shucked and canned, not sold for eating on the half shell; as a result, Chesapeake oysters developed a reputation as several steps below premium.
"Maryland oysters have been, forever, the most bland shucked oysters," says Barren Island Oysters' Tim Devine. Devine, along with other watermen taking advantage of Maryland's 2009 law allowing oyster farming on leased water bottom, aims to change the perception of Chesapeake oysters as boring and average.
"What I and a few others have done is create an oyster that's entirely different. It's a premium oyster — more expensive to make and more expensive to buy," he says, describing his oysters as creamy and buttery.
Devine planted his first oysters in the spring of 2012 and began selling oysters just over a year later, in June 2013. His first week, he harvested about 600 oysters; by the third week, that number increased to 12,000.
Environmental concerns were a driving force behind the 2009 decision on oyster farming in the bay. Oysters are a vital part of the bay's ecology, filtering water as they grow. In this way, farmed oysters differ from other types of farmed seafood, which are often criticized for the large amount of wild fish necessary to feed farmed fish and for their impact on natural ecosystems.
Devine is quick to mention this distinction. "I run into people saying, 'I don't do farmed seafood,'" he says. "But oysters don't require a protein source. They just eat the algae. The farmed oyster has no negative effects when you pack a lot together."
In the few years he has been farming oysters, he has seen the benefits of oyster production. "I found 10 acres that had nothing — just bay mud," he says. "Since I put oysters there, the place is teeming with life. I have created a 10-acre reef where we have rockfish and skate and crab and seahorses and everything you can imagine. It's the coolest thing to see."
The uptick in local oyster production benefits not just the environment, but the economy, too. "What people do on land affects the people who make a living off what happens in the water," says Josh Falk, director of education at the Annapolis Maritime Museum. "As an environmental educator, I think it's easy to focus on the fact that critters are important, but if you get rid of oysters, you get rid of the whole way of life and culture."
Following the 2009 law change, "there was a fear among some in the watermen community that large entities would swoop in and lease large tracts of bay bottom for aquaculture," says the Oyster Recovery Partnership's Steve Allen. "But to my knowledge, that has not occurred. Most of the folks who jumped in are watermen by trade."
The notion of locally farmed oysters also dovetails with consumer desires to buy sustainably raised, local foods and to know where their food is farmed. In addition, as the Maryland oyster farming industry has grown, oyster consumption has also evolved, with the opening of new oyster bars and increasing interest among diners to experiment with varieties.
Brian McComas, owner of Ryleigh's Oyster in Federal Hill and Timonium, has observed firsthand the change in consumer attitudes and expectations. "When we opened Ryleigh's [in Federal Hill] back in 2006, the 'oyster bar' concept was very basic in Baltimore. One or two types, maybe, on the ice or more likely coming from the kitchen in a restaurant was the norm."
Today, at each of their two locations, Ryleigh's shucks more than 10,000 oysters per week, including numerous local varieties, and restaurants like Thames Street Oyster House in Fells Point and Main Street Oyster House in Bel Air have joined Ryleigh's ranks.
Tal Petty is an ardent fan of his own Sweet Baby Jesus oysters but he is also a champion of the oysters bars' diversified approach — and he hopes to see even more variety in the future. "I think there's going to be more and more farmers and that's a good thing. Oysters are all about variety and taste. Part of the social aspect of oysters is putting variety on the plate. To me, that's half the fun."
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Next week, we'll cover the nuts and bolts of preparing and eating oysters — how to shuck, cook and enjoy oysters to the fullest.