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Briny bivalves

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Oysters: An East Coast delicacy

Based on their teardrop-shaped shells, the Romans once called them calliblepharis, meaning “beautiful eyelids.” Legend has it, Emperor Vitellius feasted on a thousand of them in one sitting and Casanova ate 50 each morning to boost his libido. They are a delicacy of kings and vagabonds, given exotic names like Hama Hama, Kusshi and Moon Shoal. We are, of course, talking about oysters.

It’s a busy Sunday evening at the Chelsea Market in New York City. I’m standing at the raw bar counter of Lobster Place, a unique seafood hall renowned for the very best in all things from the sea. I’m trying to pick the best oysters from a dizzying list of bivalves: Meresheen Bay, Widow’s Hole, Mere Point, Katama and Sugar Shack. “Malpeque’s,” points the smiling oyster shucker. “Malpeque’s from P.E.I. A tiny, pristine island — produces the best oysters.”

“I know it well,” I smile proudly. 

It’s settled then. I’ll have six, with a squirt of lemon and a drop of hot sauce, and slurp ’em down like the seafaring folks I live beside. And, following the advice of author Rowan Jacobsen that all an oyster needs is a good chaser, I order a glass of prosecco. 

Malpeque oysters are Prince Edward Island’s most famous variety, making a name for themselves worldwide. Judges at the Exposition Universelle, a world fair held in Paris in 1900, named it the best oyster on earth. Today, P.E.I. is the leading oyster producer in Eastern Canada, accounting for more than 80 per cent of the total production, and lands about 2,950 tonnes at $10.5 million in value. 

A speck of a place on the western side of P.E.I., Tyne Valley — with its population of 249 and its pristine estuaries — produces some of the finest oysters. Jeff Noye, along with partner Damien Enman, started Valley Pearl Oysters in 2017. 

“I fell in love with oysters because of my hometown,” says Noye, who is also the mayor. 

Collecting oysters near the Salt Bay wharf, N.S.

And while Noye didn’t grow up in the oyster business, it was simply a part of everyday life on the island and a staple of get-togethers and celebrations. 

“The culture and the people in the oyster world are the best there are, and I wanted it to become what I did every day,” says Noye. Tyne Valley is also the home of the Oyster Festival, which hosts the Canadian oyster shucking championship. In pre-COVID years, the event drew crowds of 20,000. “When I was 19, I was asked to join the committee and organize the festival. I loved oyster shucking and became the competition’s host and a competitor.” 

Jeff Noye of Pearl Valley Oysters, P.E.I.

As a result, Noye and his team hold the Guinness World Record for the most oysters shucked in an hour, which is 8,840. 

Merroir (like terroir, but for oysters)

Like wine and terroir — where grapes are influenced by the soil, sunlight and climate — oysters have their own merroir. Each crustacean is affected by the water it lives in, the tides and currents, the algae it feeds on, the mineral content of the ocean, rainfall and overall temperature. 

There are more than 300 unique oyster species in North America. Each has a particular taste: meaty, briny or sweet. However, the oysters we find along the Nova Scotia coast are all from the same species. The Atlantic oyster is also known as the American or Eastern oyster. 

“Nova Scotia is a textbook example of where you’d want to grow oysters,” explains Colton DEon, operations manager of DEon Oyster Company. “Our coastlines stretch just over 13,000 km, and with the Bay of Fundy, an enormous amount of water flows through our bays each day, bringing in vast amounts of nutrients, which translates into unique flavours.” 

According to DEon, their two growing areas are less than 1 km apart, as the crow flies, but offer two completely different flavour profiles. One is brackish water in Eel Lake, and the other is full ocean salinity in Salt Bay.

DEon has always lived close to the water and followed in the footsteps of his lobster fisherman father, Nolan DEon, who founded the DEon Oyster Company in the early ‘90s.

“As a commercial lobster fisherman, he didn’t like being away from his family,” said DEon. “When he saw wild oysters growing in Eel Lake, he thought to himself, ‘One day, I’m going to make a living out of farming these waters.’” 

With its brackish water environment, Eel Lake has a perfectly balanced mix of fresh river water and cold ocean water. The result is a clean, sustainable and sheltered location that offers a sought-after Nova Scotia oyster. Salt Bay gets an enormous amount of new ocean water with each flood tide. As the tide barrels into the bay, it forms rapids that supersaturate oxygen levels and bring in vast amounts of nutrition, which crafts each Salt Bay oyster. 

Salt Bay, N.S., sees a large amount of new ocean water with each flood tide. As the tide barrels into the bay, it forms rapids that supersaturate oxygen levels and bring in vast amounts of nutrition, crafting each Salt Bay oyster.

All of their oysters are grown on the surface of the water column, which allows the natural wave action to gently tumble the oysters. This action, over three years, produces the symmetrical and sought-after “cup shape.” As a result, Eel Lake oysters are firm and meaty with a unique celery finish. 

“The Salt Bay oyster has more of a crunchy texture and buttery flavour,” explains DEon.

The oyster trend has been growing for a few years now, and the demand for maritime oysters is growing more robust locally and further afield, thanks to a surge in raw bars and restaurants focusing on seafood. Lobster Place in New York sells about 20,000 to 30,000 oysters per week and features 12 oysters daily at both of its raw bars. It typically carries at least one maritime oyster and as many as three-to-four depending on availability and season. 

“There’s no doubting the quality of a Canadian maritime oyster,” says Davis Herron, vice-president and chief operating officer. “Their long grow-out time produces excellent shell strength, and their high salinity makes them bracingly fresh.”

Herron has also seen a surge in demand for oysters as diners seek out their unique expressions. 

“Part of what makes oysters so fun is the unique merroir they express based on grow out location or season, and our raw bars continue to be the most popular areas of our store and restaurant,” says Heron. 

The market has also spawned entrepreneurs and innovators to invest in oyster aquaculture, particularly mariculture. Rising to the challenge is owner Stephen Macintosh from Pristine Oysters, a commercial fisherman for 30 years. 

“As time went on, I saw the need to pay attention to oysters because you can’t always count on wild stock,” says Macintosh. 

Today he has three leases in the Northumberland Strait in Pictou County, in Merigomish and Little Harbour, where he harvests oysters and bay quahog.

“Pristine bay is not a place but rather reflects the quality of the water — the waters of the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence are classified as ‘pristine,’ so the name came easy.” 

The area where Macintosh harvests his oysters has particularly warm waters in the summer, which allows for a longer growing season. A combination of daily, full tide flushing, and surrounding freshwater from rivers that bring in nutrients, creates oysters with a smooth briny taste and a deep cup.

Sustainable seafood

A single oyster can filter about 190 litres of water per day, providing cleaner water and better fish habitat. When choosing sustainable seafood, the oyster is hard to beat because it has no negative impact on its surrounding environment. Well-managed family operations like Valley Pearl, DEon and Pristine contribute to sustainable seafood practices.

“Our processes are very eco-friendly and sustainable,” says DEon. “We wash, size and grade all our oysters on a completely off-grid, solar-powered processing barge.” 

Because adult oysters filter so much water, it decreases turbidity in the water, which lets sunlight penetrate deeper depths, creates more oxygen and allows for more aquatic plants to thrive in these environments. It’s the big circle of life.

“As a company, we looked at what oysters do for an environment, and we felt like we could do a better job at lowering our carbon footprint,” says DEon. “In 2016, we acted upon that and added our completely solar-powered processing barge to the farm. The barge cut out nearly 25 per cent of wasteful steps within our day-to-day processing.”

And while oysters are sustainable, Herron does point out that we need to be aware of the threats facing them: “Farmed and wild oysters face existential climate threats related to increased storm intensity, sea-level rise and ocean acidification.” 

Dwayne MacLeod, executive chef of Cut Steakhouse and Shuck Seafood + Raw Bar, has seen people’s tastes shift. 

“I have noticed a major demand for oysters, education and even selection,” says MacLeod. “When I moved to Halifax, there wasn’t much interest in oysters, but oyster bars are growing as a concept, and now Halifax even has a festival dedicated to oysters.”

The biggest push for change amongst farmers and chefs has been working toward abolishing the notion that oysters are only edible in “R” months (September to April). It’s a belief that hasn’t been valid since the invention of modern refrigeration in the 1940s, but somehow persists. Instead, oysters can be eaten year-round, and because of that, local chefs are getting behind producers and offering diners a variety of salty bivalves from different locations.

“I love oysters because they will taste different wherever you grow them,” says MacLeod. “It’s always exciting getting a new farmer from a new location to see what the oysters will taste like.”

As for how oyster farmers and chefs best enjoy their bivalves, that would tipically be raw — slurped right off the shell. 

“Raw with a little mignonette and a squeeze of lemon goes a long way,” says MacLeod. 

DEon likes his oysters broiled until bubbling and golden and topped with a bit of bacon and brie, or freshly shucked oysters with grated cucumber mixed with lemon juice and sea salt (frozen and served in slivers) on top. And Noye likes his oysters baked with bacon jam and goat cheese. Or, grilled with lime chipotle butter, smoked on a crostini with brie. “Or, probably my favourite, fried with a light coating of seasoned flour.” 

In the print edition and a previous version of this article, the company Valley Pearl was referred to as Pearl Valley

East Coast Living