Ocean State Oysters

by Lisa Helme and Julia Molino

While Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast hard, most of Rhode Island’s vast shellfish industry was saved. “All farms and families fared well through the storm,” says Graham Brawley of the Ocean State Oyster Cooperative. The coastal ponds were closed due to the storm surge and the destruction of homes that transported debris into the ponds, but all farms were back in harvest production within five days. The surge was the largest Rhode Island had seen since Hurricane Carol in1954. I think we dodged a bullet with Sandy.”

This is good news for oyster farmers and foodies alike. Rising oyster sales statewide are a continuing source of revenue for the Ocean State, mirroring the rise and continuing success of microbreweries in Rhode Island. From Rhode Island’s “World’s Best Oysters” to California’s legendary Hog Island Oyster Farm and Massachusetts’ Island Creek Oysters—stars in the hit memoir “Shucked”—oysters are enjoyinh a surge in popularity nationwide.

Prior to the 1990s, oysters were harvested from the wild in Rhode Island. After a combination of disease and pollution decimated the beds, the industry was reinvented by a few hardy souls. Brawley, one of the OSOC’s six member oyster farmers, started out as an oysterman with Moonstone Oysters in Narragansett. “It was a touchy start,” he says. “There was definitely tension between the fishermen who wanted to clam the sea beds and the oyster farmers.”

To a great extent this has been resolved. The oyster farmers are fishermen and men who have worked on the water their entire lives. Brawley notes that for these farmers “the most important thing is the health of the coast and estuaries. The farming itself creates a healthier coastline.”

Oysters are the sea’s great filters and perfect companions for a healthy coast. Filtering up to 40 gallons of water daily, they extract carbon and nitrogen (key pollutants from runoff and fertilizer) and feed on phytoplankton. This diet fattens up the oyster, and the carbon is turned into its hard shell. This makes oyster farming highly sustainable, and compatible with many businesses which depend on the coast. “In Point Judith Pond alone,” adds Brawley, “our oysters filter one-third of the whole body of water daily.”

The oyster’s journey starts as a tiny seed, each a perfectly formed tiny oyster even as seen under a microscope. Just as with land-based farming, farmers buy and plant seed. Farmers spend almost 2 years thinning, cleaning and tending to the oysters in their natural habitat until harvest. During this time the oysters develop their distinct “merroir,” a special flavor based on the unique environment of their home waters, similar to a vineyard’s “terroir” that gives its grapes and resulting wine its own sense of place.

Brawley concurs. “Rhode Island Oysters have unique, highly sought after flavors. Rome Point oysters are salty. Your first flavor is like sipping the ocean. But they have an aftertaste which is creamy and rich. Salt Ponds have a sweeter after-taste.”

Sandy Ingber, Executive Chef of the legendary Oyster Bar in New York’s Grand Central Terminal, is a long-time fan of Rhode Island Oysters. “I guess my favorite RI oyster is the Moonstone–mid-brine and wonderful deep cup. My relationship with the owner is what makes this oyster so special. We have been buying Moonstone for over
20 years,” says Ingber. Rhode Island oysters are favorites at the GCOB’s annual Oyster Frenzy in September. “We served Watch Hill, Moonstones and East Beach Blondes at the 2012 Oyster Frenzy. They were all so fresh and plump. I think they were all loved equally.”

Whichever oyster is your favorite, hold the cocktail sauce. Oyster lovers will tell you that the sauce was invented to mask the flavor of less-than-fresh seafood. However, a simple mignonette sauce–the classic French mixture of wine vinegar, shallots, pepper and white wine–will bring out the brininess of the oysters. Add lemon, cilantro, even a little jalapeno to make the sauce special, but nothing heavy to mask the unique flavors of the oyster. Perry Raso of Matunuck Oyster Bar has a favorite mignonette sauce which includes an unusual ingredient: Granny Smith apples. We were a bit skeptical but had the pleasure of sampling this exquisite sauce on Friday night and it exceeded all expectations. Crisp, clean and delicious it is a perfect complement to the tasty Matunuck and Point Judith oysters we enjoyed. Another favorite at Matunuck Oyster Bar is its special take on Oysters Rockefeller.
The flavor of the oyster comes through free and clear in this creamy delicious treat with Pernod and Ritz crackers as up-’til-now secret ingredients. (See recipe below.) Lighter than the traditional New Orleans dish, a starter of these delicious bivalves is a great way to begin any meal at Matunuck Oyster Bar.

Whether eating raw, roasted or baked oysters, John Callahan of Rhode Island’s Bellevue Liquors says a white or rose wine or champagne is the best complement. “A rose Champagne or wine pairs perfectly,” says Callahan. “For raw oysters, my suggestions would include Champagne or sparkling wine, Sauvignon Blanc, and the relatively unknown Dry Furmint,” he continues. “Royal Tokaji produces one of the best Dry Furmints with the scent of grape flowers and flavors of lemon and key lime with a hint of nuttiness and a long crisp finish.” For cooked oysters, try a rose, still or sparkling. (See John’s recommendations below).

If you prefer a cold glass of beer with your Oysters Rockefeller, be sure to stock up on Narragansett Beer’s Porter brand. “Hands down our winter Porter seasonal makes an excellent pairing with Oysters Rockefeller” says Mark Hellendrung, President of Narragansett Beers. “The roasted notes of the roasted barley and hearty malts of our Porter blend beautifully with the mineral flavors of the oysters.”

By the way, we hear that Mark’s wife, Katie Hellendrung, is a terrific cook and will be
trying out Matunuck’s Oyster Rockefeller recipe at home – we look forward to hearing from you both, and perhaps a throw-down with Chef Jeff at Matunuck Oyster Bar! Sustainable, locally grown and delicious, Rhode Island oysters are the ultimate Farm to Table staple. However you prepare them, whatever you pair them with, all you need is a sharp knife, a glove and some courage to try your first one. You’ll be hooked.

Oyster Rockefeller Recipe

from Matunuck Oyster House

Ingredients for Sauce:

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 cup Pernod
  • 1/4 cup shallots, minced
  • 4 quarts of heavy cream
  • 1 bunch tarragon, chopped
  • 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan
  • 4 quarts fresh spinach, chopped, or two packages frozen spinach -2 dozed oysters on the half-shell, opened and rinsed
  • 2 cups Ritz Crackers
  • 4 tablespoons melted bacon fat

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Melt butter in medium saucepan and add shallots, cooking until translucent. Add Pernod and ignite to burn off alcohol. When flame starts to subside, add cream and bring to a boil. Immediately reduce heat and simmer until reduced by 1/3. Do not allow to brown. Half-way through the reduction, add tarragon. Stir in salt and Parmesan and remove from heat.

In a separate saucepan or glass bowl placed in a microwave, wilt the spinach by placing it in a little water and heating until water is evaporated and spinach is wilted. Set aside. Meanwhile, crush crackers and saute lightly in bacon fat.

To prepare the Oysters Rockefeller, place 1 tablespoon wilted spinach (3-4 leaves) on top of fresh oyster in the half-shell. Then place a generous amount (depending on oyster size) of the prepared sauce on each oyster. Sprinkle generous amount of yum-yum topping over oysters so that there is an even amount on each oyster.

Place oysters in a baking dish, surrounded by mounds of salt to steady them if necessary, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes until golden. Serve with Mignonette sauce (optional).

Wine Pairings

from John Callahan of Bellevue Liquors

Dry, still rose wines pair beautifully with Oysters Rockefeller and my favorite is Chateau Minuty Prestige from Provence, which Bellevue Liquors have on sale at $24.99.

Schramsberg in Napa Valley makes a wonderful rose sparkling wine at $34.99, or for a truly great value try Finca Flichman–a sparkling chardonnay and malbec blend from Argentina–retailing at $10.99.

Or splurge for the Laurent-Perrier Rose Champagne at $79.99–bold, Parmesan and remove from heat.
rich and with enough substance to pair with the Rockefeller stuffing .

With raw oysters, champagne and sparkling wines are a classic
pairing. John Callahan’s favorite is Laurent-Perrier Utlat Brut, which retails
for $59.99, or Laurent-Perrier also produces a wonderful Brut, which they
feature at $39.99.

Sauvignon Blanc pairs well with raw oysters too. For best value look towards Simi Sonoma, which Bellevue Liquors have on sale for $8.99, or Santa Carolina Casablanca Estate Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, which they sell at $9.99. And don’t forget the Dry Furmint at $18.99
(plus a 10% case discount.)