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I have an affinity for eggs. Over easy. Scrambled. French omelets. Farm-fresh or, you know, the standard grocery-store variety. Whatever. They’re the perfect food. My culinary school teacher at CSCA, Chef Stephan, told me that every egg has the exact amount of biotin (needed by the human body) to break down the exact amount of fat found in one egg. Name another food that does all that work for you. Ok, maybe celery. But for taste?
And yes, those are hen eggs. The kind you eat. But every egg holds some sort of promise, doesn’t it? Baby blue jays. Baby snakes. Caviar. All good things in small packages.
But baby snails? That’s where I draw the line.
Sometime around the last full moon (a few weeks back) the mud snails of Duxbury Bay started laying eggs. It’s a seasonal thing and will happen a few more times before mid June. They’ll hatch and make new snails which will spawn and lay more eggs. This is the cycle we live in.
But it’s where the eggs land that just kill me.
The eggs adhere to whatever underwater, stationery surface they can find and once they stick, they’re on like glue. That could be old clam cages. Seaweed. Our oysters. In fact, our oysters are the eggs’ most favored landing place; all those nooks and crannies and divets in the shells are like warm little caves that the eggs can hide out in. Crate after crate, oysters have been coming back blanketed with these little, woolly nuisances. And it is a royal pain in the ass.
Imagine turning over a crate of a couple hundred oysters, all of them covered in a thin blanket of these tiny slivers of minced garlic. Imagine pulling out a stainless steel scrub brush whose head is the size of a post-it note and rubbing away at the mottled brown shell to get every miniature egg separated from its landing spot. Imagine tightening one fist around an awkward oyster and the other around the handle of the brush and scouring away, getting just a few eggs off with each stroke. The eggs scream off the brush, hitting you, your neighbor, your neighbor’s eye, and every other object in plain sight to the point where you see them when you close your eyes at night. Imagine trying to come up with a super-strength brine, or vinegar-based solution that will loosen the eggs but not ruin the oysters. You turn to your neighbor, who is wiping snail eggs off their face, and talk with them about this idea. But instead of coming up with a brine, you accept your fate and go back to work, scrubbing until your fore finger and thumb are blistered. Or until your eyes cross. Or until the stainless steel spokes of your brush are eaten away to the stubs.
You brush and brush only to find that all you’ve done, after a full two minutes of scrubbing and cursing, and scrunching up your face, is uncovered yet another single, ugly oyster shell.
Imagine repeating it a hundred or two hundred times to get your crate of oysters cleaned.
Then imagine this: Imagine, over the course of a long weekend, going to a restaurant (or three) and ordering a dozen (or three) of your very own oysters. Imagine the plates arriving to the table, all sparkling and clean and covered in ice and lemon wedges. And you go to pick up an oyster, ready to slurp it down. And your finger, feeling its way around the edge of the oyster, finds the tiny, softened woolly fleck of snail eggs. You look closely at the shell and they peek out at you from a darkened crevice, staring you in the face.
Of course, you eat the oyster. And you laugh at the snail egg. And you tell it it has not beaten you and that you will kill millions of its siblings when you get back to work. The eggs are no match for your scrub brush and vengeful hand…
Maybe it’s hard to imagine. But if you can… even if you can for just one minute, then… just then, you might be able to imagine a day in the the life of a Duxbury oyster farmer at the end of May.
On Tuesday, I was out on the float and got a call from Skip asking me to drive the boat over to the dock (by myself – ack) to check out the upwellers. I made it over there without knocking into anything and found Skip, Mark Bouthillier, Dave Grossman, and Christian Horne all on their knees staring into a couple of gaping holes in the dock. They started renting dock space from the Duxbury Bay Maritime School in the late 90s and have kept their floating upweller systems there ever since.
Each upweller has a trough down the middle with pipes running into four silos which sit down the length of the trough on either side. A pump pushes water through the system so that there’s a constant flow of fresh bay water. The bottom of the silos are fitted with micro or fine mesh screen so when the seeds arrive we just drop them to the bottom of the silos and let them grow.
This week, Skip got a few orders of seeds from two different hatcheries. They ranged in size from 1.5 mm to 2.5 mm so they’re literally the size of grains of sand. But if you could see them up close, each tiny seed looks exactly like a grown oyster. On Tuesday, we dropped about a million into our silo system.
The seed arrived in a ziplock bag; wrapped up in two packets of dry/wet cloth.
And we carefully unwrapped each packet and dropped them into the silos.
It was a little unnerving and, as cheesy as it sounds, somewhat spiritual. I had hundreds of thousands of those little lives in my hands (all of which determine Skip’s future livelihood) and the smallest gust of wind could have carried thousands of them away. They’ll stay in the silos for the next few months, getting bigger by the day. My job, as keeper of the seed (latest nickname: Mama Seed-a), will be to constantly clean out the silos and eventually grate the seed (which will all grow at different rates), separating and moving the larger oysters to different silos week after week. Eventually, when they’re large enough, we’ll drop the seed onto a designated section of the lease to grow “free range” on the bay floor.
I’m still learning the ropes on the seed but am pretty pumped to be the one to watch it grow each week. We have to keep the trays and silos clean (oysters do poop… a lot) which means hosing down the trays as often as possible. These trays are actually filled with seed we received last week that’s been attached to a buoy in the back river. We pulled them in and got them cleaned off before setting the trays back out for another week or so.
The only downside is that I’ll be spending less time on the float with my crew, which has doubled in the past two weeks. We’ve now added Maggie (in grad school at Brandeis) and Quinn (a journalism major at Indiana University) plus Will (who’s taking a short break from GE) to the group. They’re all keeping A2, Berg, and I entertained and on our toes. Between Maggie’s attempts to storm the fort and Will’s goofy, mad scientist humor, we’ve grown into a big, very happy float family.
We also saw the arrival of the farm’s newest members, six baby chicks. The plan is to build a coop behind the office so the chickens can grow and eventually provide us with blue eggs. For now, they’re safely nestled in a cardboard box under a heat lamp in the office.
Yesterday, Skip and I took a drive down to one of our hatcheries, the Aquaculture Research Corporation (ARC) in Dennis on the Cape. He was picking up another couple million seeds so I tagged along to get a quick lesson on how our oysters are spawned. On the way down, Skip told me about his background with Dick Krauss, who runs ARC; he was the first person to get Skip his clam seed back in the early 90s and eventually helped him with the oysters, too. Now the two could talk for hours about the ups and downs of oyster farming. While they got caught up, one of the hatchery experts, Sue showed me where and how the oysters are grown. Essentially, they keep the parents, which are about 2 or 3 year-old-oysters, in waters warm enough to cause them to spawn (over 70 degrees, but closer to somewhere in the 80s). They then collect the fertilized seeds and grow them in a controlled environment until they’re a couple of weeks old before selling them to farmers like Skip. I learned that you can tell the difference between male and female oysters by looking for a milky white sperm sack inside the oyster belly (haven’t tried it yet, though). Under a microscope, Sue showed me an 8-day old oyster as well as a few 3-week old clams. Our batch of oysters weren’t swimming, but the clams were and it was incredible, like looking at cells; the clams’ legs and byssus threads were squirming like crazy. To the naked eye, they looked like specs of dust but their shells were hard and firm.
I was hoping to get some photos but they’re pretty protective of their process (understandably). I’m still not certain on the science behind it all but clearly, these people have provided Skip with unparalleled support. They’re one of the main reasons he’s had such success with his business and it was clear during our trip yesterday that he is in awe of what they do. I, for one, can’t wait to learn more.
There are far too many fun stories to tell about this past weekend. Not sure this little blog will do it all justice. But here goes.
Most of the farm packed up early last week to hit Nantucket for the 2009 Wine Festival. On Friday, Will, Berg & I hopped a flight from Hyannis to the island and arrived just in time for a seminar hosted by Skip and Shore at the White Elephant. They were joined by Sarah Leah Chase, a cookbook author, Jamie Hamlin, a TV personality, as well as Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat wines. A group of us stood behind the raw bar shucking as Skip told the seated crowd the story of Island Creek. Sarah paired our oysters with a black pepper mignonette to start and later served them quite simply with grilled sausage. The sausage dish was a hit, as was the roasted bone marrow dish that followed it (no oysters but a fantastic pea shoot salad and a few dabs of Martha’s Vineyard sea salt from).
Jim had several fantastic things to say about our oysters which was a huge endorsement for us — he called them “a delicious example of East Coast oysters.” And we were absolutely enamored with his wines, especially the Hildegard and the Nuits-Blanches au Bouge. Really tasty juice.
Afterward, we packed up and got checked in to a few rooms at the Cottages (conveniently located above Provisions, the sandwich shop run by our friends Amanda Lydon and Gabriel Frasca who also run the Straight Wharf Restaurant) before turning thoughts towards dinner. Skip lead the charge to the Boarding House, owned by close friends of Island Creek, Seth & Angela Raynor. Somehow, after a trip into the kitchen, he was able to snag a table for all ten of us up in the Pearl’s private dining room — which was exactly the color of Pepto. The guys were unfazed so we sat down to a huge table and started an epically long (and hysterical), family style meal with a few cocktails and a magnum of Ridge Zinfandel. Skip took charge of ordering and out came a parade of amazing food: dumplings, soft shell crab, lettuce wraps, 60-second steak, wok fried lobster, black cod…it was never ending. Berg and I hoarded a few dishes at our end of the table just so we could lick the plates.
After dinner, we eventually found our way to The Chicken Box where the phenomenal U2 cover band, Joshua Tree, rocked straight until closing time. There were after parties, beers on the roof, and eventually, we all made it home safely to bed.
Saturday was an early one but we managed to get to the Nantucket Yacht Club in time for our 11 a.m. set up. We arrived to the tents and found our boat already in place (thanks to Shore and a few others) on the back lawn, right in front of the water under a powder blue sky. Picture perfect spot.
Seth and Angela and restaurant team were set up to grill Island Creeks with an ancho chilli butter and also created four toppings for us: straight mignonette (from the Boarding House), Thai lime dipping (the Pearl), tomatillo salsa, and regular salsa (their new ceviche bar and Peruvian restaurant, Corazon del Mar — opening in a week or two). The Thai lime dipping was an unbe-lievable combo of garlic, cilantro, lime, Thai chillies, sugar, and fish sauce. By the end of the weekend, we were calling it Green Love. Just addictive stuff. We shucked for both the mid-day and afternoon sessions under pretty gorgeous weather which took a turn towards cloudy gray at the end. We kept at it and by the end of the day, had run out of about 5,000 oysters for the weekend. (But one quick phone call home and we had 25 more bags sent to us on the ferry — thank you, Lisa). We also had an incredible crew of fans stop by the float — many of whom wanted to buy the t-shirts off our back and wish us well. Jim Clendenen came by to pour wines with us for the afternoon session; we made friends with a huge oyster fan named Ted from Kentucky; my pals Alex Hall and Mike Blanding stayed the day; and Marlo Fogelman (Marlo Marketing Communications), Glen Kelley, and Janice O’Leary (from Boston Common magazine) swung by as well.
We managed to escape with a few farmers’ tans and plenty of extra bottles of wine in us. A quick nap later and it was dinnertime once again. This time, we hit American Seasons, owned by Orla and Michael LaScola. This was a more intimate dinner (literally since two tables held all 8 men and myself) but we managed not to disturb too many other diners. We split two more magnums of Zinfandel (this one was called The Prisoner and at 15.2% alcohol, did most of us in) and ate another wonderful collection of dishes. My braised pork shank could have fed an army (well, ok, just myself and Berg… CJ gnawed at the bone) while the meatloaf “sandwich” topped with foie gras won for hands-down flavor.
Again, our night turned a little rowdy and we found our way over to the Straight Wharf for a late-night dance party. The videos are priceless, but alas, too damaging to share.
Sunday, we found ourselves up and at ’em for the final day of Wine Fest and a rainy, foggy morning. The weather had us stuck indoors and without a grill at the Yacht Club but we made the most of it and kept things light with a few Mexican wrestling masks to entertain the oyster fans.
More wine and a pitcher of sangria appeared on our raw bar but once again, we escaped alive and finished the second session at 2 p.m. at which point Shore & CJ walked the raw bar boat through the streets of Nantucket and over to the Boarding House (in case you’re wondering, the boat was hand-made by by a Duxbury local and yes, it’s heavy).
Once the raw bar and grill were re-set-up on the Boarding House patio we shucked for the Festival wind-down party. More of those fantastic sauces, more shucking, and more wrestling masks were in order. By the end, Skip looked as tired as we all felt and just kept saying, “The tide is going out on this one.” One final meal at the Boarding House bar turned up a tasty plate of gnocchi, amazing French fries, a crispy, thin crust pizzetta with roasted grapes and arugula, and yes, a few more cocktails.
After we ate, Angela walked me over to Corazon del Mar, the couple’s newest restaurant set to open in a few weeks. The concept is a Peruvian spot and ceviche bar and the aesthetic is gorgeous: think Mexican Gothic and romance. Really beautiful, two-story place.
One more night out meant one more stop at the Straight Wharf (with a pit stop at Captain Tobey’s) and a round of shots for everyone at the bar. I finally got to catch up with Gabriel Frasca (who requested a few late-night oysters) before we shut down the bar and all stumbled home. It was one long finale to end a sweeping weekend of fun.
Of course, the 8 a.m. flight home wasn’t nearly as idyllic but we still put in a pretty full day of work yesterday. And now… we catch up on sleep and officially say hello to summer.
It is officially go time. The last few days have totally changed the dynamic at the farm. There’s seed arriving daily and the growers are pumped. I got to the farm yesterday and found Mike George laying face down on the dock — he was messing with the silo in his upweller which already has tons of little seedlings in place. It’s tricky this time of year since the wind is still blowing hard east and can easily pick up and carry the seed out of your hand. But he was happy to show off his new babies.
It set the tone for the day which turned into an exciting one. After a few hours of culling, Skip came by and gave the team a little pep talk about the upcoming summer crew and our respective roles. And then we had a visit from Blue Ginger chef, Ming Tsai. He was pretty chill but tasted a few oysters and then went along his way. Pretty sure he liked what he tasted though.
A2, Will, and I opened a few oysters after some more culling and then went back to land for some lunch. We picked up a few friends along the way. Don Merry, Mark Bouthillier, Dave Grossman, the suits, and our crew all ate up at Snug Harbor on the patio and chatted about the new website (coming soon!), our visitor Ming, and just the general beauty of the day.
Skip told us he was getting some seed in yesterday but we haven’t seen his yet. He’s expecting to get millions of seeds this year which is incredible (he gets them for his own farm and his father, Billy’s). I can’t even fathom how we keep track of it all but I suspect I’ll have my head wrapped around it pretty quickly in the next few weeks. We’ve got two new crew members starting next week so I’m gearing up for what should be a ton of work. And, ok, a little bit of fun.
On Sunday, Island Creek participated in the first annual patio opening party at B&G in the South End. It was a stellar event put on by Barbara Lynch’s B&G team and we were happy to be involved. While the Creek shuckers (myself, Berg, Shore & CJ) spent most of the afternoon under a tent on the downstairs patio (right next to the DJ and our friends from Harpoon Brewery), the party stretched through the restaurant and across the street over to Lynch’s cookbook library/demo space, Stir, next door. Chefs like Louie DiBicarri (Sel de la Terre), Jamie Bissonnette (Toro), and Tim Cushman (O Ya) participated in the oyster-dish competition (congrats to Louie for winning – I never tasted the dish but hear good things). There were also oyster profile demos taking place at Stir across the street (teaching folks what type of oyster they prefer) as well as a few shucking competitions — CJ shucked for Island Creek but, sadly, was beat out by Perry Raso of Matunuck Oysters (he was shucking at a booth next to us and happens to be Berg’s former boss — he’s working on opening a raw bar near his farm this summer so go visit him).
We started the day with about 30 bags of oysters and after a few hours (the event stretched from noon to 8 pm), we’d flown through them. Shore called Cory who drove up another 20 bags from the farm and we kept shucking… my arms are still killing me. Chopper, the world’s fastest oyster shucker (from Wellfleet) stopped by to give CJ and I a quick shucking demo. Clearly, I found out, he’s figured out a method. He uses a self-made shucking knife (“better than what anyone else makes,” he said) which he slides into the side of the oyster (“you can’t see it but there’s a sweet spot on every oyster”) and, after popping off the top, slides its curved edge down into the shell to scrape the meat away in one swift movement.
CJ gave it a whirl and got pretty good at it but decided to stick to his usual method during the competition (“too soon, and I need more practice,” he told me) — unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. As the afternoon carried on, the crowd loosened up and we let the B&G shuckers take over while we enjoyed a few beers with our new friend in the police uniform (he let us borrow his hat for a few pics).
Cat Silirie, No 9 Park’s wine maven, was pouring Txakoli, a crisp, effervescent rose which went really well with the oysters, as did the Harpoon Munich Dark. I managed to sneak a few sausages and mini lobster rolls from the trays that kept passing by but by 8 pm, we were all ready for a full meal (and a few more drinks). But first, we had to figure out what to do with the ice luge that had appeared out of nowhere and ended up on our raw bar. The best option? Head to Eastern Standard, of course. Our whole crew, plus many tag alongs (including Meggie, a former Creek employee and current cook at O Ya) ended up at ES for some late-night bourbons and more oyster luging. I’m not sure which was more haggard by the end of it, us or the ES staff, but we had a fantastic night and, naturally, we all got home way past our bedtime.
And even though our week started with a bang, we kept riding high. Shore actually woke up Monday morning and made his way to New York where he shucked Island Creek Oysters at the James Beard Awards with Rialto chef Jody Adams. It was a huge honor for ICO and while they were too exhausted to do any serious partying (as is the tradition at the Beard awards), they ran into plenty of Island Creek friends like Tom Colicchio, Eric Ripert, and Tony Maws.
Back at the farm, the week started a little slow — it’s been rainy, raw, and windy all week. But our newest cohort, Will, started with us on Tuesday, plus we had Joe of Jeeves with us Tuesday and Wednesday, so we rocked all of our weekly duties (culling, washing, bagging) and by this afternoon, we’d done the bulk of our bags and officially moved on to spring cleaning. In oyster farming terms, that means we’re getting ready for the seed to arrive.
I ran into Christian at the water on Wednesday and asked what I should expect for May weather.
Christian: For May? Rain. And more drinking.
Me: More? Of both?
Christian: Actually, in the last ten years, it’s never failed. Never. The day the seed arrives, the wind blows hard east. You want a hard east wind? And some rain? Just order some seed.
Me: Nice. At least I know what I have to look forward to.
We chatted again today.
Christian (in a day-glo yellow sweatshirt): I forgot to mention it but May always means thunderstorms. Keep an eye on the [Standish] monument. If you see clouds and lightening coming that direction, there’s a good chance it’ll hit us.
Me: Also good to know.
Christian: It’s a pretty no-fail warning system.
A2: Great sweatshirt, Christian.
Christian: It’s bright, right? My spring colors. Can’t miss me in this thing. I could be picking trash by the highway in this thing.
A2: Right on.
So, anyway, the seed is getting here in the next week or so and to prepare, we’re cleaning out all of our old seed bags. There’ s huge pile back behind the shop — we’ve made a small dent in it so you can almost see over the top now. We have to power wash each bag to get all the grit off from last year, and then prep them with styrofoam filling, piping, and metal rings so they’ll be ready for this coming summer. It’s a huge, tedious project but one of those signs that summer is almost here.
As Dave and I were catching up on Friday night, I looked at my hands and realized that after a long shower and a 20-minute grooming session, I still had dirt caked under my nails.
Me (holding up my hands): Look at this. How can you stand it? That and I leave smelly oyster gloves by the door and my oyster boots on the stairs. You’re officially married to an oyster farmer.
Dave: I’ve been married to a farmer for months. I draw the line when the dog barfs up an oyster shell.
Me: Good enough.
Between him and my cohorts, last week was a painfully funny one. Joe of Jeeves worked with us through Thursday and by Wednesday after the tide, I think I’d had my share of laughing fits. Besides picking on me for being old (“You’re halfway to 62!”) and for touching a dead skate (“You touched his butt! Butt hole toucher!”), they rapped, joked, culled, and swapped stories together all week. But it kept me laughing and the days flew by.
Friday, we worked a half day and then Berg, Steve (of Jeeves) and I hopped in the truck for an Island Creek field trip. Steve had found out about E&T Farms in West Barnstable which farms fish and vegetables in the same environment (called aquaponics) and he and Berg wanted to see how it’s all done. We got down there and met up with Ed (the E of E&T) who gave us a quick tour. In the front of the building, he’s got about 8 tanks of koi, tilapia, and bass and behind that room sits the greenhouse where he’s hydroponically growing lettuces, tomatoes, squash, chard, and microgreens. The waste and water from the fish tanks is piped over to the greenhouse where the plants are grown on racks that are hooked directly up to the water source; when the fish are in their tanks, the plants need no other nutrients. The water is then collected and sent outside to a meadow of cattails that Ed says they sell wholesale. From there, the water is treated with baking soda to neutralize everything, and then it’s used to refill the fish tanks and start the process again. It’s a pretty incredible system and I was interested to see how much he’s able to reuse and recycle his water and waste. Ed sells his fish to a few places in Boston and around the East Coast and the veggies go to Cape restaurants and a few farmer’s markets down there. They also have some honey bees — Ed has a nifty little tattoo of bees and some honeycomb on his shoulder. That’s true love right there.
I didn’t have my camera Friday so I can’t show off Ed’s place but if you’re on the Cape this summer, keep an eye out for him at the markets.
I’ve also got some pics and stories from the B&G Oyster Invitational from Sunday – I’ll get those up in the next day or so but in the meantime, check out Go Shuck an Oyster’s recap.