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Phew. That was a long one. We just wrapped up a full week of drainer tides — where low tide completely drains the bay floor giving us loads of time to hand pick oysters — most of which started super early in the morning. It’s typically the longest week of the year since the tide stays out for hours on end several days in a row. Only, we couldn’t go out to pick on Monday or Tuesday because of the weather. Monday’s storm seemed to hold on forever with the wind and rain blowing us off the float by lunchtime. Tuesday was another windy, rainy one. Catie and I were on the dock with the rain blowing at us sideways while we graded some of our seed. But it had to be done: our oldest seed had popped and almost a quarter of it was big enough to go into seed bags. When we grade, we separate the quarter-inch seed from the smaller stuff and put the smaller stuff back into the upwellers to continue growing. It brings down the volume in our silos allowing the smaller seed more room to grow. So we graded that batch and had enough quarter-inch seed to fill about 600 bags. At the end of the day on Tuesday, the crew spent the evening filling the bags with the seed and finally, on Wednesday morning (5:30 a.m. start time), we were able to get out on the tide. We spent the first few hours hand picking oysters and once the tide started to flow back in, we put the filled seed bags into cages which we set up in southeastern facing rows of 10 on part of the lease. Each cage hold 6 bags so we filled about 100 cages that morning. Quick work to do when the tide starts coming in but we got all the bags out and made it on the boat before the water spilled into our waders.
There was more seed washing to do on Wednesday afternoon, plus we were able to take a look at some of the seed Skip’s been growing in the back river. It’s coming along a little at a time — it’ll be interesting to see how much it pops once we move it into the bay.
On Thursday, the weather FINALLY broke. We were out on the tide in the fog that morning but by the time we came in, grabbed a coffee and got to work culling, we were working in the sunshine. After lunch, Catie and I graded another set of silos which meant we were set up under the scorching sun on the dock for the afternoon. Nothing wrong with that after 20 straight days of rain. Yes, we wore hats and sunscreen but still managed to get some color. We capped off the day with a trip back out to the float where we found a spanking new soaker float attached to our garage float. That gives us around 70 feet of float space to work on — it’s like adding a patio the size of your house to the backyard. It’s huge! I’d show you pictures but, sadly, my camera bit the dust after sitting in a pool of water one rainy afternoon. Ugh.
Friday was another decent day. We were out on the tide in t-shirts in the morning and made our way in for an early lunch by 11:30. Eva came to the dock to help us grade that afternoon (it goes much faster when there’s three of us) and despite a passing thunderstorm and an army of ferocious no-see-ums (tiny, invisible, flesh biting gnats), we finished up by about 4 p.m. and joined the rest of the crew (who had been culling and bagging on the float) to help load up the truck.
I’d recount more details or give you some funny anecdote about the crew but to be honest, I’m wiped. We put in a few 12-hour days and worked our tails off all week. After two full nights of sleep and even a few naps, I’m still recovering. But this is the busy time and from what I hear, we’ll keep it up at this level until summer’s over. I’m ready for it. My hands and lower back are ready for it. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we’ve got some drier days ahead.
This week, we managed to get one brilliant day (very little wind, sunny, low 70s) and it happened to be a day Catie and I were working on seed. We spent the morning washing everything in the silos. Just to give you a quick idea of what it takes to pull out and clean a silo (plus, what a balancing act/teamwork effort it is to manipulate the silos around a bunch of rowing boats) a few quick videos, courtesy of Dave Grossman.
Later that day, Skip, Dave, and I went out to the back river to grab the seed Skip’s been working on out there. On the way, I got a little taste of Skip’s love for speed. We came flying under the bridge on the way out.
Not nearly as fast on our way back in as we were carrying precious cargo: 8 trays of 1 1/2 month old seed. On the way, we ran into Don Merry, who also has some seed back there and Skip was anxious to show him the progress on ours.
Back on land, Catie taught me how to grade, which is separating the oysters by size. Once some of the seed gets to about a quarter inch (called quarters, obviously), we can pull those out and put them into either separate silos(to continue growing in the upweller) or into mesh bags which will be put out in cages now set up in the bay. The seed that is too small (under a quarter inch) is put back into its original silo to continue growing. This helps bring the volume on each silo down, giving the oysters in each batch more space to grow. Still waiting to see where our seed goes next. After all the love and care we’ve given these babies, it might be a little sad to see them leave the nest to start growing in the big, blue sea.
My crew has a new Thursday tradition. We have a lot of summer birthdays, many of which happen to fall on Thursdays. Hence, Birthday Thursdays. Even without a birthday, we’re all in for a celebration of some sort. This week’s involved a feast at Will’s place. We started with baked oysters (a la Berg) and fried oysters (made by Will).
Berg’s Baked Oysters
2 dozen Island Creeks
1 bag baby spinach, chopped
3 tbsp minced garlic
3 tbsp butter, chopped
Couple handfuls of shredded parmesan
Shuck the oysters. Top with couple pinches of spinach, 1/4 tsp garlic, pat of butter, couple pinches of parmesan. Arrange on a baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for about 5 minutes or until parmesan is melted.
Will’s “Chilean” Island Creek pan-fried oysters
2 dozen shucked ICO’s, reserve some liquor.
Kultru Chile olive oil
Extra Virgin olive oil
1 c. buttermilk
1/4 c. oyster liquor (from shucked oyters)
4 farm-fresh Araucana eggs (or regular eggs), minus 1 egg white
2 tbsp flour
3/4 bag of Panko bread crumb flakes
2 tbsp flour
Homemade or commercial chili mix to taste. (Will uses Fireman Fred’s Flaming 3 Alarm Chili Mix from Saratoga)
1 tsp paprika
Pinch of cinnamon
Over med high heat in a saucepan combine Kultru Chile Olive Oil with EVOO (half and half to fill pan halfway). Combine all batter ingredients in a large bowl. Combine all breading ingredients in another large bowl. In sets of 6-8 oysters, dip in batter, then roll/cover with dry ingredients. Pan fry for a few min on each side, until batter gets golden and crunchy. Serve atop garlic Triscuits, cover with small slice of pepperjack cheese and a pinch of chopped spinach. Arrange on baking sheet and heat in 375 degree oven for as long as it takes to just melt the cheese. Serve ’em up with a glass of Crios Malbec Rose.
We’ve been having funky weather for a New England June. With temps hovering in the high 50s/low 60s and more cloudy days than sunny ones, the water temps haven’t quite warmed up to where we want them to be. This is definitely having an affect on our babies.
Christian tells me that with some sun, the water should warm up to about 60 degrees and that’s what makes the oysters “pop” or go through a growth spurt. Since we have seed at different stages of growth in the upwellers (some seed came in early May; other batches came in early June), we’ve seen some of them explode but the younger ones are still small. As seed tender, I’m tasked with keeping them clean and poop free so they can continue to grow and eat. So Catie and I have gotten into a washing routine, which usually happens every other day now. The process goes something like this:
We start with dock 1 where there’s 1 upweller with 8 silos. Because the boards to the dock are awkward and heavy, we open one portion of it and start unbolting the silos. We each pull one or two out, which means hoisting the box up by the ropes, waiting for it to drain of water, then dragging the bulky box up and onto the dock (we’re still able to do this individually but as the oysters get bigger, it’ll get harder and harder). Once we’ve got a few boxes out, I’ll grab the hose and wash each one down individually: Outside, inside, then the seed and screen below it, which are now usually covered in crap. I’ll move onto the next box and Catie will jump into the upweller to put the clean box back in place (they’re secured to the trough with bolts and wingnuts… when the wingnuts are screwed on too tight, we use a wooden mallet, courtesy of Greg Morris, to knock them loose).
As I’m washing, Catie stays ahead of me pulling out and putting away the boxes and eventually we’ll move over to dock 2 (also called the rowing dock since that’s where the rowers from the Maritime School keep their boats stored). Dock 2 is far trickier since we have two upwellers there which both live beneath a rack of row boats. The far upweller (we called it the 20s) sits below some really low-lying boats so getting in and out is easy only when that boat is off its storage space and in the water (ie: when the rowers are in class). Since we still haven’t gotten the rowers’ schedule down, Catie and I are often interrupted while we’re opening the dock to let rowers in and out. Usually, they arrive just after we’ve gotten the doors off … which means we have to quickly put the doors back on and step aside until they’re done. It’s impeccable timing… but we’ll get the hang of it eventually.
As we wash the upwellers, we can track the progress of our seed, checking out which ones are getting bigger, which ones are super poopy, and how they’re growing overall. I’m a big fan of the seed job. Not only does it give me access to the seed growth in slow-mo, I get to hang out on the dock a few days a week and shoot the shit with the other farmers. They fret and stress and get excited over the babies like any anxious parents: a little nerve-racked but totally filled with love. And lots of hopes and prayers for a really good season.
So, you can imagine that this weather isn’t helping much. Today will be a nice one, in the 70s and sunny, but we just need one long stretch of sun… fingers crossed that it’s coming soon.
One thing we, as a crew, never tire of (besides making each other laugh) is discussing the cull. We’ve got Maggie and Catie who are both veterans on the farm (we like to say that Maggie has been around so long, she actually invented culling) as well as Quinn, Berg, and A2 who were all around last summer, plus myself, Will, and Eva (the newbies). While the cull itself never changes (still looking for threes, Graybars, Per Se’s), discussion of what makes a Per Se or a Graybar can go on for hours. We’ve now uncovered ‘tweeners, the in-between shape that could go either way but really, should just be returned to the water to grow up a little more. Maggie and Catie are strict with their cull and return oysters when their too oblong or narrow so I’ve taken to following their lead. A2, who’s in charge of the float (and by virtue, the cull) constantly pulls out oysters to show us what he’s looking for and what direction we should be going. Basically, it’s an evolving discussion. Not to mention, no two oysters are the same. So every day, we flip our crates, set up our stations, and cull with a purpose. It really makes a difference in the oysters that go into our bags, which I hope (and imagine) makes a difference to the chefs who buy them.
Last week, we got two new additions, Gourmet and Midnight. No, we’re not going into the business of Island Creek heritage pork. But we are planning on fattening them up in time for Oyster Fest in September. Two of our participating chefs, Chris Schlesinger and Jamie Bissonnette are roasting them for the event. Plus we’ve got 16 other chefs on board from Jody Adams and Jasper White to Louis DiBicarri, Will Gilson, Greg Reeves, and Jeremy Sewell doing small dishes with scallops, stripers, and razor clams. We’re also looking to shuck something like 40,000 oysters. Phew. You guys ready?
In my previous life, I often wrote or edited items about over-the-top beauty treatments like a 24-karat gold hair straightener or caviar facials. It was always sort of a pleasure (and sort of hell) to test drive the treatments: If things went well, you walked away with a shiny mane, glowing skin, or a fresh coat of polish; if they didn’t, you could be missing an eyebrow.
Once again, I get to revert back to my beauty editor days with the arrival of oyster poop. Not nearly as smelly as oyster mud, but just as freaking gross, it is the brown, slimy ejection of growing oysters and I’m hoping that it’ll do wonders for my skin. Because I am about to be swimming in it.
For now, the job is simple. Catie and I remove the silos from their spots on the upweller trough (ok, simple is an understatement: these beasts weigh about 60 pounds and are as awkward and angular as a giant, heavy box filled with water and poop can be) and pull them out of the water and onto the dock. The process sometimes requires both of us since we have to pull them up from a bent over position and slide them onto the dock without catching one on a toe. Once they’re on the dock, each silo gets hosed down inside and out and tilted on its side, causing the oysters to slide down so we can hose off the screen underneath. The fresh water kills any bacteria from the poop and washes away the whole, filthy mess. But there’s no easy way to hose down a square box filled with growing particles of sand. The misting water makes the tiny little oysters fly around — one hit of the hose in the wrong direction can send hundreds of them scurrying up the side of the box. On top of it, oyster poop is thick and sticks to everything. It collects on the screen and sides of the box and when it sprays upwards, it sticks to clothes, hands, shoes, and, of course, faces.
Today, we finished cleaning out the silos and I looked down to find oyster poop all over my hands, cascading down my legs, and felt a splash or two in my hair. Catie, an old pro at tending the seeds, said just wait: “Once we start grading, you’ll get covered head to toe. Literally. It gets everywhere.”
As much as I look forward to that day, I’m still undecided on the benefits of oyster poop on the skin. My hands are cracked and dry and my hair looks like it’s been doused in lemon juice and left frying in the sun. Maybe a few pats of oyster poop can clear that up? I’ll keep you posted.
I had the chance to see our process through someone else’s eyes last Friday when my friends Jenn, Max, and Michelle came to the farm for a visit. We went out to the float where they hung out with the crew as we did our CWB routine and later, killed some time eating fresh oysters off the back. Afterward, Berg took us back to the dock where I showed them the upwellers and our babies before heading over to Snug Harbor Fish Co. for some lobster rolls and crab cakes.
Talking them through the process made me aware of just how much I’ve picked up on the farm. I walked them through the whole process, from seed to farm to float and actually felt like I knew what I was talking about. Wouldn’t have been so easy two months back. But somehow, despite my previously empty knowledge base, I’ve managed to understand how our babies go from a twinkle in the eye to the sweet and meaty oysters we serve in restaurants every day.
Of course, I’m still a fan of standing at the raw bar and shucking like we did at the Harpoon Brewery‘s Summer Session over the weekend. After days and days of looking at gnarly, rough-edged shells, it’s fun to open a couple hundred and watch oyster freaks get excited. I always manage to slurp back a few at these events and just like that, every ache, pain, and bruise disappears. We shucked in the brewery’s VIP room and while we didn’t get creamed like we did at the Nantucket Wine Fest, it was clear that our oysters and Harpoon beer make a harmonious pair.
And, a quick plug for the farm: The new Island Creek website is up and running. There are some great pics of my crew hauling cages down to the water. Take a look around and if you’re hungry, buy some ‘sters.
More new faces on the farm this week. Well, new to me anyway. Catie, a veteran on Skip’s summer crew, started with us on Friday (she just graduated from Colgate) and Eva (fresh outta Brown) starts with us tomorrow. With all these extra hands, the work flies and we can go through a massive number of oysters in a day. We put in a full day today and logged more than 150 bags. Sheesh! Back when A2 and I were the only ones culling, we’d be lucky to hit 50 in a day (but we still had a damn good time doing it). We’ve come a long way — more ridiculous humor (Will’s “Dopeass quote of the day” can lay the entire crew out with laughter – Maggie and I were to the point of tears twice today), more opinions on what music we listen to (Maggie’s a Kanye fan, which makes A2 happy; Will and I are into the classic rock/90s stuff; Quinn seems to like whatever’s on) and more competitors in our ongoing ‘name that tune’ game. (1 point for the artist, 1 point for the song title. Berg is a champ with classic rock; A2 can list the entire Jam’n 94.5 playlist which repeats itself about 3 times a day.)
But the crew shifts around so we won’t be shoulder to shoulder on the float most days. Berg is teaching Quinn how to drag so we can have two guys bringing in oysters every day (though Quinn almost lost his life with the winch twice today, he’ll pick it up eventually) and Catie and I will spend more time on the docks with the seed. We’ve got seed in all 16 silos now (with one more trough/silo going in this week) — each silo is holding seed at different stages, from 1.5 mm to about 2.5 mm (at least that was the size they were when they arrived — all have doubled or tripled since we’ve had them). For now, we’re keeping the seed clean (ie: free of oyster poop) by hosing down each silo every few days. We’ll go through and hose down all of the silos tomorrow and probably do some organizing — Skip picked up more seed this weekend so we’ll need to make some room for it. If the seed goes too long without getting cleaned, they’ll foul quickly (foul, from my understanding, can be a much nicer way of saying either oyster poop, or the effects of oysters lingering in their own poop).
Since the seed is in an upweller system, there’s fresh water being pumped over them all day long and they’re just soaking up the nutrients, growing at an incredibly rapid clip. The volume of our biggest seed has probably tripled in the last two weeks, meaning they’re healthy, hungry oysters that are going to move through the system quickly. Should be a beautiful week so I’ll try to get some more photos and a better description of the process as we go.
In the meantime, I picked up a stellar recipe for our oysters from chef Ken Oringer during a Memorial Day bbq last week. Super quick and easy for summer.
Ken’s grilled Island Creeks
1 dozen oysters
2 tbsp butter, cut into a dozen small pieces
1-2 tbsp Mexican hot sauce (essential that it’s Mexican, says Ken)
1. Fire up the grill. Set the oysters cup side down over a medium/high heat. Grill until the shells just pop open (time varies depending on the oyster), then pull them off the grill.
2. With a shucking knife, separate the oysters from the top shell (toss the top; careful not to lose too much juice). Top each oyster with a piece of butter and a dash or two of hot sauce.
3. Put the oysters back on the grill for about a minute to melt the butter. Pull them off and let them cool for a bit before serving.