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It begins on Nantucket.

We’re still a few weeks away from the official summer equinox but at Island Creek, the season is well underway. And it started, as always, at the Nantucket Wine Fest.

The weekend was packed with shucking, wine tasting, eating and islanding. For Skip, Shore, and the tag along crew, it’s become an unforgettable tradition (from what we can remember, anyway).

The weekend started at the White Elephant where Skip did a demo with Angela and Seth Raynor (The Pearl, Boarding House and Corazon del Mar are all theirs — a common theme through this year’s trip) and Jasper White from the Summer Shack. Our oysters kicked things off but the demo was all about seafood. Seth made a ceviche while Jasper shucked an in-shell scallop on stage. We also got an introduction to Abraxas, Robert Sinskey‘s incredible seafood wine.

The rest of Friday was restful with a leisurely lunch at Corazon where we got to try Seth’s tacos (the al pastor was a true gem, bringing me right back to my Mexico City days) and hang out at the bar with Ming and Polly Tsai. After lunch and a few naps, we reconvened on the roof of Skip’s condo, another legendary tradition that this year, was quickly put to rest when the cops told us to come down. We blame our neighbors for the tip off.

From there, we scurried over to Straight Wharf Restaurant to help Chef Gabriel Frasca and his crew open their bar for the season. It was insanity from the start with free oysters and wine but we all crunched in behind the raw bar and kept the oyster loving people happy.

Saturday was our first day at the tents where we once again set up shop on the lawn. We were blessed with three perfect Nantucket days — sunny skies and warmer than average temps — as well as a fun crowd of fans dressed, naturally, in their Nantucket finest.

During our lunch break (a quick Lola burger and fries), we started a new tradition by powering up the tandem bike. It went with us everywhere, from the lawn to the Pearl and back again.

After another respite, it was over to The Pearl where Shore booked the private dining room for our crew. Big bottles of wine and shenanigans ensued but as usual, the meal was an incredible display. And, as you can tell, the scallop ceviche won my heart.

Angela and the Oyster Dude

We somehow made our way downstairs after dinner to shuck for yet another restaurant party, wrapping things up sometime after 1 a.m. Sunday, of course, was a tough morning to tackle but we started off on the right foot with brunch at the BoHo Patio. (crumbed eggs! frites! the most amazing yogurt with Nantucket honey on the planet!)

That was, of course, followed by the final day at the tent where we were joined by Dave who arrived in time for the first glass of wine.

With hugs, we said goodbye to our weekend friends like Nicole Kanner and Lisa Baker but carried on with our final raw bar stop back at the BoHo Patio where Angela broke out the L.P.

And that, my friends, is Nantucket in a nutshell. Whew.

Of course, I came back, regrouped and got myself together because this was my first week back on the farm. The crew is back (Maggie! Pops! Quinn!). The farm is back to life (we’re hand picking, putting in big hauls, and culling in the sunshine). And yes, it truly is summertime again since yesterday, we put our first seed into the upwellers (cue my summertime stress) just as the Opening of the Bay tall ship came into the harbor.

Berg securing the silos into the upweller

this year's crop of babies!

back in my comfort zone: tightening bolts

Skip got his seed from Maine in the afternoon which went right into a few silos. It’s much bigger this year so we were able to put some of it onto window screen which will give it more water flow to start.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

After this weekend, we’ll have one upweller completely full (Skip’s filling the rest of the silos today) and another one fired up by Tuesday. As Skip and I finished up, we looked at one another shaking our heads. Just like that, we’re at it again. “Ok,” he said grinning. “Day One is behind us.”

Looks to be yet another crazy summer of seed. You ready?

A week ago today, Skip, Chris, Shore and I were cruising across the waters off Cheriton, Virginia checking out Cherrystone Aqua Farm, a huge producer of littleneck clams who, in the last three years, has gotten heavy into growing oysters. Their facilities sit on Virginia’s long, spindly peninsula that separates the Chesapeake from the Atlantic.

Though the company was started as an oyster business back in the 1890s, the wild supply in that area has since been decimated. So the Ballard family started farming clams. Now run by Chad Ballard III, they’ve become one of the country’s biggest and best clam farms. But a return to oysters was inevitable: The growing conditions are pretty near perfect for turning around 10 to 14 month old oysters at market size. They tried their hand at it a few years back and got up to speed so quickly that they’ll have millions of Misty Point oysters on the market this year.

Our quick overnight trip introduced us to some of the characters that pepper the Cherrystone world, like Bubba (the Berg equivalent – though his bicep is probably rounder than Berg’s head) who manages the early stages of the oyster growth on the bay side as well as Mike McGee, an oldtimer from Chincoteague Island who monitors the final oyster growout. As his colleagues told us, “The Mayor of Chincoteague” has probably owned every single business on the island at one point and now owns just about every shellfish lease there, too.

While so many things about their oyster farm reminded me of ICO (same surly, lovable crews; same lovely, waterfront landscape), there were a few really interesting differences. The first was how much space they had. The operation sits on three massive sites, miles away from each other and each has its own hatchery (hatchery!). They all sit right on the water, giving them access to a fresh supply which they use to pump over their seeds and to store their algae. It was incredibly impressive to see that they’d dedicated one whole hatchery, on the seaside of the peninsula, to oyster seed. They also have a ton of acreage for planting. We probably only saw a fraction of the clam beds, which are everywhere, but even the oyster sites seem to be pretty generous. As we kept saying during the visit, “imagine what we could do with all that waterfront space.” Oh, to dream.

the tumbler

They have an on-water barge, like ours, but theirs is topped with their newest piece of equipment: A tumbler. This puppy is louder than anything but really treats the oysters well. They get tumbled through the chambers and sorted by size, just like our hand cull, and get a small beating in process. (Not a bad thing. Oysters need a little tough love at that age. It helps strengthen up their shells.)

Cherrystone starts its oyster seed in Cheriton in a rack and bag system similar to ours, only laid flat on the ground. As Bubba shook bags and talked about blue crabs, I realized that despite our resource and space differences, oyster farmers everywhere have the same concerns: oyster poop and predators.

they keep their oysters in mesh trays

our friendly hosts

Once the oysters are ready to be “finished,” they’re transferred up to Chincoteague Island, famous for the wild pony population that has existed there for years. Now 200 horses strong, the herd is monitored by the Chincoteague fire department but are completely wild and feed off the salt marshes (good eats but surely their doctors would take issue). When we found them, the new baby colts were acting pretty playful — and though they’re very much wild beings, clearly, they don’t mind some company.

Down at the growout sites, we found more trays of oysters that were being finished and were near perfectly sized. The site was beautiful, nestled amongst flat, green marshes. This particular site sits right beside McGee’s old duck hunting cabin set above the water on stilts. After checking out the finishing oysters, Mike gave us a quick lesson on how he shucks. The guy is definitely a classic (notice the way he chips off the shell, goes in the lip, serves it on the flat side of the shell, and never loses the stogy — a true, Mid-Atlantic method).

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more about "Mike McGee shucking oysters", posted with vodpod

We also got a peek at his cabin (another treasure built as sturdy as Mike himself). While inside, Mike gave us the invite to come back for hunting season this fall. Don’t be surprised to see another post on those adventures down the road.

Of course, we wouldn’t expect a guy like to Mike to ride around the bay on just any old boat. Nope, his is another relic, called the Grenade, and he drives it at one speed: Fast.

Chris, Shore, and I, who were on the other boat, got a huge kick watching Skip, Mike and Cherrystone sales guy Tim Parsons zoom off leaving us in the wake. Skip barely got out alive but we made our way back more slowly, taking some time to stop and check out a wild oyster bed, of which there are several, set on one of Mike McGee’s leases. I’d never seen a wild bed before (they’re a dying breed) but Mike picks oysters from them daily, getting a couple dozen bushels each time. Harvesting is tough work and requires a tiny hammer and a strong back. Plus, wild set oysters grow with their environment, which means they’re usually misshapen and elongated, like this guy.

one of Mike's wild oyster beds

Tim culling a few wild oysters

Our tour guide and host, production manager Tim Rapine, wrapped up our trip with a stop at Sting Ray’s for some barbecue. Afterward, we spent the rest of our long ride back to the airport sharing tips and ideas. Between swapping crew stories and discussing how to source a grading machine (a serious but worthwhile investment), our time with Tim was packed with information and new ideas.

And that was the best takeaway, really. Since every second of the whirlwind trip was filled with images and ideas, we can carry it all with us and maybe apply them somewhere down the road. Big thanks to Chad, Tim, Tim, Mike, Bubba and everyone else at Cherrystone, for opening up the doors and showing us around.

I’ve heard it at least five times in the last two weeks: “You guys are everywhere.”

It’s true. The Island Creek crew does make the rounds. Last weekend alone, we were in New York for the Lucky Rice Asian Food Festival on

…where chef Jonathan Wright from the Setai Miami paired our oysters with fried pork belly and kimchee (it was an insane combination that drew ravenous crowds…

Chef Jonathan

…along with chef David Chang of Momofuku fame who we couldn’t manage to capture on film) … before setting up two separate raw bars on Sunday, one at Harvard Square’s May Fair with the Russell House Tavern and the other at B&G Oysters for their annual Oyster Invitational.

It was a long day of shucking in the sunshine and snacking on grilled sausages, lobster rolls, and oysters. We met some great Island Creek fans and even put Chris into the shucking competition where he promptly cut himself — don’t worry, he’s ok — but still came in second place.

a little blood, sweat, and tears

We were also voted best oyster of the bunch, thank you very much! And our friends at Moon Shoals came one vote shy of beating us — incredibly stiff competition.

Scott & Jon from Moon Shoal

Our Best Oyster prize: Wine and Lobster Goblets

Our tireless team of shuckers led by Alessandro

Thanks to Barbara, Jen, Chef Stephen and the gang for another incredible spring party.

So here we are, smack in the middle of raw bar season. We’ve got fundraisers, Nantucket Wine Fest, and Chefs in Shorts on our horizon — some seriously entertaining events. But this is the time of year to do it since patios are opening and folks are coming out of hiding. In just a few short weeks, the farm kicks in to full gear and summer crews arrive, which means our raw bars will take a back seat. We have a few lined up for June but that should be it since the majority of our down time will consist of sleeping and fretting about seed.

I can practically taste my return to the farm these days. The 70-degree heat and sunshine don’t exactly deter my excitement. Plus, Berg came back from Africa this week, putting us one man closer to a summer crew. We toasted him with a few cups of Oyster Stout (our only keg is finally tapped) at an afternoon barbecue yesterday.

Will on the grill, as always!

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Shop Friday without A2 who drove all the way back from New Hampshire for the festivities. Good to see you buddy!

Skip came to the barbecue a little late — he’d been out in the back river and was anxious to show me the first of his seed. Sorry I don’t have a picture but the little guy was a nice, healthy couple millimeters long! Skip’s keeping the seed up in the river until the upwellers go in, which should be happening any day. The next few weeks, the oysters will start to double in size almost daily — and once again, we have a seed season underway.

Guess that means it’s time for me to hang up the suit and throw on some boots. Two more weeks and I’m back on the farm!

Erin on Twitter

May 2010