The Twelve Months of Oyster Farming
Island Creek grows standard Eastern oysters (Crassostrea Virginica), the only species that is native to the East Coast. The bulk of the oysters the company sells are just over three inches long and have a deep, rounded cup. Some are a little smaller; and some have a special rounded shape customized for one restaurant customer.
OYSTERS ARE AFFECTED BY THEIR ENVIRONMENT AND THE SEASONS. THEIR FLAVOR IS DETERMINED BY THE SALTINESS OF THE WATER THEY GROW IN AND THE PHYTOPLANKTON THEY EAT; THE TEXTURE IS AFFECTED BY WATER TEMPERATURE. COLD-WATER OYSTERS, LIKE ISLAND CREEKS, TEND TO BE FIRMER AND BRINIER THAN, SAY, GULF OYSTERS.
Phytoplankton blooms in the spring, when the water is warmer, so that’s when oysters start their most intense feeding. In most locations, they spawn in summer when the water temperature is highest. The algae fade away in the fall and are gone by winter. Like land animals that stock up for hibernation, oysters gorge during the fall, building up on glycogen and amino acids. This makes them sweeter, so fall is generally considered the ideal time to consume oysters. But the idea of only eating them during months ending in ‘R,’ which came about before the time of refrigeration, is no longer valid. Oysters are now harvested year-round and can be eaten any time, as long as they have been handled properly.
Beyond the environmental influences, the hand of the farmer plays an important role in the final product. Island Creek grows its oysters from seed—and since 2015 even creates seed—monitoring their growth and doing everything possible, within the vagaries of nature, to ensure a delicious end product.
When the seeds are about the size of a pepper flake, they are placed in upwellers (underwater silos, below piers, where water is continuously pumped over the oysters), where they double in size every day. Six months later, when they are about 1/4 inch, Island Creek’s crew sets the oysters in the mud, where they grow for a year, until they are slightly over three inches. Their life at the bottom of the bay gives them a rough-and-tumbled look with deep flutes and round cups.
Reflecting the subtleties of location and technique, Island Creek has developed two additional varieties, Row 34 and Aunt Dotty’s oysters. Row 34s grow in raised trays 18 inches off the ocean floor, in the part of the farm that is closest to the mouth of the bay. Row 34s are more delicate than Island Creeks. They have more of a teardrop shape with a shallower cup. The meat is a different texture with a more earthy flavor. Named for Bennett’s aunt, the Aunt Dotty’s are planted on plastic trays that are set on the tidal flats in the mouth of Plymouth Bay (Plymouth is the town next to Duxbury). They take about three years to grow. Bennett pulls them out of the water every winter, storing them in his root cellar so they don’t freeze, and returns them to the flats in April. Aunt Dotty’s have a different shape than either Island Creeks or Row 34s because they move around in the water more than either variety; and they have a different flavor profile due to the composition of algae that floats at the top of the water. They are rich and sweet, lightly briny with a mineral finish.