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      October 2012 Newsletter




When we set out in search of edible oysters, our destination is often a building. Others have labored to fish for or to grow the shellfish that we seek. They harvest and bag them and hand them off to still others to transport them to that same building. While the oysters that we find within the building may change, we tend to stick to a specific place. It is where we shop or otherwise select our oysters. In the case of a raw bar or restaurant, the voyage of each oyster ends with our voyage to meet it.  When the building is a seafood market, we are but one more means of transportation to our final destination – home.

When we shop for oysters to take home, our first choice is for the correct building – a seafood market that sells shellfish. All such seafood markets are not created equal. The management of the huge shell of a building (where small shellfulls of  live oyster are found) labors to provide a temporary pit stop where oysters can find enough satisfactory environmental criteria to survive. Most obviously, this new temporary environment is not a salty liquid full of food. It exists on dry land. Thus, a seafood market can teach us some important lessons about oysters.

My oyster is high and dry

Oysters can survive for long periods without being immersed in water. In an estuary, for example, the outgoing tide might temporarily expose sessile oysters perched on their permanent places of rest. Oysters cannot transport themselves. If farmers choose to do so, they can place them in perforated grow-out bags and move them at will. Some farmers purposely grow their oysters in open trays on the estuary floor that will be exposed to the sun when the tide recedes. The sun exposure kills certain undesirable fouling plants and parasitic animals.

My oyster is fasting

Oysters can survive for very long periods – months even – without food. In northern New England, ice often forms above the oyster bed denying access to the sun and minimizing algae growth – a primary part of the oyster’s diet. By the time the ice forms, oysters have gained enough body fat to help insulate themselves from the cold. Their metabolism slows way down. They rely upon the contents of their own shell to survive. Sound familiar? We all stock up with food to survive a long winter storm.

My oyster is hibernating

What a natural oyster cannot successfully survive is extreme temperatures. In extreme low temperatures, an oyster may die.  Many Cape Cod oyster farmers remove their crops entirely to avoid below freezing temperatures and store their bags full of oysters in a cellar or even a carefully designed hole in the ground – deep enough to maintain temperatures above freezing and humid enough to avoid drying out.

My oyster is cooking

Excessive heat will also kill them. Timid oyster shuckers can open oysters successfully by putting them in an oven, above a hot charcoal grill, or in a microwave. The oyster dies, the adductor muscle relaxes, and the shell usually springs open. A warm environment, even a slow gradually warming temperature, may keep the oyster alive but allow dangerous temperature sensitive diseases to grow.


Goldilocks: So you can’t survive excessive heat or cold?

Talking Oyster: That right Keemosawbee.

Goldilocks: How about I keep you and all of your shelled friends in your net bag in the refrigerator?

Oyster: I am OK with it but others of us may open a smidge and eventually lose their liquid. In other words, we may leak. So refrigerate us and store us with the cup side down (to ensure the liquor is retained) and we can stay that way for weeks.

Goldilocks: But if I ice you like a gimpy leg, you are good?

Oyster: I am cool with it even without the ice in the fridge – but keep it humid, babe.

Goldi: How about I cover you with a clean damp rag?

Oyster: Cup down, lid up, damp rag on top … perfect.

Goldi: What if I bury you in crushed ice?

Oyster: Brrr! What are you a sadist? You could forget about us and let us sit in melt water where we might be tempted to open up and start pumping. We would taste like ice water.


The case for a case

Seafood markets have many of the same problems as consumers do temporarily storing their shellfish – with one primary difference. The market must have some way of displaying their oysters at the point of purchase. We want to see what we are buying before we do so. That means the market must either employ a refrigerated display case, an ice table, (or a combination). Either way, when ice is used, melt drainage is often required by state law. In Massachusetts, the law states: "Hold shellfish during storage and display units at 5 degrees Centigrade (41 degrees Fahreheit) or less."

If a closed refrigerated display case is used, we can look but not touch. We need someone to pluck the oysters from the case for us. This strategy also allows the market shellfish handler to fill our requested order for us. We tell them which ones and how many we want.

In a conventional market, the shellfish display case is often shared with other types of seafood. Raw finfish are much more sensitive to light and humidity than oysters are. They also must be shielded from direct sunlight (UV). Using ice in a display case serves as a natural thermometer. When the ice melts quickly, something is amiss.


In Massachusetts, shellfish handlers must:

  1. Wash your hands before and after preparing raw seafood products.
  2. Do not handle ready-to-eat shellfish (shucked, raw ready-to-eat or cooked) with your bare hands.
  3. Use proper cleaning and sanitizing procedures.

By contrast, the ice table opens the possibility that the consumer can select his/her oysters by hand and even bag them - much like we customarily do with fresh tomatoes, apples, or bananas. Ideally, the table is tilted to drain the melted ice. Transparent panels at the perimeter help to contain a nice layer of moist cold air.


Local or state laws may prohibit direct contact with raw shellfish by customers for reasons of sanitation. When contact is permitted, proper cleaning and sanitizing procedures must be observed. I am an oyster snob. I prefer to pick my own oysters and bag them myself where possible. When customers are allowed to handle the shellfish, they alter the display. The more popular oysters empty out first.


A taste for success

Now comes the hard part. When we purchase a dozen raw oysters at a seafood market, we are paying as much or more than we do for a nice filet of raw fish. Of course, if you intend to enjoy the oyster raw, it helps dramatically to sample taste one. This actually can work in favor of the market. If I know there is a difference in taste commensurate with the higher price, I will buy the higher priced piece. If not, I might simply buy for low price. The key is the shucking.

My knife or yours?

Done correctly, oyster shucking is no more dangerous than slicing a filet of fish with a razor sharp knife. As they say - it is easy if you know how. Market personnel may let you shuck your own sample especially if you bring your own knife. Market owners are justifiably concerned about the liability of anyone shucking and/or consuming a raw oyster on their premises. Once you own the oyster, shucking it is your problem, not theirs. In my experience, a market sometimes will supply a shucked sample oyster at no cost. Sometimes they let you buy a single one, shuck it and taste it. If they display a dozen different oysters, it is unlikely that the market will let you taste all of them for free.

Looking bad to taste good

The taste test is the ultimate oyster test. No matter how good or bad the oyster shells look, it is the oyster flesh that we consume. Some of the most beautiful oyster shells, may be low on flavor. Some of the best native oysters I have ever tasted were gnarled seaweed covered beasts that any raw bar manager would reject. As a consumer, if you intend to shuck the oysters you purchase yourself, there are some aspects of shell appearance that are of great interest.


Shucking Lessons

The Galway Rules of oyster shucking apply to many shucking contests. Contest rules clearly express the difficulties that can arise before, during, and after shucking oysters. The idea is that shuckers prepare a tray of oysters exactly like they would if they were serving them in a restaurant or raw bar. However, if you watch a shucking contest carefully, you can learn a great deal about how to select oysters for your own home use.

Step One: Select the oysters to be shucked. This task is performed by the shucking contest management. What they are seeking are clean oysters with undamaged consistently shaped shells. Gnarled and misshapen shells are harder to open and will give the shucking advantage to one competitor or another. Oysters with “flat” lids are preferable because the adductor muscle can be quickly and cleanly severed. Management may also take the time to knock any two oysters together to look for a “hollow” sound. A hollow sound often means it contains dehydrated oyster flesh. Whoever shucks a dehydrated oyster will be at a disadvantage from a presentation score point of view. The management will also sample shuck an oyster or two to make sure that the shells are not too brittle and thin to shuck without breaking. A perforated shell exterior is also undesirable because it might crack and break during shucking. The manager might also choose to rinse the oysters being used to eliminate silt and unnecessary grit from the shucking tray and final display. [Oysters sold in a market must be “reasonably free of mud.”]

Step Two: Select oysters that fit your shucking style. Each shucker is given a container of oysters (usually 30) for his/her pre-competition examination. The contestant may also choose to knock the oysters together to avoid hollow ones. More importantly, the shucker looks closely at each oyster for shells which will help increase his/her speed. If the shucking strategy is to pop open the oyster at the ligament end, the shucker prefers a ligament with a clear entry slot for the point of the shucking knife. In some oysters the lip of the lid shell overlaps the cup shell in such a way to conceal the actual demarcation of one shell or another. To shuck such an oyster cleanly and quickly, he/she might do better to have another shucking strategy – Plan B. Plan B might be to enter the shell from the side. With the ligament end pointed away from you and the cupside down, Plan B might mean entering the shell at “3 o’clock.” It usually involves a very sharp point on the knife blade. For this strategy the shucker might also need a second knife. [Contest shuckers frequently bring two knives.] The ideal oyster for Plan B will have the bottom or cup shell overlap the lip shell a tiny amount – about 1/16 inch or more. Such an overlap permits the knife point to quickly find the joint between the two shells and slip under the lid into the oyster

Quality control

Because of the two fundamental criteria explained above, farmed oysters are almost exclusively used in a New England shucking contest. They are more consistent in shape, often cleaner, and shell thickness is more predictable. Brood oysters in a hatchery are purposely selected because of their good shell traits, disease resistance, and taste. The growth of farmed oysters is monitored closely for many months. When natural oysters are harvested, shell quality is achieved in the culling – discarding the undesirables and keeping the desirables.

In short, a shucking contest oyster is as close to perfection as possible. If we could, we would take them home. It makes sense to pay attention to the variety of oysters selected for use for a shucking contest.


Two vital questions

The first question to ask any market is “where are these oysters from?” In most states, the market is required to keep the bag tag and show it to you. It tells you the oyster’s origin. The answer may not prove useful if you are not familiar with it. But an imprecise or fumbled response way be an indication that ignorance has played a role in selection. Does your Blue Point come from Connecticut or Long Island? With time, you will discover that you may find undesirable differences.

In Massachusetts, the shellfish container tag must contain the following information:

1. Dealer's name and address and certification number.

2. Date of harvesting.

3. Identification of the harvest location according to the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) specifications.

4. Type and quantity of shellfish (clams, oysters, mussels and scallops).

5. Statement requiring tag to be attached to the container until emptied and then retained for 90 days. 

(Note: The above information can be found in "Safe Handling of Shellfish at Retail" published by the UMassExtension Nutrition Education Program.)

Rob Rheault, Executive Director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association relates the following story: I was at my local market and noticed “fresh wild local” oysters for sale. Now the wild harvest is closed till Oct 15th so I knew something was amiss. They looked cultured (pretty easy to tell) so I asked for the tag and discovered that a wild harvester had sold them illegally out of season – what is worse he probably pilfered them from a farmer since wild oyster rarely look uniform and beautiful with the signature black stripe so many breeders now employ. I had quite a conversation with the manager and the enforcement people… ARGH

The second question to ask is “how long have you had these oysters?” Shelf life in raw food is minimal. For oysters, the biggest problem is leakage. Oysters that are stored and displayed chilled and cupside down with good humidity, will last for a long time. Even when they are chilled in a net bag, jumbled in every possible orientation, they can leak. That’s why we knock them together. The older they are, the more probable it is that they will lose their liquid. Shellfish in a good seafood market is rarely more than two days old - a “first in, first out” standard is used.

One oyster – dead or alive?

When an oyster dies, it releases the muscle tension holding its two shells together. Most of the time, it opens. Sometimes an oyster that is open is not dead. If you tap gently on the shell, it will close. Sometimes an oyster that is still closed is dead. We are seeking live oysters, not dead ones. I reject any open oyster – dead or alive. A hollow shell is also significantly lighter in weight. If you take your oysters home and find that many are dehydrated and/or dead, return them to the market. A good market wants to know what it is selling and will thank you with replacement oysters. In food, quality is everything.

Chinese oysters are by far the most numerous on Earth. But the Chinese people prefer them cooked. Regulations are not yet in place for sufficient quality control to sell raw Chinese oysters in America. The seafood regulations in the U.S. are the most stringent in the world. Any seafood market must comply to FDA regulations as well as relevant State and local regulations. Inspections of waters where shellfish originate are frequent. Permits are not cheap.

Oysters on display

An indication of a good seafood market is how carefully oysters from different waters are displayed together. The oyster shells are often still wet with local waters when they are bagged. The silt and debris is washed from them. It is possible to transport micro-organisms on the shells. In the rare instance that something undesirable is transported on oysters from one destination, we obviously want to minimize the contact with anything else. In Massachusetts, we have the following law: "Separate different species of raw ready-to-eat shellstock during storage and while on display. " I always look for good separation between the varieties of oysters. Towards the end of the business day, melted ice in a bin can add to the problem. That is why melt drainage is required.


Then and now

Ice making and storage in homes is a 20th Century phenomenon. We know that the Romans stored snow and ice for long periods in special masonry rooms. They transported oysters packed in seaweed in the holds of their ships from England to Rome. When Julius Ceasar wants a good oyster, somebody damn well better find a way to have one. Casanova had no ice box in Paris and had to make a trip to the market each morning for fresh oysters. No oysters can be found along the Seine in Paris. It is fresh water. They must have arrived by boat. We wonder how he managed in the summer. Perhaps he had a cellar with a deep hole in the ground. Or perhaps he had a summer place in Brittany.

The ultimate goal

The ultimate goal of anyone who shucks their own oysters is trust. Live oysters have shells. You cannot see inside their shells. You must find a market that you trust that includes shellfish attendees who are knowledgeable about oysters. They, in turn, will present oysters they trust. As consumers, we want our markets to know more about what they sell than we do. We want them to share their knowledge with us. The markets must trust their own sources of seafood. They don’t harvest their shellfish. They trust their suppliers. Eventually, we must all trust Mother Nature. The quality of an oyster stems from the waters where it dwells. The success of our search for quality is dependent upon theirs. Our search for quality often begins with a building. Theirs begins with a healthy ocean.



About Harbor Fish - why it works so well

If you look closely at this photo, you may ask yourself a simple question: How does a fish market that does not mention oysters on its store front sell 100 bags of 100 oysters a week? Well, it helps to be located on the historic waterfront of Portland, Maine in the same location since 1969. Harbor Fish was founded by Ben Alfiero and continues today to be owned and run by the Alfiero family. When you walk inside, it is about as close as possible to being a working fishing boat on dry land. For some employees, who are former fishermen, it’s the next best thing. The photos in this issue were all taken at Harbor Fish. It is a fun place to be. But the real secret to its oyster success lies elsewhere.

The State of Maine fosters aquaculture through education. University of Maine programs have been instrumental in encouraging, educating, and training oyster farmers for many years. UMaine also continually educates the general public about aquaculture, marine science, and shellfish safety.

Longtime OI friend and reviewer Dana Morse has personally spearheaded oyster aquaculture development through both the Maine Sea Grant College Program and UMaine Cooperative Extension Program. Maine's Department of Marine Resources manages a volunteer Red Tide monitoring program that has served as the model for the region. Maine has its own shellfish research community, hatcheries, and more signature high quality oyster farms than any other New England state.

Many of the farmers sell their oysters through Harbor Fish. The reason Harbor Fish is so successful is that it sells high quality oysters – grown locally. It is a symbiotic relationship. When oyster disease hit Maine a few years ago, Harbor Fish came to the aid of its oyster farmer friends – continuing to buy their healthy products and passing along profits from higher prices to them. A family business selling local products – sounds good to me!

Harbor Fish sells enough oysters from elsewhere in the region to satisfy Portland's culinary curiosity. The surrounding Portland business community has also responded recently with an increased number of raw bars – their selection often mirrors that of Harbor Fish. They emphasize Maine shellfish.

When the ice melts in the ice tables at Harbor Fish, it empties into a floor drain. The drainage flows into the waste water system and eventually returns to the sea. Ed.



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