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Artisans: Island Creek Oysters: A Celebration of Sustainable Farming and Bivalve Deliciousness

I had my own personal Oyster Festival this weekend. While Island Creek Oysters is holding their 6th annual celebration of all things oyster Saturday, September 10th in Duxbury Bay, MA, I cannot attend. Instead, I designed my own Island Creek Experience, and I tell you, it was three days of oyster heaven.

It began with a dinner with friends at their city outpost, the one-year old Island Creek Oyster Bar on Commonwealth Avenue in the Kenmore Square area of Boston. I love this place, even though it breaks some of my rules about ambiance. Sure, it’s part of a giant hotel, and yes, it’s giant itself, and certainly, it definitely has too many Red Sox fans cluttering its parking and bar … but it keeps winning me over despite these qualms. The staff is amazing. I even ate dinner next to one of them in Montreal at Au Pied du Cochon, so I know they have the same culinary requirements and aspirations that I do. Their drinks are as tailored and impressive as at Drink, the local place that gets all the attention for having a truly inspired bar program, which they absolutely do. And, the food. Goodness. I’ve had lobster sliders here, fried oyster sliders, platters and platters of raw oysters with sweet mignonette, striped bass terrine, house smoked salmon, ahi tuna tartare … and need I go into the perfection that was the warm jelly doughnut I had for dessert? I won’t tempt you further. They have an extensive dessert wine list, all the amaros and aperitifs you could ask for, and a well-chosen wine list as well. I sit at the bar every time, so I can’t vouch for table service, but I always feel welcomed and as if the employees love what they’re doing. It’s a professional and appreciative staff; of one another, of the customer, and of the establishment.

Island Creek Oysters

But it’s the design of the restaurant that will transport you back to their roots. The walls cage in thousands of oyster shells, floor to ceiling. Other walls, the bar, and the reception area are made to resemble to wooden bridges of Duxbury. The whole place reminds you of sand and of the sea. I am happy to be transported to the beachy south shore without leaving Kenmore Square, but what I did the next day raised this experience to a new level.

We arrived in Duxbury for the morning low tide. This tiny town is full of big, summertime trees and sweet little shops. There’s even a Danish ice cream shop and a place that all employees of Island Creek swear offers the best fish sandwich you’ve ever had. We met up with Chris Sherman, head of marketing, and set off in a Jeep with no doors. Chris was wearing a Hog Island hat, their cohorts raising oysters in Marin County. I love Hog Island, and knew when I saw that hat, that these were my people.

Duxbury Bay

We drove down the famed Washington Street, apparently famous for its beautiful cottages and homes built by the shipbuilders who used to populate the area. Chris tells us that Duxbury used to be one of the top shipbuilding ports in the nation, but that changed once ship design began to include a larger keel; the shallow waters of the bay couldn’t support these boats. The last ship built in Duxbury was reportedly launched only to immediately get stuck in the mud. Nevertheless, these shipbuilders built charming and lovely homes too.

We arrived at the docks to find that our boat had been borrowed—by the owner of the company, Skip Bennett—and that we’d have to wait. We decided then to start in the nursery in order to see every step of the oyster growing process. In a nondescript part of a giant boat storage barn is the beginning of all Island Creek oysters. In something akin to a chemistry lab, the oyster growing process is designed for minimal inputs and efficiency. In giant tubs, oysters grow from the size of 1/10th of the size of a flake of black pepper to an actual flake size. Through a system of water circulation tanks and containers made of nearly-invisibly fine mesh, countless numbers of oyster babies have their start. In beakers lining the walls, Island Creek makes its own algae in order to assure perfect nutrition for the oysters as they grow. They also make sure that the oysters have plenty of water circulation, something that helps form strong healthy shells and oysters quickly. These efforts help them grow harvestable oysters in 18 months, whereas most other oysters we eat grow in about two to three years.

Second stage- tiny, baby oysters

Culling, sorting and sizing on the barge after harvest

Island Creek does something else I found innovative and smart; they inoculate the tub of water housing the oyster seeds (first stage oyster growth) with eggshells. The shells act as a calcitic agent that bonds to the oyster seeds, helping to form individual shells for each one. Wild oysters, Chris explains, would bond together and form a cluster, forcing them to compete for space and therefore make their shells irregular and unpredictable in shape. This method, the use of egg shells from chickens that live at their office and roam free, ensures that each shell will have a deep, rounded cup and a nice appearance. To complete the cycle, the chickens consume a fair amount of oyster shells, something that hardens and strengthens their eggs. It is this attention to detail and creativity in farming methods that has made Island Creek oysters a staple offering at top restaurants, including those of famed chef Thomas Keller. When sorting, there’s even a box for pulling out the absolute best oysters, simply referred to as Per Se, the Keller outpost in New York City.

Once the oyster seeds are the size of a flake of pepper, they are moved down to the docks into the upweller. Housed in boxes made with silos and more fine mesh, there are 800,000 oysters in each, initially weighing only two pounds. The upweller, built directly into the dock and situated beneath it in the bay water, is the only energy intensive time in the growing process, for they need pumps to circulated the water. Otherwise, the company is actually carbon negative, they say, using solar energy for the bit of energy they do need. This, combined with the water filtering abilities of oysters makes for an organization that is truly benefiting the environment.

Shucking lesson, step one. Lollipop Oyster. Julia Frost photo.

We swerved around the moored boats, making our way to the farms further out. Marked by buoys and netting, the oysters that numbered 800,000 and weighed two pounds in the upweller, now have the space to grow to 280,000 pounds and to take up an entire acre. The farms are just like plots of agricultural land, although they never need to lie fallow, that are rotated in use.  Abutting the farms is Clarks Island, where the Mayflower landed, home of the Plymouth Rock and namesake for the county. The Miles Standish Monument faces the island, visible as it juts out from the landscape. Chris mentions that Truman Capote wrote part of In Cold Blood there too, making it all the more famed.

We made it to the barge just as the farmers were returning with the morning’s harvest. After immediately poking fun at the dinghy, they welcomed us in and showed us around. They were culling, meaning sorting and cleaning the day’s catch. I donned a pair of gloves and jumped in to help. Sorting by size, shape and beauty, the oysters were separated into different crates. It was here I learned of the Per Se specific crate. Now that’s service.

We chatted about throwing a dinner party on the barge, something that the crew likes to do every once in a while. Chris gave us a shucking lesson with delicious results, and we snapped a million photographs, trying to grasp this incredible experience. We were eating freshly harvested oysters that still had mud on them. It was lovely.

Crack the hinge, turn the knife to remove the top shell. Julia Frost photo.

Separate oyster from shell, don't scramble it! Julia Frost photo.

We left Duxbury, bellies full of fish sandwiches and the taste and smell of oysters still palpable. We jumped in the ocean first though, completing the perfect seaside day.

But that’s not it. We threw a party the next night in Gloucester and Island Creek was hired to cater. With a wooden skiff full of crushed ice and laden with seaweed, they shucked oysters and little neck clams and filled the bow with shrimp cocktail. It was indulgent, to say the least, and the perfect way to end my weekend celebration of the coolest oyster company around.

Eat at Island Creek Oyster Bar in Boston: 500 Commonwealth Ave http://islandcreekoysterbar.com/

Take a tour in Duxbury: https://islandcreekoysters.myshopify.com/

Hire the skiff for your next party: https://islandcreekoysters.myshopify.com/pages/catering

Attend the Friends for Haiti Benefit and the Island Creek Oyster Festival:

September 9th and 10th, 2011, http://www.islandcreekfoundation.org/festival

Skip arriving at the oyster barge

Editor's Note: Have a question or comment? Leave a message in the comments below.

Lauren BellLauren's interest in travel and food started young; she spent her childhood dreaming of living abroad, speaking foreign languages, and discovering the food of other places. While she's spent her time working toward attaining those goals, she has also gotten properly distracted at home in the US. She's lived all over California and New England: seeking out small farms, delicious eateries, and creative chefs and artists. She's enamored of all things artisanally made- be it food, wine, art, crafts...anything small scale, by hand and with love. She's the artisanal admirer. In an effort to emulate her talented friends, she has learned to make cheese, ran an urban, edible schoolyard garden, cooks, cans, and bakes pies. She dreams daily of moving to Europe to do the same there. Until then, she travels frequently, at home and abroad, works as a pastry chef, sells wine and cheese, and helps run a farm-to-table restaurant. She lives in Brooklyn with her Siamese cat, Henry.

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