The taste of place
To eat an oyster from Katama Bay is to, in a very real way, eat Katama Bay. The oysters there are conjured from their surroundings, from the calcium carbonate that precipitates out of the water column and gets reorganized as shell, to the algae the oyster filters, feeds on, and converts to more oyster. The same goes for Edgartown Great Pond, Tisbury Great Pond, and Menemsha Pond—slurp an oyster from anywhere on the Island and you’re slurping the distillation of a place.
This past April, at the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group’s Shellfish Extravaganza fundraiser, Vineyard residents were free to sample this range of Vineyard merior (those unique qualities of the ocean specific to where an oyster is raised, as terroir is the land qualities that produces a wine grape or coffee bean).
At the fundraiser, oyster farmer Scott Castro pulled a gleaming, knobby, ivory stone from the pile and flicked off the top shell as if he were opening a coke bottle. As Johnny Hoy crooned to the up-Island mob, Scott manned the most popular corner of the Chilmark Community Center. Spread before him were an array of his own Katama Bay oysters, marketed as Blue Moons, along with those of Roy Scheffer and Jack Blake, as well as wild oysters caught in Edgartown, Menemsha, and Tisbury Great Ponds. Was there a difference?
“Oh, absolutely,” he scoffed. “Just look at them.”
The shells range from flaky earthtones to purple-striated bone, but the differences inside are even more dramatic.
The most immediately obvious influence on an oyster is the salinity of the water it grows in—a fact that becomes strikingly apparent when tasting an oyster from Edgartown Great Pond before the annual opening that connects that body of water to the ocean, has been cut. The effect is jarring to gourmands accustomed to the brininess of Katama Bay.
“It’s not salty at all,” said Scott. “If you went back and had that same oyster, and the pond had been open for two weeks, it would be night and day.”
At the other extreme, Roy’s oysters, more than any others, are like swallowing seawater (with none of the ill effects). His operation is called Sweet Oyster Farm and markets them with the name Katama Bay oysters.
“My farm is on the Western end and his is on the Eastern end closer to the opening on Katama Bay,” said Scott, “so even within one body of water, there are subtleties.”
And those subtleties can change over time. What and how much an oyster eats— to wit, algae—has a profound affect on its taste.
Jack, who markets his oysters as Sweet Necks, has noticed a difference in his oysters since Norton Point was blown open in 2007, flooding the Bay with fresh salty water and limiting the residency of algal blooms.
“They’re saltier than they used to be,” Jack said. “As soon as that breach closes, all bets are off. Then it’s going to get warm, the oysters will start tasting sweeter. What will happen is the algae that’s in the water will multiply when [Norton Point] is closed. I just remember the water being so much greener [before the breach]. So dense with food. Now the algae doesn’t have a chance. Every time there’s a bloom, it’s out the harbor.”
“Years ago I can remember picking up cages when the breach was closed and I’d be downwind from the cage, and you could just smell the sweetness. It was like I know that smell, it’s what I taste.”
At the other end of the Island, oysters caught wild from Menemsha have an altogether different suite of flavors, as Rick Karney, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group explained.
“Wild oysters will pick up more of the flavors of the minerals on the bottom of the ponds,” he said. “They’ll have a little more of a metallic tang to them.”
Wild oyster shells are also often less classically shaped (most Island oyster growers tumble their shells to develop a deeper cup) and can become flaky if affected by a creature with the most redundant name in the animal kingdom: the boring sponge.
While nowadays oysters are safe to eat during any month of the year, the old maxim to eat oysters only in months with R’s still has a hint of truth. Vineyarders know that nothing beats a December oyster: one that’s plump, firm, and sweet. That sweetness comes from a build-up of glycogen, which the animal spends all fall cultivating to carry it through the winter months. In April and May the oysters again indulge in a feast on the spring algae bloom and develop a renewed sweetness. But by the end of the summer, the oysters are exhausted, having put all their energy into spawning. By the end of August the animals are little more than empty shells lined with watery gloop.
“In the winter the quality of the meat is better,” said Rick. “Even the texture of the meat will change with temperature. If you have animals from warmer water, the meat tends to be mushier. In the wintertime in cooler waters its almost got a crispness to it.”
When it all comes together—from the salinity and chemical composition of its home, to the algal diet and stage in its life cycle—nothing beats an oyster. And Island growers contend that nothing beats their oysters. It’s a rare protein that comes nearly guilt-free. Because it lacks a central nervous system, the enjoyment of eating an oyster is unaccompanied by the sorts of ethical qualms involved with, say, boiling a lobster alive. (Although, when shucking an oyster, one feels that initial desperate clench of the shell, which does give one pause. But not for long.)
Unsurprisingly, Jack often can’t resist on the job.
“There is quality control, we want to make sure they taste good,” he said wryly. “I’d say almost every day that we’re harvesting, we’ll try one or two. I haven’t been disappointed.”