“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.” —Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
Known for his stark minimalist style, Hemingway, in this homage to the briny bivalve, is far from minimalist. In fact, he exemplifies an appreciation for the not yet coined word “merroir.” Most of us are familiar with the concept of “terroir,” the understanding that our food, wine, chocolate, coffee and so on are directly influenced by geography and climate. This concept is not limited to terra firma; shellfish, in particular oysters, take on the distinct flavor of the body of water where they are grown, hence the expression “merroir.”
“You are what you eat,” proclaims Chris Quartuccio, CEO of Blue Island Oyster Company. “Whatever it is about Great South Bay, it produces an oyster that people prefer over anything else out there.” In 1995, after many years of diving for wild oysters on the North Shore, Quartuccio started Blue Island Oyster Company, based in West Sayville. Quartuccio’s mission was simple and honest: “to put a real genuine Blue Point oyster back on the market.”
Genuine Blue Point oysters are “born” in the farm’s hatchery, located at their West Sayville facility. In rows of large deep troughs, Great South Bay water is constantly circulated around the tiny baby oysters known as spat. The spat thrive on the nutrient-rich water until they have grown to a size that is large enough to handle the elements, out at the farm. The spat is then transferred to Blue Island’s four-acre farm, located just southeast of Captree Island, in western Great South Bay. At the farm, the spat are grown to market size, employing the French “rack and bag” method. “Little known story,” explains oyster farmer Chuck Westfall, “after the Second World War, oyster farmers in Normandy, France, took advantage of thousands of military field bed frames that were left abandoned by the Allied G.I.s. They repurposed the frames into racks that could then hold the bags of spat in an intertidal zone.” While more labor intensive, growing oysters in an intertidal zone, where mesh bags are held (in racks) above the water line at low tide and below at high tide, allows the oysters to size up nicely and creates a deep cup inside the shell, rendering an oyster that is ideal for “slurping off the half-shell.”
Whether it is the salinity, algae or mineral content of the Great South Bay, Blue Point oysters reflect the distinctive depth of flavor of the water from where they were grown, echoing that “sense of place” that is merroir. “There is no oyster that has had as much attention as the Blue Point oyster,” asserts Quartuccio, “historically, they were the finest. They were the oyster that the Europeans demanded and the first oyster shipped to Europe.” Queen Victoria was a fan. The popularity of Blue Point oysters inevitably triggered an onslaught of counterfeiting and piracy. In the early 1900s, the oyster market became flooded with similar-looking oysters bearing the Blue Point name. Imitation is not always the sincerest form of flattery, so in 1908, the New York State Legislature passed a law stating:
“No person, firm or corporation shall sell or offer for sale any oysters, or label or brand any package containing oysters for shipment or sale, under the name Blue Point oysters, other than oysters that have been planted or cultivated at least three months in the waters of Great South Bay in Suffolk County.”
As this was (and still is) a state law, New York had no jurisdiction over oyster entrepreneurs in neighboring states, therefore, proliferation of the non-genuine article continued. “Blue Points are the only oysters that are protected by a ‘designation of origin’ law,” explains Quartuccio. “This can be confusing and not fair to the consumer. If any oyster shouldn’t be confusing, it’s the Blue Point. There is a town called Blue Point. There is a law that protects the oyster. Legally, oyster growers in other states can call their oysters Blue Points. Morally and ethically, that is another story,” says Quartuccio, his voice trailing off.
Inspired by the spirit of the Slow Food movement, Quartuccio aims to “bring back foods that were virtually extinct.” He points out, “Blue Point oysters weren’t brought here, they were here first. This bay is, once again, capable of producing millions of dollars in oysters,” then continues, “The quality of the bay is good. The breach, from Sandy, helped, but brown tide, which affects the growth of shellfish and is not harmful to humans, is a continual problem. If we did not have brown tides, we would have a serious oyster industry here. The clams would come back, too, and there would literally be hundreds of jobs out there.” In conclusion he states, “We are growing a western Suffolk County product, shipped all over the United States, creating jobs for hardworking baymen in the great State of New York.”
If your interest in the genuine article has been piqued, Quartuccio and his team run summertime kayaking tours of their facility, which include lunch at the old bait station/converted farm off Captree Island. “Where else can you go this far west on Long Island and pick your own oysters? It’s like pick-your-own pumpkins. You can shuck them and eat them right down on the farm. Kayak the farm,” trumpets this ever-optimistic and visionary bayman. Blue Island also markets diver-harvested Naked Cowboy oysters (yes, the Times Square Naked Cowboy), from the Long Island Sound (but that is a whole other story).
Perhaps this bayman could take a bit of literary license from Hemingway: Eat oysters. Drink wine. Be happy. Make plans.