An oyster by any other name would still be Crassostrea Virginica. Well, at least the ones from the Rhode Island region. I woke up this morning and had the fine pleasure of joining Captain Matthew J. Behan and his crew, alongside culinary extraordinaire Brad Leone to go oyster farming. Though being raised with the beach as my literal backyard in Jamaica, this was my first time gathering oysters. Which was an experience I will never forget.
Brad, Jeremy, and I boarded Matthew's boat as he gave us the rundown of what we should expect for our trip onto the water to farm for oysters. Matthew, a graduate of URI [University of Rhode Island] owns and operates Behan Family Farms. Home of the Ninigret Nectar Oyster. He founded the company over 10 years ago after as he puts it, “pulling his dad out of retirement”. They have been able to build a great team and with quick thinking, kept the business afloat even during the hard times brought on by the Pandemic.
As the propellers kick in we leave the port and the shoreline slowly becomes a blur. We are met with the chill of the Rhone Island wind as it comes off the water. On the way to the oyster farm, Jeremy and I share stories of various not-so-common types of meat we enjoy cooking and eating. Jeremey the owner of three restaurants in New Finland, shares his love of moose and wild local herbs. I share my taste for rabbit and infused oils. It's a calm ride to the oyster farm and before we know it we are dropping anchor and the rest of Matthew's crew has caught up and joined us.
Matthew and his team member Cameron jump right into the water as if it were a heated pool, Brad, Jeremy, and I quickly but hesitantly follow him. The water is brisk, to say the least, but sadly not the coldest conditions I have been in. I once filmed a commercial standing in front of a frozen lake acting as if it were Spring time, but that’s a post for another day. After a few moments, my legs and body acclimates to the change in temp and I can begin to see the elegantly laid out map structure Matthew and his team had created for their oyster farm.
It's built on a grid system. Matthew explained this is done to make charting and forecasting much easier.
Without a doubt this is a laborious process, granted we did this in the fall when water temps and wind chills are much lower than the norm. However, it doesn’t stop the resistance and stability you need to fight that current to stay upright. All that coupled with hoisting large cages houses oysters and other sea life from the water. It's clear to see why Matthew says most of the team loses 30+ pounds within a few months of this job. It's taxing on the body but better than any gym membership. After navigating the farm, we began to collect the oysters and load them onto the boat. We only did a small fraction of what the team would do for the day but the number of oysters we collected in that time was unbelievable. Mind you it can take 2 to 3 years for these to get to viable market size.
We made our way back onto the boat, honestly, it took my legs a few seconds to work again but I made my way back aboard. Once onboard Matthew showed us his oyster sorter, which was a double-barreled tumbling machine constructed by his friend. It honestly reminded me of one of the transfers from, Transformers: Age of Extinction. It works with a simple motor, but like all things exposed to too much salt water and air it broke the day prior and Brad jumped in to propel it by hand. One thing about a lifestyle like this is that matter what the job must get done. Matthew told us of an employee who actually broke his arm and was back to work the next day, no excuse just hard work. Truly some of the hardest-working men and women I have ever met. The tumbler sorts the oysters into roughly small, medium, and market. With the small and mediums are packed back into the iron cages to be positioned back onto the farm until they are large enough to collect for the market. The Market crate is sorted once again by hand and that is where the true skill of a seasoned eye comes into play. As some oysters may still not be fully ready for market.
After sorting was complete, it was time to head back to shore. Matthew and his crew were kind enough to gift Brad, Jeremy, and me a bag of oysters to take with us to cook later in the evening. Of course, we couldn’t go the entire ride back and not shuck a few of the oysters, after all, we had worked up an appetite. We indulged in a few, well more than a few from our haul, and they we absolutely amazing. I do think I will ever have oysters as fresh as the ones I had that day. We arrived back on shore, and keeping with Matthew and his team's tradition had an ice-cold beer and an oyster to close out a day of hard work. We said our goodbyes, gathered our oysters and began our trip from Rhode Island to the Stone Acre Farm located in Connecticut, where Brad would prepare the freshly caught oysters utilizing Gozney pizza oven. Stay tuned for part two of this delicious oyster gathering and cooking experience.
Photos Courtesy of Correy Overton