In search of North Carolina oysters

CorrespondentNovember 26, 2006 

During the 20 years I've lived in Raleigh, I've been frustrated at how hard it can be to find North Carolina oysters. Now that it's oyster season, we get great oysters from other places, but where are the best from our own coast? Recently, I've gotten word of Triangle restaurants not only serving Tar Heel-bred oysters, but proudly declaring them as such on their menus.

Jason Smith at Raleigh's 18 Seaboard is just one of several chefs who are high on North Carolina oysters.

"They stand up to all sorts of flavors," he says. "They're nice and meaty, with a good briny flavor, but not overpoweringly briny like Gulf oysters. I think they're a good value and could compete on a national level."

Oystering in the state has taken a number of hard hits, from overfishing to diseases in the 1980s that severely crippled shellfish stocks. But in 2005, the oyster industry had bounced back to produce more than 70,000 bushels of oysters, says Nancy Fish, public information officer for the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries.

Contributing to the rebound, and pleasing chefs, are cultured oysters. These oysters are grown from tiny larvae to eating size in a farm environment, usually in mesh baskets near the water's surface. Farmed oysters are consistent in size and free of the mud found on conventional bottom-raised oysters.

They also reach harvest size in 14 to 15 months, versus three to four years for bottom oysters, says Jim Swartzenberg of J&B AquaFood. Swartzenberg and his wife, Bonnie, have been farming oysters and clams in Stump Sound at Holly Ridge since 1994, "but we've only had it down pat for the last two or three years," Swartzenberg says.

Swartzenberg, 65, a retired Marine, married into a shellfishing family in 1983. Bonnie Swartzenberg's 80-year-old mother still goes out with her to harvest oysters. Her father was killed in a boating accident while harvesting shellfish.

Swartzenberg had been teaching high school English, but decided he'd had enough of that. With information from North Carolina Sea Grant, he began experimenting with oyster culture on the family's state shellfish leases.

On an impossibly warm November day, Swartzenberg takes me into the sound to show me the oysters at different points in the growing process. We stop on the glittering water near grassy marshes and seagulls, not far from the shadows of homes and condos along Topsail Island.

"Nice office you've got here," I say.

Swartzenberg looks around and smiles. "Yeah, isn't it?"

The rectangular, flat mesh baskets float just below the surface, their contents clearly visible.

Swartzenberg began growing the oysters as larvae on crushed oyster shells in buckets and tanks onshore. Only native North Carolina oysters can be cultivated in the state for consumption.

Water from Stump Sound is piped in and aerated, and the oysters feed on algae in the water, as wild oysters do. Unlike in fish farming, nothing is added. Oysters clean the water, and cultivation is encouraged for that reason as well.

When the oysters reach about a half inch in size, which takes five to six weeks, Swartzenberg transfers them to the mesh baskets and places them in the sound. As the oysters get larger, he moves them to ever larger baskets -- he has 560 on his 100 acres of leases -- until harvest time.

The state tests waters where oysters grow at least once a month, more in the case of heavy rains that can cause runoff of pollutants.

As we head for shore, Swartzenberg points to a spot where 1,100 houses will be built just 50 to 75 yards from his dock. "The water down there is already bad," he says. "That's going to be a real problem."

Swartzenberg's cultivated oysters all go to a wholesaler for restaurants and are not available at retail, but he pulled one from an order for tasting. It was fat and moist, with a pleasingly briny flavor. He also raises some bottom oysters to sell to fish houses for the public.

Many things affect the flavor of oysters, but mainly it's the salinity of the water. The flavor can vary even from high to low tide, and by rainfall (dry weather makes brinier oysters).

"Normally, from Carteret County south the oysters are saltier, because there's a greater tidal exchange and the salinity of the water is higher," Fish says. "Off Hyde County, the water is not as salty, so they have a milder, less salty flavor."

I'm still in pursuit of oysters to take home, so a friend in Sneads Ferry takes me through winding roads, past ground chopped up for the foundations of new homes, to Grant's Oyster House.

This is a working fish house where fisherman bring their catches. We admire baskets brimming with fish and burlap sacks of oysters and clams while a man, whose face is as craggy as an oyster shell, pulls my half bushel.

"Are they North Carolina oysters?" I ask. He gives me a look that pegs me as Not From Around Here and says, "That's all I got."

I get the sack to my car, and when I return to pay, he's on the phone. He rants about development, how it's fouling the waters and driving fishermen out of business. "There won't be nothing here in 10 years," he grumbles.

Some of you may think that wouldn't be a great loss, as long as you can slurp down those fat Apalachicola oysters from Florida with a beer or taste delicate Kumamotos from the Northwest with champagne.

But when the last North Carolina oyster harvester puts away his boat, that's it -- it's over. A way of life and livelihood will be gone, in the process increasing our dependency on food from outside our borders.

And we'll lose some mighty good eating.

Reach writer Debbie Moose at moosedj2001@yahoo.com.

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