Shucked oysters seen as revenue makers
Posted Aug 12, 2020 at 8:20 AM, Cape Codder Newspaper
By Doreen Leggett
WELLFLEET — For many people it is impossible to think about Wellfleet without thinking about oysters, too.
But with dramatic growth in the shellfish aquaculture industry, there are a lot more oysters available from a lot more places. The increased supply causes prices to dip, particularly in the fall.
“For Wellfleet this is particularly concerning as oystering is a 400-year old tradition in our community. An estimated 25 percent of the year-round, working-age population make their living from the shellfishing industry,” said Michele Insley, the executive director of Wellfleet Shellfish Promotion and Tasting, S.P.A.T, a non-profit devoted to sustaining the town’s shellfishing and aquaculture industries.
So Insley was all in when S.P.A.T was asked to collaborate on a new project — Market Development to Diversify Shellfish Aquaculture Products in Massachusetts.
One initiative that came out of the project responds to current oyster realities: Most oysters are eaten in restaurants, most people don’t know how to shuck them, and in the Northeast oysters on the half shell account for more than 95 percent of sales.
“So as part of this market development project, we thought we would explore shucked oysters, getting them opened locally (and economically) and made available for chefs and consumers,” Insley said.
The idea is that shucked oysters could provide a new revenue outlet for Cape oysters that are too big or ugly to be presented in a raw bar.
Enlisting help from the Cape Cod & Islands Chefs Association, the partners — Barnstable County Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, Woods Hole Sea Grant, S.P.A.T and Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance — used funding from NOAA Sea Grant to have chefs try a variety of recipes. Each recipe was made twice, one with oysters from Falmouth and one with Maryland oysters.
“The oyster shucking trials were an opportunity to allow chefs to work with this product to build demand at the restaurant level and the exceptional dishes that they created can also inspire the home cook,” Insley said.
Things went well for the Cape oyster, which earned top ratings in all categories – from saltiness to flavor to ease of use.
“The chefs put together an incredible array of recipes,” said Abigail Archer of the Barnstable County Cooperative Extension and Sea Grant. “Maryland is formidable, but Cape oysters came out on top.”
The rave reviews should help, as now most shucked oysters come from the Chesapeake Bay or Washington State.
“The Marylands weren’t bad, and if we were served them, we certainly wouldn’t be disappointed. But … we are confident that the Capes would be the favorite,” one chef wrote in response to a survey Archer distributed.
“The overwhelming feedback was that chefs are excited about the possibility of a local shucked oyster and would prefer to use it, even as a frozen product, over a shucked oyster from ‘away,’” said Melissa Sanderson of the Fishermen’s Alliance.
“The challenge is that there are no regional shucking houses with capacity to add oysters to their business. Hopefully the positive response from the chefs will encourage at least one shucking house to take on Cape Cod oysters. Fingers crossed that Cape Cod shucked oysters will soon be available throughout the menu, not just on the raw bar, and that this will be a tasty solution to the autumn drop in oyster prices.”
Michael Beriau, one of the chefs who participated, was quick to point out that he and other chefs would be willing to pay a premium for a local oyster. The buy fresh-buy local movement is strong on the Cape.
The Cape growers “are our brothers and sisters, they are in our backyard,” Beriau said. “I’ll do anything in my power to help.”
Doreen Leggett is community journalist and communications officer at Cape Cod Commercial Fisherman’s Alliance. The Fishing Life appears monthly.