Why You Should Eat Local Oysters

Fresh, live oysters are a curious delicacy, causing some to react with moans of pleasure and others with groans of disgust, but how many in that second group have ever actually tasted one? Here’s how, when, where and why they should suck it up and suck one down.

At The Franklin in Portsmouth
Photo by Greta Rybus

If you think about it, “the world is your oyster” is an awfully strange phrase. Congratulations! We tell our college graduates and bright young things. The world is your one-dollar piece of shellfish!

Most people are too scared of oysters to eat them, and those who are willing must struggle mightily to get them open. That latter difficulty, in fact, is where this idiom originated — with a Shakespearean ne’er-do-well saying he would cut the world open with his sword just like you’d cut through an oyster with your pocketknife.

So why has this quip stuck around through the centuries? Given the possibility that any shucked oyster might contain a pearl, the notion of potential may have something to do with it. And if there’s one thing that the New Hampshire oyster industry has in droves, potential is it.

“New Hampshire oysters are awesome for so many reasons,” says Keith Sarasin, founder of The Farmers Dinner and owner of the newly opened Greenleaf restaurant in Milford. In addition to being a sustainable product (and a tasty and nutritious one), he explains, they’re especially well suited to a Granite State growing environment. “It’s something that, for New Hampshire, can help put us on the map a little more.”

Jay Baker, a former fisheries scientist and the co-founder of Fat Dog Shellfish, agrees.

Jay Baker
Courtesy photo

“A lot of people think of the south shore of Massachusetts or the Damariscotta region of Maine as producing the highest-quality oysters. And they do — they produce great oysters,” he says. But our local products are nothing to scoff at. “We’re producing a very high-quality oyster that can stand up to any oyster in the region.”

“It’s just getting the word out that we’ve got great oysters in New Hampshire that come from a really spectacular bay.”

That bay — the Great Bay, to use its synonymic proper name — is, in some ways, the main character in the story of New Hampshire’s oyster industry.

It would be easy to assume that, as with other types of seafood or maritime activity, our state’s small footprint in the oyster scene is due simply to our smaller coastline. But oysters are not exactly a coastline animal.

For as long as there have been people in the Granite State, there has, in all likelihood, been oyster harvesting in the Great Bay. Though little is definitively known about the bay’s history before 1900, one need look no further than the name of the Oyster River to imagine how abundant the bivalves once were. It’s easy to visualize: A Colonial family, living in what we’d now call Durham or Portsmouth, goes to the water one day and notices edible little shellfish coating the riverbed. They grab a few for dinner, then pass on to their friends the same trick.

Fox Point Oysters
Photo by John Benford

Multiply that by a few hundred years and add in an ever-industrializing society bent on damming the rivers, operating waste-inducing factories, and building neighborhoods with million-dollar water views, and the Great Bay begins to lose a bit of its greatness.

The Nature Conservancy estimates that, in 1970, up to 1,000 acres of live oyster reef lined the bay. Today, we’re at less than 10% of that figure — and more than our bivalve intake has taken a hit because of it.

“One of the things that most estuaries suffer from, in New England and worldwide, is over-enrichment with nutrients,” says Baker. “So the bay’s response — and we’ve seen this in Great Bay — is these algae blooms. And that can make the water look really green and kind of pretty, but it really limits the ability of sunlight to penetrate to the bottom.”

Without adequate sun, species die off and the entire ecosystem is put at risk.

“But the beautiful thing about oysters is, they’re filter feeders,” he explains.

An oyster’s diet consists entirely of the phytoplankton and algae that flow through its shell, which makes the critter a natural water filter. When algae is filtered out before it can become an ecosystem-altering problem, the health of the estuary at large improves.

“It’s just all-around good for the bay,” he says.

Fox Point Oysters is one of 15 farmers operating in the Great Bay. Oysters help filter the water, ultimately improving the health of the bay.
Photo by John Benford

Restoring the health of a compromised ecosystem requires many plans of action, but in the Great Bay, the simplest solution is also among the best: Just add oysters. The Nature Conservancy and the University of New Hampshire launched an oyster restoration project in the bay in 2009, and the local chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association — perhaps best known as the sponsors of the annual Oysterpalooza food festival — followed suit shortly after with an initiative of their own.

The Oyster Shell Recycling Program, says the project’s manager, Dave Beattie, is “just a win-win.” One of the biggest hurdles for restaurateurs looking to serve oysters is the amount of waste produced by all those empty shells. Through the recycling program, CCA takes those husks off of restaurant owners’ hands and stores them, before working with the Nature Conservancy to redistribute them into Great Bay. Once placed, the empty shells become crucial bedrock for the regenerating live oyster reef.

Many types of restoration and conservation work can boost the health of the bay, but Beattie says that some are either too technical or too controversial to gain widespread public acceptance. Curtailing waterfront development and easing up on water-repellent blacktop paving, for example, are both useful for the ecosystem, but they’re not likely to earn a stamp of approval from a Seacoast transplant looking for a bay-view home.

Shell recycling, on the other hand, is easy to appreciate.

“You’re taking away waste, you’re helping the bay, and you’re making people aware of the issues of the bay,” he explains. “We’ve yet to find anyone who doesn’t say, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea!’”

As counterintuitive as it may seem, oyster farming is another critical method for rebuilding the critter’s numbers in the bay. Where most fishing operates by plucking from the water a creature that’s already there, oyster aquaculture relies on a growing structure. On an oyster farm, baby bivalves — like seeds for the herb garden in your backyard — are brought in from elsewhere and planted where the conditions are favorable for them to grow. Oyster farmers in the bay cultivate them and, once they reach maturity, harvest them to distribute to local restaurants and consumers. In the process, the growing oysters filter the waters of the bay, essentially cleaning their own habitat as they live in it.

Laura Brown of Dover-based Fox Point Oysters at work in the bay
Photo by John Benford

“You can’t have too many oysters,” says Laura Brown, owner of Dover-based farm Fox Point. A former artist who pivoted into oyster farming in 2012, Brown is one of 15 farmers currently operating in the bay — a tight-knit group of boutique growers who she says are “doing it right.”

“I catch my oysters every day. I get in there. I clean them all the time,” she says. “I’m raising the best oyster I can raise.”

Laura Brown
Photo by John Benford

The built-in quality control of small enterprises like Brown’s is great news for New Hampshire foodies.

Though oysters — and oyster bars — have enjoyed many periods of popularity over the past couple of centuries, The New York Times traces the origins of the latest wave to 2014. It was around then, they say, that inventive new raw bars began popping up in cities like New York and Los Angeles. By 2015, the trend had come to Portsmouth.

“We kind of pushed the issue with The Franklin,” says Matt Louis, head chef of the city’s original new-wave raw bar. “Jay [McSharry, a Seacoast restaurateur] always had the idea of opening an oyster bar. When the space became available, he brought me there to see what I thought.”

Row 34 in Portsmouth
Photo by Greta Rybus

The James Beard semifinalist agreed that the idea seemed promising, and in May 2015, The Franklin Oyster House was born. Though other bivalve-centric establishments followed — one, the Boston transplant Row 34, debuted just a day after Franklin — Louis says that the oyster bar as hip eatery wasn’t initially an obvious fit for the Granite State.

“When we opened and started doing it, the public was definitely a little taken aback,” he admits. “Many people didn’t even know there were oysters in Great Bay, and others were skeptical about eating them.”

Yet Louis and McSharry were passionate.

“I really thought, ‘We have this amazing resource right in our backyard, but no one is really showing it off,’” Louis says.

Today, the menu at The Franklin (“Oyster House” was dropped from the name last year) features a rotating cast of local oyster producers, whose single-digit distances from the restaurant are listed down to the tenth of a mile.

Local oysters at a hotspot like The Franklin or Row 34 don’t come cheap, but Brown says the rising prices represent a serious increase in quality over the old “buck-a-shuck” model.

“You have to realize that, with buck-a-shuck, the restaurants are getting you in to buy alcohol and other food,” she says. “They’re not making a penny on those oysters. If you want it fresh and you want it good, you’re going to have to pay more than a dollar for it.”

Oysters like Fox Point’s can reach $3-$4 apiece on raw-bar menus — pricier than the average bivalve, but still less than it would cost to add an order of fries to your meal at the Seacoast’s tonier spots. And, in the oysters’ case, the price tag brings with it a serious history.

“It takes 2 ½ to three years to raise one single oyster,” Brown explains. “People ask, ‘What makes your farm different?’ Well, what makes a wine different? What makes a beer different? Everybody puts the same three things in beer, but boy, does it taste different.”

New Hampshire’s oyster farmers often refer to their products’ “merroir,” a spin on the wine industry’s terroir that describes the conditions in which an oyster was grown. Even though local farms are confined to one limited stretch of Great Bay — the majority of the estuary is protected as a wildlife reserve — the oyster’s filtering function means that each batch will taste different from the next, depending on what flowed through the water in any given inch.

In addition to providing locavore bona fides, buying your oysters in a restaurant setting can also eliminate some of the fear factor that comes with consuming the only animal that humans eat while it’s still alive.

“I think it’s great to go to a restaurant and try them,” says Baker, of Fat Dog. “Most restaurants are carrying half a dozen or more varieties at any given time, and there’s a shucker there.”

Fat Dog’s farm manager works as a shucker at a Portsmouth restaurant when he’s not in the bay, and Baker says the role is similar to another custom borrowed from the wine world: the sommelier.

Chef Matt Louis
Photo by Greta Rybus

“They can recommend, ‘If you’re new and you want to try something small, try this one. If you like salty foods, this oyster might be saltier than this one,’” he says. “They can guide you.”

Andrea Tomlinson, the manager of New Hampshire Community Seafood, explains that there’s no reason to fear eating New Hampshire’s oysters at home. The industry is highly regulated by authorities like New Hampshire Fish and Game, and the vibrio infections that can plague some southern oysters almost never appear in the colder waters of New England. But nevertheless, opting for a restaurant oyster rather than an at-home one is a critical part of the consciousness-raising that experts say the local industry still needs.

“We have to educate the consumer on why New Hampshire oysters are so great,” says Sarasin. “And that starts with the owners and the restaurants. I think it’s really important that we all come together and say, ‘Let’s buy New Hampshire oysters. Let’s train our staff on New Hampshire oysters. Let’s get this onto our customers’ plates.’”

This month, Granite Staters will have two exceptional opportunities to fill their plates with the bay’s finest. The Stone Church Music Club in Newmarket will host its annual Oyster Festival on September 14, and on September 30, CCA’s Oysterpalooza will take up residence at Portsmouth’s Liars Bench Beer Co.

“Oysterpalooza is an amazing fundraiser for the Coastal Conservation Association,” says Louis, a co-organizer of the event since 2016, “and it brings so much awareness to the Great Bay and the local oyster scene.”

Featuring a statewide shucking competition and fresh-harvested goods from farms including Fox Point and the nearby Virgin Oyster Company, the festival dedicates monies raised to CCA’s shell recycling program.

“We’ve been shocked at the outpouring of attendees and the support from them,” says Beattie, the recycling program chair. Outlets as far-ranging as the Portland Press Herald and WCVB Boston’s “Chronicle” — not to mention New Hampshire Magazine — have featured the festival since its inception in 2011, and Beattie says he’s continually surprised by both the press attention and the impressive crowds.

“I figured this would eventually go the way of [fads like] cigars in the ’90s, but it’s been strong now for years,” he says. “It’s oyster this, oyster that. It’s great.”

“People are interested in foods that are connected to the place where they live,” adds Baker. “That’s driven the demand for oysters, but it’s also driven the rise in local craft beers and local wineries and people being interested in local farms and CSAs. I think that’s all tied together.”

For her part, Brown has made local eating a way of life at home, shopping locally whenever possible and only eating meat that comes from farmers she personally knows. She advocates for a similar level of awareness when it comes to your seafood.

“I think people need to ask a thousand questions about oysters,” she says. “On my website, we have frequently asked questions. Read those. And if you have more questions, email me! Come and ask me.”

In talking with New Hampshire’s oyster farmers, a consumer can learn all kinds of facts that you wouldn’t pick up from the seafood department at the grocery store. For starters, there’s the nutrients: Brown points out that oysters are rich in zinc, vitamin D and particularly protein — the last of which, she says, is the reason for the fish’s aphrodisiacal reputation. (“Slam a couple protein bars and you’ll be pretty ready to go too,” she jokes.) Talking directly with your suppliers can also help demystify the product.

Tomlinson offers local oysters as part of New Hampshire Community Seafood’s “community-supported fishery” project, and each week members receive recipe suggestions with their haul. Farmers, too, can recommend both places to try their oysters and techniques for whipping some up at home. Tomlinson’s favorite method is to simply toss your oysters on the grill and wait for them to open on their own, while Brown favors anything that matches your taste while minimizing fuss. Her cardinal rule? “It doesn’t have to be hard.”

“Anything new in life can be intimidating and scary,” adds Louis. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.”

Like the bay that produces them, New Hampshire’s oysters have some hurdles to overcome before they reach their full potential. But with time, attention, and a bit of hard work, the bivalves might just become the pearl of the Granite State food scene.

“I don’t think we’ve hit the precipice of where New Hampshire oysters could be yet,” says Sarasin. “We live in, arguably, one of the best places in the world for seafood. We’d better get it right.”

Categories: Food & Drink