If the cold bites, sink your teeth into tasty oysters

February 21, 2007|By ROB KASPER

When the waters are cold, when the snow falls, when skies turn oyster gray - that is when it is time to enjoy oysters.

These conditions aligned recently, creating prime bivalve-eating opportunities. On a brisk, biting-cold Saturday afternoon, I hustled over to Lexington Market and warmed my innards with a creamy bowl of oyster stew at Faidley's Seafood.

I bought two pints of shucked Chesapeake Bay oysters and carried them home. It was so cold, the jars did not have to be packed in ice; they stayed plenty chilly in the car trunk.

The next evening, as the skies thickened, my wife and I made an oyster pie. About two dozen Chesapeakes swam in a rich blend of spices, onions, peppers, celery and milk wrapped in a double piecrust. Winter, normally a dreary season, took a sudden lift.

It has been a decent season for East Coast oysters, according to Kurt Friesland of J.J. McDonnell Inc., a wholesale seafood operation in Jessup. Searching up and down the East Coast for shellfish, Friesland supplies a number of Baltimore-area restaurants, including McCormick & Schmick's, Oceanaire, Greystone Grill and Bluestone.

The oyster harvest in New England and points north has been slowed recently by weather, he said. But oystermen, he pointed out, are resourceful types. For example, he said, one supplier in Canada's Prince Edward Island harvests oysters by driving trucks out on a frozen bay, cutting through the ice with a chain saw and pulling up floats of oysters that had been planted there. Decades ago, the waters of the Chesapeake Bay provided much of the oysters for the nation. But now the Maryland harvest, which last year was 154,000 bushels, is a mere trickle in the national supply line.

In a phone conversation from Tilghman Island, Levin F. "Buddy" Harrison III told me tales of the glory years of Eastern Shore oysters. As the Christmas holidays approached, he and other Eastern Shore packers used to load ice-packed barrels of Chesapeake Bay oysters onto a train that stopped in St. Michaels, he said. The train would hurry the oysters to customers in the Midwest who, keeping their barrels in a cold spot, would feast on oysters through New Year's Day. "Having a barrel of Chesapeake oysters in your house was a leg up," a sign of prestige, Harrison said.

The barrels were heavy, and work was rough. "It was bull work; you needed two men to roll those barrels," he said. Eventually, sometime in the late 1970s, Harrison thinks, cardboard boxes replaced the wooden barrels, refrigerated trucks replaced the train, and the barrel era ended.

Nowadays, much of the nation's traffic in oysters moves from west to east. I got a quick read on the state of the Northwest oyster from Jon Rowley, who runs a seafood consulting business in Seattle.

Rowley told me he had just returned from a raw-oyster soiree. He and some members of the Seattle chapter of the International Association of Culinary Professionals had sampled plate after plate of raw Olympias, Pacifics and Virginicas (a Chesapeake Bay transplant), which had just been pulled from the waters of the Totten Inlet in the Puget Sound.

These oysters were in top form, he said. They didn't even need a touch of lemon. The flavor of an oyster, Rowley reminded me, is largely determined by the waters it resides in and the foods it eats. These particular oysters, he said, were benefiting from almost ideal conditions. "There was something about the algae the oysters were eating ... the temperature of the water, cool but not too cold, that made them just wonderful," he said.

Most of the West Coast mollusks are harvested from grounds that oystermen lease, a practice that traces its roots to the days of the California Gold Rush, Rowley said.

In the 1850s, ships would steam into the Puget Sound, shovel oysters into their cargo holds, then hurry to California, where they sold oysters to the hungry gold-mining crowds. The plundering devastated the supply of Puget Sound oysters, irritated the local watermen and led to laws treating shellfish beds as a type of rental property, where watermen can reap what they sow, Rowley told me.

I thanked Rowley for the history lesson and hung up the phone. I felt envious of Rowley's rendezvous with those crisp, raw West Coast oysters, but not for long. Soon I was home, comforting myself with a second helping of oyster pie.


Oyster-Bacon Pie

Serves 6

1/2 pound bacon, chopped

1/4 cup flour

1 cup chopped onions

1/2 cup chopped bell peppers

1/2 cup chopped celery

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 bay leaves

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1/2 cup chopped green onions

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

2 cups milk

2 dozen shucked oysters, well drained

1 double piecrust (see recipe)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Fry the bacon in a large skillet over medium-high heat until crisp. With a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a platter and drain on paper towels. Set aside.

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