by Alexandra Domrongchai on December 21, 2022 | Reprinted from Food & Wine

We believe that the best vacations are planned around eating, and food trails are one of the best ways to do that. Exploring a state’s regional cuisine through food trails lets you taste some of the best food that region has to offer, while also gaining a sense of its background and history. From Sonoran hot dogs in Arizona to South Carolina’s pimento cheese trail, these thirteen gourmet food trails are the coolest way to explore America.

North Carolina Oyster Trail

PHOTO: PAUL MANLEY

To protect their oysters, North Carolina went to war in the late 1800s. As a result, oyster farmers have committed themselves to maintaining the supply of oysters that are showcased on their oyster trail across the state. Check out Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham owned by James Beard Award-winning chef Ricky Moore or take a tour of Oysters Carolina at Harkers Island to explore the bounty of bivalve mollusks.

by Kathleen Squires on December 16, 2022 | Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal

Nothing says celebration like a seafood tower, and that classic extravagance is trending again just in time for your holiday party. Here’s your guide to all the gear, garnishes and gorgeous shellfish you’ll need to construct a proper show-stopper.

LET’S SEA The over-the-top extravagance of a seafood tower belies the relative ease of constructing one. Read on for pro tips from the chefs around the country putting creative spins on the classic.

IMMEDIATELY UPON entry to Deux Chats, the Art Nouveau-style bar/restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y., you’re greeted with an extravagant bar-top display of crab legs, lobster claws, shrimp, oysters, clams and sunny lemons, all perched on mounds of crushed ice. In the dining room, heads turn as two-tiered seafood towers parade by. At the base of the one that landed on my table, mussels, oysters and clams nestled among seaweed tendrils, pickled vegetables and radishes. The top tier featured a kick-line of those crab legs, bright-red lobster tails and shrimp, plus pink cubes of salmon crudo garnished with wasabi caviar, and a dainty dice of tuna tartare served on scallop shells.

A display like this invariably inspires a chain reaction of copycat orders, at Deux Chats and at restaurants around the country where the classic seafood tower is this season’s towering success.

Tip: Add kosher or rock salt to keep ice fresh.

Though this sort of swanky display might not be what you’d expect to see more of as inflation soars, Deux Chats executive chef Nicole Gajadhar said she designed her tower to be “indulgent and celebratory,” with the extra flourishes of crudo and tartare, plus brioche buttons and seaweed butter, to bring it “beyond what people would normally expect.” And in Manhattan, chef Edgar Panchernikov created an exceptionally opulent tower for the launch of the Bar at Caviar Russe, a raw-bar extension of a 25-year-old restaurant. Instead of the standard tiered tower, the generous offering of oysters, shrimp, lobster, king crab, Hamachi, bluefin, sea trout, fluke and caviar sits upon a pyramid of shaved ice.

In Mr. Panchernikov’s view, this style of service seems perfectly in tune with the times. “Since the pandemic, I think people not only want to treat themselves with something special, but they are in search of sharing and community,” Mr. Panchernikov said. “The seafood tower is perfect for sharing.”

Chef Thomas Keller, too, detects a desire for social interaction in the tower’s current popularity: “This idea of sharing and nurturing each other is especially important today.” At Bouchon in Yountville and Las Vegas and the Surf Club in Miami, Mr. Keller favors a classic presentation that “stretches back generations and generations, evoking the oyster bars at Les Halles,” the late, legendary market at the heart of Paris.

Tip: If you like, ask your fishmonger to shuck the shellfish for you.

Chef Ken Oringer’s “full-on love affair” with seafood towers stems back to his time training as a cook in France. “In Paris, I loved that there’s no holding back on them,” he said. He said he has included an iteration at every restaurant he’s opened, but he acknowledged that the seafood tower is having a moment. “The seafood available right now has never been better,” he said. The tower at his newest restaurant, Faccia a Faccia in Boston, changes daily in order to respond to what’s best and freshest. It currently includes live sea urchin, live scallops, ruby red shrimp and black bass crudo in addition to the usual suspects. “From a restaurant perspective, seafood towers are good business. They sell themselves,” said Mr. Oringer. He also noted the relatively low labor involved.

At the Ordinary in Charleston, S.C., chef Mike Lata uses the tower to showcase the local catch and support the fishing trade. “Post-pandemic, we realized that our purchasing dollars could really make a difference locally,” he said. “Now 90% of our food comes from local waters.”

Chef Dean Neff of Seabird in Wilmington, N.C., sources his towers close to home, too. “It’s an opportunity for us to get people to appreciate things that are local and a little outside of the box,” he said. “We have a variety of 8-10 super-seasonal things on there.” That might include more-familiar items like local crab claws but also rarities such as ribbed wild mussels, whelks and pinshell clams. From the abundance of locally caught bluefish, mackerel and mullet, he makes smoked dips.

Tip: Serve vodka shots on the side or plant them in the tower itself.

Perhaps the classic tiered tower will forever be associated with Belle Époque-style indulgence, but that doesn’t mean it can’t evolve with the times, too. At Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles, chef Tal Ronnen offers a vegan version, initially inspired by lobster mushrooms from the Pacific Northwest. “They are grown on the coast so they are kissed with that ocean mist,” Mr. Ronnen said. “They also have a beautiful orange color and a flavor that resembles the ocean.” His tower features oyster mushrooms “Rockefeller,” smoked carrot “lox” and kelp caviar. A choice of tequila or vodka shooters makes it extra celebratory.

Shots of Goldwasser feature among the innovations on chef Ann Redding’s tower at Thai Diner in New York City. Thai nam phrik (spicy chile sauce) and tom yum (lemongrass, galangal, lime, chile) complement oysters, shrimp, crab, mussels, scallops, octopus, squid and caviar, served on ornate prayer offering platters made in Thailand.

Maybe that sounds like a tall order to pull off yourself. But a seafood tower is actually an attainable luxury to enjoy at home—low-prep, high-impact, ideal for entertaining. With the following tips, you can fashion a fabulous tower for your next party. Go ahead and invite the A-list. If you build it, they will come.

A seafood tower is an attainable luxury: low prep, high impact, ideal for entertaining.

HOW TO BUILD THE ULTIMATE SEAFOOD TOWER

1. Choose your tower

Nicole Gajadhar of Deux Chats advised choosing a material that is a good conductor of cold, such as metal, ceramic or glass. The platters should be deep enough to hold ice, with a lip to prevent dribbling once the ice melts. No tower? Create tiers by filling a large bowl with crushed ice. Place a medium bowl in the center of the ice in the larger bowl, and fill that bowl with ice. Continue stacking with ever smaller bowls until you have as many tiers as you need. Or, stack round, lipped trays with small bowls between to create tiers. Cake stands can work as long as the platters are lipped.

2. Make a plan

Seabird’s Dean Neff recommended drawing a map outlining what you want, thinking beyond the main elements. “Include something with crunch, such as crackers, a slaw or even raw vegetables, which can act as a palate cleanser,” Mr. Neff said. “Include something pickled and something spicy, such as horseradish or hot sauce, for brightness and balance.” Caviar Russe’s Edgar Panchernikov recommended thinking of the tower as sculpture. “Place the most luxurious items at the top and the center so that they don’t get hidden,” he said. Faccia a Faccia’s Ken Oringer thinks about what can be made ahead. “Keep it somewhat simple,” he said. “Save yourself extra work where you can.”

3. Secure ingredients

At your fishmonger, buy as many precooked and prepped items as possible: shrimp cocktail, peeled and deveined; lobster and crab, already cracked. You can even have them shuck oysters and clams. “Just ask to leave the bottom muscle attached,” said Mr. Oringer. “That way they won’t start decaying. Cover them with plastic wrap to keep them from drying out. Keep chilled until you serve, ideally the same day.” Pick up a nice gravlax or sashimi to add variety, said Mike Lata of the Ordinary. Ask for seaweed, too, to use as a decorative touch.

4. Be cool

Chill all ingredients and surfaces you will serve seafood on, Mr. Neff advised. An hour in the fridge does the trick. Ms. Gajadhar suggested crushing ice in a food processor. Or, use Mr. Panchernikov’s method “Wrap a bag of ice in a towel and smash it with a rolling pin.” Wait until the last minute to place the ice on the tower. Pro tip from Ms. Gajadhar: A little kosher salt in the ice helps it stay together as it melts.

Save yourself some fuss and buy pre-cooked lobster, crab and shrimp.

5. Place the seafood and sauces

Arrange the shellfish according to your plan. Place raw items such as tartars and ceviche, as well as dips and spreads, on plates and in ramekins. Hang the shrimp, embed the crab legs and make sure everything is easily grabbable. Shuck the oysters and clams if your fishmonger hasn’t done that, and add those last. “Place sauces in bowls or ramekins and set near ingredients they are meant to pair with,” said Mr. Panchernikov.

6. Garnish

Fill in gaps and get creative. Use seaweed, lemon wedges, herbs, decorative shells, edible flowers, even lobster heads. Stick in alcoholic shooters if you wish. Place accompaniments like blini, crackers and potato chips on the side, off the ice, so they won’t become soggy, Mr. Lata instructed. And don’t forget tools and serving utensils such as seafood picks, lobster and crab crackers, small forks, small sauce spoons and caviar spoons.

7. Pair it up and enjoy

Pop the bubbly, crack an ice-cold beer, uncork a crisp white wine or pull the vodka out of the freezer. Then raise a toast to your towering creation.

Photographs by Chelsie Craig for The Wall Street Journal, Food Styling by Anna Billingskog, Prop Styling by Sophie Strangio

by Shivani Vora on December 14, 2022 | Reprinted from The New York Times

Ana Shellem has found peace and prosperity while searching for wild species off the North Carolina coast for her one-woman sustainable fishing company.

Ana Shellem pushing her boat off an island near Wrightsville Beach, N.C. She harvests a variety of shellfish for commercial clients along the coast. Madeline Gray for The New York Times

Six days a week, Ana Shellem rises at 5:30 a.m. and checks the tide and wind conditions for the day. Then she maps out in her mind where on the water she’ll go in search of wild mussels, clams, oysters and stone crabs. Come sunrise, she’s off.

Usually, that means hopping on her main work boat, a 14-foot catamaran skiff.

She’s at sea for three to eight hours, fishing until she gathers the exact number of critters that her 10 restaurant clients have ordered. She spends the later hours of the day hand-delivering her bounty.

Ms. Shellem, 32, has been keeping up this schedule for the last six years, Monday through Saturday. As founder and owner of Shell’em Seafood, a sustainable boutique shellfish company in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., she is fisher-, sales and businesswoman; delivery driver; and, not incidentally, conservationist.

In an industry dominated by men, Ms. Shellem’s success is rare but not unique.

Women throughout history and around the globe have always played a role in fishing, gathering and making good use of the creatures plucked from the sea. More recently, women from Rwanda and the Philippines have also taken on marine sustainability efforts, acting as watchdogs for reefs and pushing back against efforts to overfish.

Ms. Shellem pulling her boat along an oyster bed near Wrightsville Beach. “I own my equipment and am the only employee,” she said, “so the profits are all mine.” Madeline Gray for The New York Times
Ms. Shellem pulling up the anchor for her boat before going out in search of wild species to harvest. Madeline Gray for The New York Times

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted in 2020 that “women play a key role in fisheries sustainability worldwide” and that their participation in commercial fisheries appeared to be increasing in proportion to total fishing workers.

Still, the report said, women’s involvement in commercial fishing overall “remains poorly understood and largely unrecognized in various parts of the world.”

Ms. Shellem, a one-woman operation, has turned her participation into a successful business, selling around $100,000 of fresh shellfish to restaurant clients along the Carolina coast, she said. Some order as many as 600 to 2,000 pieces a week, each at 70 cents to $1.

“I own my equipment and am the only employee, so the profits are all mine,” she said.

One of her clients is Seabird, a popular spot in Wilmington. “We indicate Ana’s shellfish on our menu by name and customers seek them out for their unique taste,” said the owner and chef, Dean Neff.

Seabird serves her mussels in a stout beer broth or as a cold escabeche with leeks, fennel and chiles. Both dishes are menu favorites, Mr. Neff said.

“Her connection to the ocean is evident, and she has a following around here because people are so intrigued by what she does,” he said.

At Poole’s, an upscale diner in Raleigh, Ms. Shellem’s mussels are served in a broth with Dijon mustard, white wine, cream and herbs. And at a sister Raleigh restaurant, Death & Taxes, the oysters are grilled with chili butter and preserved chimichurri.

Ashley Christensen, the owner of Poole’s and Death & Taxes, said: “Ana’s freshness is incredible. Her shellfish is special because she pulled them from the mud herself that same day. Servers love telling her story and customers love to hear it.”

Ms. Shellem harvests in the waters six days a week. “Harvesting is illegal on Sundays in North Carolina,” she said. “Otherwise I would be out on the ocean then, too.” Madeline Gray for The New York Times
Ms. Shellem rinsing a harvest of wild mussels. Madeline Gray for The New York Times

Ms. Shellem came to her business rather unusually. A former actor and model, she joined the touring cast of the live performance Disney show “Bear and the Big Blue House” at age 12. Eventually she settled in New York, where she acted in commercials and ventured into photography. “They were gigs to pay the bills, not passions,” she said.

A photo shoot took her to Wrightsville Beach, about six miles east of Wilmington, and it turned out to be the trip that would reroute her life. “I met Jon and we began dating,” she said, referring to her husband, Jon Shellem.

Mr. Shellem, a longtime local and a co-owner of a bar, had grown up harvesting wild shellfish for his own consumption, and took his future wife on excursions to do the same. “We would be out at sea for hours and come home and enjoy these divine meals of grilled oysters with melted butter or pizza showered with clams,” Ms. Shellem said.

Coming off a decade-long battle with anorexia and bulimia, she said she discovered the pleasure of food for the first time and found independence and solitude on the water.

“There was nothing more satisfying than collecting seafood to feed myself, friends and family just hours later,” she said. “I realized that I wanted to extend my reach to more people by going into the fishing business.”

(She noted that the serendipity of her transformation extended to her married last name, which she took as the name of her business.)

Ms. Shellem cleaning wild oysters and mussels on the dock, separating her piles by client order. Madeline Gray for The New York Times

Ms. Shellem established Shell’em Seafood in 2016, soon after getting a commercial fishing license. She was criticized, she said, mainly from fishermen who didn’t take her seriously because she was a woman. “I had several tell me that they didn’t think I was strong enough to do the job and that I was wasting my time,” Ms. Shellem said.

But she persevered. Now she slips away from the boat that she and her husband call home and hits the sea day after day, later spreading her catch out on the dock and separating the bounty into piles, as ordered by each client.

In her goal of conservation and her stance against overfishing, Ms. Shellem does not harvest even one piece above what was ordered. She delivers her catch personally, riding from client to client at the end of the day in her pickup truck.

Ms. Shellem delivering a harvest of wild-caught mussels to Ryan O’Janpa, the chef at the Second Glass, a restaurant and wine bar in Wilmington, N.C. Madeline Gray for The New York Times

It’s hard work, she said, but she can’t get enough of it. “Harvesting is illegal on Sundays in North Carolina,” she noted. “Otherwise I would be out on the ocean then, too. I love it that much.”

Ms. Shellem’s commitment to sustainability caught the attention of Gov. Roy Cooper who, in August appointed her to be a commissioner for the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, which promotes responsible and sustainable fishing. The commission includes one other woman, who represents the industry’s recreational side.

Shell’em Seafood is poised to expand its footprint, but Ms. Shellem has no such ambitions.

“If I start sending shellfish everywhere, it will sit on a truck for too long,” she said. “It won’t be enjoyed as it’s meant to be, which is as fresh from the water as possible and the reason why I started my business in the first place.”

Shivani Vora is a freelance journalist based in New York who often writes on trends, design, travel and interesting personalities.

by Miriah Hamrick on December 7, 2022 | Reprinted from Wilmington Biz

Seaview Crab Company was one of four businesses recognized in Business North Carolina’s Small Businesses of the Year awards. (Photo courtesy of Seaview Crab Company)

Seaview Crab Company has been named one of the top small businesses in the state by Business North Carolina magazine.
 
Seaview was one of four businesses recognized in Business North Carolina’s annual Small Businesses of the Year awards. This year’s winners were selected by a panel of three judges who considered the creativity, persistence and community impact of more than 75 applicants across the state.
 
Seaview has steadily grown since it began in 2006, when co-owners Joe and Sam Romano and Nathan King sold blue crabs they harvested themselves with 50 crab pots. Seaview still harvests crabs, oysters and clams, but now the business’s supply chain stretches up and down the North Carolina coast with inventory sold at seven retail locations plus approximately 30 wholesale accounts.
 
King said Seaview’s successful evolution stems from small, iterative changes that create a big impact over time, an approach inspired by the Japanese business philosophy of kaizen.
 
“You start small,” King said. “You win at the small game first and then build on it, instead of doing anything super risky or large.”
 
In recent years, Seaview’s expansion has centered on providing prepared seafood for customers. To that end, the business’s midtown brick-and-mortar at 1515 Marstellar St. opened a kitchen in early 2020 where customers can grab tacos, po’boys and plates piled with grilled, blackened or fried seafood. Earlier this year, the kitchen rolled out Sunday brunch.
 
The next small step forward for Seaview is a food truck, which King estimates will debut in the spring.
 
“It’s something that we know is a good opportunity to get seafood on people’s plates, as opposed to waiting for them to come to us,” King said.
 
Seaview is also planning to expand its reach inland, where King said communities lack access to North Carolina seafood compared to the more abundant supply around Wilmington.
 
In addition to its measured approach to growth, King attributed the business’s success to a team of strong employees, some of whom have been with the business for more than a decade.
 
“We’ve got guys that have been working with us for 10-plus years,” King said. “That’s comforting. It’s not just me. It’s Sam and Joe and a host of teammates that help keep everyone fresh and supported.” He listed Kyle Clossick, Winn Atman, Jon Oracion and Daniel Suggs as some of the core employees who contribute to Seaview’s success.  
 
Seaview operates out of two brick-and-mortar locations, one in midtown on Marstellar Street and another at 6458 Carolina Beach Road, plus five open-air markets throughout the region.  

by Allison Ballard on October 15, 2022 | Reprinted from Wilmington StarNews

Local raw oysters with accoutrements at manna restaurant in Wilmington, N.C. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO

As fans of local oysters already know, they are a delicacy that can be enjoyed year-round. That being said, it’s a big time for the bivalves. We’re in the middle of N.C. Oyster Week, and the official oyster season (which dictates the harvesting of wild oysters) begins Oct. 15 and ends in March. 

Look around and you can find oyster events, oyster specials and even oyster collaborations, like an upcoming oyster beer from Wilmington’s Mad Mole Brewing. Oysters are big in the state and poised to become even bigger. With that in mind, here’s a look some of the basics about N.C. oysters. 

The Napa Valley of bivalves

In his book “The Essential Oyster: A Salty Appreciation of Taste and Temptation,” author Rowan Jacobsen was the first to tout the relatively untapped potential of the Southeast, even saying that there was something of a renaissance in the industry happening from Virginia to Florida. Since then, those in the industry decided to build on that idea that North Carolina could be a premier spot for oyster growing and harvesting.

Initiatives like N.C, Oyster Week (Oct. 10-16) and the Oyster Trail, which highlights businesses such as markets and restaurants that serve oysters and promote the industry, are supported politically and environmentally because oysters work on several fronts. It’s good business, meets a customer demand, and is a practice that can be done sustainably to clean and nourish the local waterways. 

Previously: What is the N.C. Oyster Trail? And where are the Wilmington-area stops?

Volunteers plant saltmarsh cordgrass along the water line at Morris Landing Clean Water Preserve in Holly Ridge, N.C. in the heart of the very productive shellfish growing areas of Stump Sound. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO

“It’s a win, win, win,” said Chris Matteo, Bayboro-based oyster farmer and president of the N.C. Shellfish Growers Association. “It’s something that actually leaves the estuary better off that when we started.”

Jane Harrison, a coastal economist with North Carolina Sea Grant, said oysters have an economic impact of $27 million for the state and provide more than 500 jobs. But goals are in place to reach $100 million and 1,000 jobs by 2030. Even while wild harvest production has been decreasing in recent years and was estimated at around 50,000 bushels last year, preliminary data from 2021 show that farmed oyster production has outpaced it for the first time. Production was around 59,000 bushels, a 111% increase over 2020.

“Even a few years ago, a lot of the oysters consumed in North Carolina were imported from other places, but that is changing now,” Matteo said.

Roasted oysters at the annual North Carolina Oyster Festival, which takes place each year in Brunswick County. STARNEWS FILE PHOTO

Wild and farmed

When you’re talking about oysters on the East Coast, they’re really all the same. Species, that is. The indigenous oyster is called Crassostrea Virginica, and they are known to be briny and savory with minerality.

From there, though, there can be a lot of differences. Farmed oysters often have a different chromosome make up that makes them suitable for year-round harvest. Other differences can be a result of the salinity of the water, what algae and plankton the oysters eat, and the movement of the tide. This merroir, a sea-inspired version wine’s terroir, can help explain why Stump Sound oysters are different from those growing in nearby Topsail waters, for example.

“They can have a very diverse flavor profile,” Matteo said. “Those grown closer to the Atlantic Ocean have a higher salinity and minerality. Further inland, in waters with a mid-salinity, you see oysters that can be sweet and buttery.”

While oyster aquaculture takes place all year long, commercial fisherman must wait until the oyster season begins. Limits and site restriction are in place. But pros like Ana Shellem, of Shell’em Seafood Co., will forage and fill orders for her restaurant clients. She worked in the hospitality industry before she switched careers. Other fishermen sell to markets and distributors, or direct to customers. Breece Gahl accepts bushel pre-orders from his Wrightsville Beach-based Fresh2U Seafood business, for example.

Because of a difference in the way they develop and grow, the wild oysters are more likely those found in clusters and are the safest to eat raw when collected in the fall and winter months.

All year round

That’s not the case for all local oysters, though. These farmers say they are continually trying to get the message to consumers that mariculture oysters are safe to eat, even in months that don’t end in ‘R.’

“Always. I’m always telling people,” said Matt Schwab of Hold Fast Oyster Co. He’s been in the business about seven years with a farm in New River.

Matt Schwab, of Hold Fast Oyster Co., and Dean Neff, of Seabird restaurant, shuck oysters at Mad Mole Brewing in Wilmington for a special collaborative beer. ALLISON BALLARD/STARNEWS

At the time, there were only a handful of oyster famers working in the state. Now, there are more than 75 and the water acreage being farms has increased for a total of more than 2,100 acres in 2021, Harrison said. The new people entering the business sometimes take it on as a second (or third) career or are starting an oyster farm right after completing an aquiculture program at college, Matteo said.

Holden Davanzo was a stay-at-home mother and manager at an ice rink before she bought her cousin’s oyster business, Anchored Life Oyster Farm, three years ago.

“It was definitely a learning curve,” she said. But now, she goes out on the boat every day to tend her oysters in Stump Sound and New River.

“But I love it. I have a new appreciation for the ocean,” she said. “And it’s beautiful. I see dolphins. Sometimes I’m out there and I think ‘This is my office.'”

The business is really taking off this year, for her Top-Sea-Turvies and New’d Pirates. Although the oysters are the same species, many farmers name their selections for branding and to let customers know what they’re getting.

Holden Davanzo of Anchored Life Oyster Farm in Sneads Ferry, N.C. Photo Courtesy Anchored Life Oyster Farm

Schwab, for example, grows a variety he calls Seabirdies especially for Seabird restaurant and chef Dean Neff in downtown Wilmington. The chef and the farmer partnered with Mad Mole Brewing this Oyster Week to make a Seabirdie Oyster Gose, brewed with oysters (shells and meats), bitter orange and spiceberry.

Others new to oystering are James and Sarah Rushing Doss, of the newly renamed Rx Chicken & Oyster restaurant in Wilmington. They’re growing their own oysters, named after their dogs, with the help of James Hargrove and Middle Sound Mariculture, for when the restaurant reopens later this year. By the way, the couple also have their commercial fishing and dealer’s licenses, so they can serve fish they catch and spear themselves, including the invasive lionfish.

James and Sarah Rushing Doss of the newly renamed Rx Chicken & Oysters restaurant, have started their own oyster farm with the help of Middle Sound Mariculture. Photo Courtesy Rx Chicken & Oysters

The business isn’t an easy one, Harrison said. Oyster growers and harvesters have to deal with hurricanes and subsequent closures due to water quality concerns, as well as loss of product. She also said that it cost as estimated $20,000 per acre to start an oyster farm. But it’s encouraging to see a new generation of people entering the business.

“There’s definitely a demand,” Harrison said. “People want local seafood.”

Allison Ballard is the food and dining reporter at the StarNews. You can reach her at aballard@gannett.com.

by Anne Tate on October 5, 2022 | Reprinted from RAL Today

Local chefs Ashley Christensen, Coleen Speaks, Joe Rohrer + Sunny Gerhartweigh in on NC’s best oysters.

St. Roch’s daily oyster happy hour is from 4-6 P.M. (and all day tuesday). Photo courtesy of St. Roch’s Fine Oysters + Bar

Shell yeah — wild oysters are harvested along coastal NC from mid-October to the end of March, so that means it’s almost prime oyster season in Raleigh. We’re here to share pearls of wisdom from local chefs Ashley Christensen (AC Restaurants), Coleen Speaks (Hummingbird), Joe Rohrer (42nd St. Oyster Bar) + Sunny Gerhart (St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar)about what oysters to look out for around the City of Oaks.

“I think all NC oysters have unique qualities and really different, wonderful flavors, each truly telling of the specific waters and coastal environments from which they are harvested or cultivated,” Chef Ashley told RALtoday. “As long as they are fresh and skillfully shucked, you can’t go wrong.”

DYK that there is just one type of oyster found in NC? However, Crassostrea Viginica, AKA Eastern oysters, come in hundreds of varieties. Here are some of our local chefs’ favorites.

Chef recommendations

Core SounderLocals Seafood | A deep-cupped oyster of medium salinity with a sweet, slightly creamy finish. These highly recommended, cultivated oysters are available year-round.

Dukes of Topsail SoundN. Sea. Oyster Co. | “They are briny, plump, perfectly manicured oysters that remind me of swimming in the salty ocean,” Chef Sunny said. “They have an incredibly sweet, almost scallop-like flavor.”

Green GillLocals Seafood | Core Sounders sometimes get a specific microalgae bloom that gives them a blue-green tint. “It adds depth to their already great flavor,” Chef Joe said. Look for them in January and February.

Masonboro WildsShell’em Seafood Co. | “These oysters are hand harvested and selected in the wild, and they are deliciously briny due to their proximity to the jetty,” Chef Ashley said. “They have a nice deep cup and a silky firm texture.”

Tarheel TiderunnersLocals Seafood | These briny, buttery, and meaty oysters are grown in the Stump Sound and are available year-round.

Where to find them

Now you know what to look for when you’re at one of these six oyster hot spots.

How to eat them

First try the oyster raw, without anything added,” Chef Ashley said. “This is the purest way to taste what makes that oyster special, and to experience its definitive characteristics.”

“I love a lightly roasted oyster over coals served with a seasonal spicy mignonette,” Chef Coleen said.

Turning appetite into agritourism.

by Carrie Honaker on September 25, 2022 | Reprinted from Southern Living

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Oysters tell stories. The narrative begins as each is pried open, shucked from its shell, and slid into a waiting mouth. There, you’ll taste hints of where it grew, how many times the farmer touched and tumbled it, the salinity of the water, food consumed, weather endured. All of it’s there, the story of the farmer, their life, their home, and the hours on the water tending their crop.

Oyster trails, a new leg of culinary travel, invite visitors to learn about the deep history of these rural, coastal communities, see working oyster farms, and sample the briny bivalves at restaurants who support them.

North Carolina Oyster Trail

In 2020, the North Carolina Oyster Trail launched, offering up farm tours, “voluntourism” activities to protect oyster habitats, and tasting opportunities. “Our interactive map shows options to visit seafood restaurants serving local oysters and oyster farm tours to see how North Carolina oysters are grown,” says Dr. Jane Harrison, coastal economics specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant. “You can visit an education organization like North Carolina Coastal Federation that’s dedicated to protecting and restoring our coastal environment. The oyster trail isn’t just about eating oysters—although that’s one of my favorite parts—there’s an ocean of possibilities.”

At Down East Mariculture, a mosaic mural by local artist LaNelle Davis adorns the side of the once condemned Willis Brothers Seafood building. The mural (based on a photograph) shows Lula Willis Fulcher, Rena Wade Piner, and Lela Thomas opening clams back in the 1950s. Davis hand-cut dishes contributed by families who worked at the clam house, and the shells on the wall were excavated from the property grounds.

The artwork embodies the deep history of Down East, a rural area once an economic hub. “When visitors stop here, I talk to them about the history of seafood processed here as early as 1939. Elmer Willis was ahead of his time—he received food science awards from NC State, provided all the clams for Heinz Soup and Campbell’s clam chowders after World War II. He was also one of the first to start blast freezing individual frozen food items, opening a whole new market. We have remnants of the liquid nitrogen room still onsite,” says Susan Hill, co-owner of Down East Mariculture.

Stops like Ghost Fleet Oyster Co. offer sunset boating excursions out to the farm augmented by sea stories about the historical importance of oysters to the coastal environment. “It’s a self-guided adventure that can go in 100 different directions. We talk about gear types, the challenges of oyster farming, how different salinities create flavors. We talk about merroir. We educate visitors to feel confident they have all the tools for a full oyster experience when they arrive at a restaurant on the trail,” says Cody Faison of Ghost Fleet Oyster Co.

The next stop could be PinPoint in Wilmington to sample what Chef Cameron Garvey cooks up with the Faison’s oysters, like the peach basil mignonette made with a white peach sour from a local brewery, or the baked oysters with pepper jelly, braised pork belly, and corn bread crumb. “During the lineup every day, I’ll pop a couple oysters so I can relate the tasting notes, size, shape, anything that helps servers talk to customers about them,” Garvey said.

Oyster plate at Seabird in Wilmington, N.C. PHOTO: COURTESY OF BAXTER MILLER

And if you happen to be there during Green Gill season, you’re in for a geographically rare treat. Oysters with green gills only happen in two places in the world: North Carolina and the clay ponds in Marennes-Oléron, France. Haslea osteria algae creates a vibrant gill in French fines de claires, and for a short period of colder months, that same delicate color occurs in some North Carolina oysters.

James Beard Foundation-nominated Chef Dean Neff at Seabird in Wilmington wants to give guests an experience, “…of where we live though oysters and some of the ingredients we put into the sauces, making it unique, but also familiar and accessible.” Neff serves the bivalves with a Champagne mignonette he augments with local, seasonal ingredients like green coriander from a farmer in Southport. He also crafts a cocktail sauce with a fermented pepper mash sambal that, depending on seasons, includes fruit like loquat, peach, or even plum.

Chef Neff ensures servers at Seabird are equipped to talk about the provenance of the oysters on the menu. Neff elaborated, “These farmers walk in the door, sometimes in the middle of service, right off of their lease with bags of oysters that were in the water hours before. That is exactly what oysters are supposed to be, a time capsule of the environment, pulled directly from the ocean, brought here for people to experience that specific location with its tides, amount of rainfall, husbandry. You know what you’re eating, where it’s coming from, who farmed them, and see that progression—it makes eating the oysters more meaningful.”

Virginia Oyster Trail

One state north, Virginia’s Oyster Trail features stops like Big Island Aquaculture in Hayes where visitors hear the history of Guinea Watermen, learn about the waterways, and handle the gear in between bites of raw and chargrilled oysters. Or you can opt for an experience organized around pairing local beer or wine and curated oyster preparations at restaurant trail stops through Taste Tidewater.

Spot local fisherman on the water. PHOTO: GABRIELA HERMAN

Virginia’s trail, the first in the Southeast, highlights the rural coastal communities through farm tours, lodging, outdoor adventure, art, and restaurants devoted to Virginia oysters. “We want to educate people about how important oysters are to our environment. For the Chesapeake Bay, every oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day, removing the excess nitrates, and helping to improve the water quality,” says Bruce Vogt, Virginia Oyster Trail President.

A unique aspect of this trail is the established tasting regions. Researchers from Virginia Tech University sampled oysters all over the state and identified tasting profiles for the eight coastal regions, much like wine terroir. Flavors range from mellow and buttery, to salty, to slight minerality, to sweet.

Georgia Oyster Trail

Moving south, Georgia is set to launch their Georgia Grown Trail 17 in fall 2022. This trail adds Gullah Geechee heritage to the oyster experience as it travels through the congressionally-designated national heritage corridor across farm tours, restaurants, and cultural hubs like the Savannah-Ogeechee Canal Museum and Nature Center. According to Gullah Geechee Scholar and Trail President Dr. Patrick Holladay, the oyster trail will amplify Georgia’s sustainable seafood industry, as well as educate visitors on the concept of environmental stewardship, and the historic foodways of its coastal communities.

Soon visitors can explore historic seafood regions like Harris Neck and see family farms like E.L Mcintosh & Sons where generations have worked the water. They put the first farmed oysters in Georgia water in 2018. You may recognize Earnest Mcintosh Sr. from an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Savannah native and James Beard Award winning chef Mashama Bailey spent time on the oyster farm exploring the legacies of African Americans in the Lowcountry.

“When you talk about a food system, you’re talking about people’s livelihoods, and understanding where food comes,” Holladay says.

Oyster trails provide a window into life along the Southeastern coast and an opportunity to sample the bounty produced by farms, artists, chefs, and Mother Nature.

by Michaela Abraham on Sept. 23, 2022 | Reprinted from NC Coastwatch

Oysters once were as popular as the fast-food burger is today. Since the late-1880’s, people have collected, consumed, and enjoyed oysters up and down the East Coast.

In North Carolina, the eastern or American oyster (Crassostrea virginica) lives in waters stretching the southern end of the Albemarle Sound to the sounds and estuaries bordering South Carolina. North Carolina is the only state that harbors both deep water reefs in the Pamlico Sound and low-depth reefs in intertidal waters, as well as reefs that run alongside the shorelines of our marshes.

WHERE HAVE ALL THE OYSTERS GONE?

People have harvested wild oysters off the coasts of North America for over 3,000 years.

Around 85% of oyster reefs worldwide have been demolished as a result of overexploitation. North Carolina’s original oyster stocks have now been reduced by approximately 95%, according to the North Carolina Coastal Federation.

Due to historic overharvesting and other environmental stressors, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF) considers the eastern oyster to be a species of concern. Since 2020, 22 million bushels of cultch material — such as oyster shells and limestone marl — have been planted in order to create new oyster habitat, part of a century-long endeavor in the state.

Credit: Justin Kase Conder, © 2021 Justin Kase Conder.

CONSERVING A SPECIES AND BOOSTING AN INDUSTRY

The state’s Oyster Steering Committee is a non-regulatory board comprised of researchers, restoration specialists, coastal managers, permit officers, oyster growers, and educators. The committee has been responsible for leading revisions for the ongoing NC Oyster Blueprint Plan, which has expanded and built upon the state’s Fishery Management Plan for Oysters, the work of the Division of Water Resources’ Basin Planning Branch, and the North Carolina Strategic Plan for Mariculture.

With the expertise of partners like North Carolina Coastal Federation, North Carolina Sea Grant, and federal and state agencies, the Blueprint recommends strategies to ensure that N.C oysters can foster a productive coastal ecosystem and thriving oyster fishery and aquaculture industry.

In addition to the Blueprint, the North Carolina Strategic Plan on Shellfish Mariculture presented recommendations in 2018 to sustainably grow the state’s shellfish mariculture industry by supporting local shellfish growers. This plan set 2030 targets for the shellfish industry that included $100 million in value, $33 million in landings, and generating 1,000 new jobs.

North Carolina’s aquaculture industry also received national recognition by becoming the first state in the southeast to join NOAA’s National Shellfish Initiative. Shellfish farming has the potential to reduce pressures on wild oyster harvests and provide a consistent seafood source. A collaborative North Carolina Sea Grant project determined that in 2019 shellfish landings in the state generated over $27 million and provided 500+ jobs, with more than half of this economic impact coming from farmed oysters.

Restoring and protecting oyster populations — and growing enough oysters to meet market demand — requires thriving businesses, increased environmental stewardship, and awareness of our coastal resources. Not surprisingly, recommendations in the Strategic Plan for Shellfish Mariculture included a “North Carolina Oyster Trail.”

Katherine McGlade, Slash Creek Oyster Farm.

THE NC OYSTER TRAIL

From craft beer to barbeque, culinary and beverage trails feature regional delicacies and provide opportunities for visitors to connect with local food producers. From its launch in 2020, the NC Oyster Trail has covered the state’s entire coast. North Carolina Sea Grant and North Carolina Coastal Federation administer the NC Oyster Trail, in partnership with the NC Shellfish Growers Association, to “provide experiences that help sustain and grow N.C. oysters, resulting in economic, environmental, and social benefits to the state’s seafood industry and coastal communities.”

The Trail includes over 75 members across the state that offer a wide variety of shellfish tourism experiences. Along the Trail, you can find seafood restaurants and markets, shellfish farm tours, recreational and educational activities, and special events highlighting N.C. oysters. “The Oyster Trail has been essential in connecting travelers, foodies, and outdoor adventure lovers to the magic of the North Carolina oyster,” says Jane Harrison, coastal economics specialist for North Carolina Sea Grant and lead coordinator of the Trail.

NCOysterTrail.org displays an interactive map of where to eat local oysters or tour a shellfish farm. There are also several educational programs and volunteer opportunities to learn more about the eastern oyster’s importance to North Carolina’s coastal environment.

Here’s a sampling of just a few of the places to taste and learn more about our state’s unique oysters.

Oysters Carolina offers tours of their Carteret County farm.

TOUR A WORKING SHELLFISH FARM

Do you know where your seafood comes from? Hop on a boat and learn how we grow oysters in North Carolina. Smell that salt breeze and slurp down some of the most sustainable seafood on the planet.

Slash Creek Oyster Farm (Hatteras Island)

Katherine McGlade and husband Spurgeon Stowe’s Slash Creek Oyster Farm provides tours of their operation that are an hour and a half, beginning at the dock at Slash Creek Oyster House. Visitors learn about the equipment and their processes for growing oysters, then take the oyster boat (“The Half Shell”) for a 10-minute ride to their lease to see the different stages of oyster growth.

Roysters NC (Beaufort)

Roysters NC is a family-owned and operated oyster farm in Carteret County’s North River. Visitors can schedule a boat tour to visit a cluster of four shellfish farms in and around North River and Wards Creek, and bring-your-own-kayak tours also are available upon request. These excursions provide opportunities to explore the waters — and what grows in them — between Beaufort and Harkers Island.

Middle Sound Mariculture (Hampstead)

Middle Sound Mariculture grows oysters in Masonboro, Stump, and Topsail Sounds. Known for their salty, buttery, rich “Masonboro Pearls” — named after the farmer’s daughter, Pearl — Middle Sound Mariculture offers farm tours via Epic Excursions NC and sells oysters directly to visitors.

Middle Sound Mariculture, known for its salty, buttery “Masonboro Pearls.”

SAVOR THE COAST’S DISTINCT FLAVORS AT MARKETS AND RESTAURANTS

Our state’s oysters are available at a variety of markets and restaurants on the coast and inland, including these places on the NC Oyster Trail.

Locals Seafood (Durham and Raleigh)

Locals Seafood, a restaurant and fish market in Durham Food Hall and a soon-to-open establishment in east Raleigh, serves North Carolina oysters year-round, alongside a menu of cooked seafood dishes and a full bar. They have several seafood markets throughout the Triangle.

Native Prime Provisions (Cashiers)

Native Prime Provisions occupies the westernmost point on the NC Oyster Trail. They have a nine-seat chef tasting counter where they serve lunch and dinner, and they carry oysters from Sticky Bottom, Slash Creek, and Ocracoke Mariculture.

Seaview Crab Company (locations in the Wilmington area and inland)

Seaview Crab Company Kitchen & Deli’s seafood is fresh, hot, and affordable. Executive chef Brandon Stark prepares dishes with seafood from their market, and customers can order food to go or enjoy it at their outdoor seating area. Nationwide shipping is also available for all their retail products, including fresh seafood.

Oysters Carolina (New Bern)

Oysters Carolina offers farm-to-table, same-day delivery anywhere in North Carolina for free. Their award-winning oysters are consistently rated among the saltiest in the country. Although oyster farming is notoriously demanding, Oysters Carolina eschews mechanical devices; they use arm strength to lift hefty oyster cages. They also offer farm tours at their Carteret County location on request.

Wrightsville Beach Brewery (Wilmington)

Wrightsville Beach Brewery serves N.C. oysters from within 60 miles, whenever possible. They have special wine pairing recommendations based on the dish and the type of oyster. Menu items include po’ boy pizza with sauteed oysters, fried oysters over kimchi-spiced N.C. collards, and fried oyster po’ boys.

A delicacy at Wrightsville Beach Brewery.

Ocracoke Oyster Company (Ocracoke)

Ocracoke Oyster Company serves fresh Ocracoke Island Devil Shoals oysters harvested daily. They offer many varieties of baked and raw oysters, as well as fried, and oyster stout beer is available on tap.

Parley’s Sip & Steam (Washington)

Parley’s Sip & Steam offers a wide variety of prepared oysters: raw, steamed, or their house specialty oysters. Oysters Rockefeller, Parley Den oysters, and No Quarter oysters are just some of the locals’ favorites. Customers can eat their N.C. seafood with live music each weekend, as well as paired spirit tastings and charcuterie boards.

Saltbox Seafood Joint (Durham)

James Beard Award-winning chef Ricky Moore draws inspiration at Saltbox from classic American fish camps and waterside seafood shacks, with an emphasis on N.C. seafood. At his counter-service restaurant, the fish and shellfish options vary daily. A handwritten menu on a chalkboard tells of the day’s offerings.

Where the “oyster stout” flows: Ocracoke Oyster Company.

DISCOVER LOCAL OYSTER LORE AND ADVENTURE

North Carolina oysters are available year-round. Wild oyster season begins October 15, but farmed oysters make it possible to enjoy oysters anytime. Here’s how to support a healthy coast and the livelihoods of our state’s watermen and women.

North Carolina Coastal Federation (Newport, Wanchese, Wrightsville Beach)

North Carolina Coastal Federation is a member-supported nonprofit organization focused on protecting and restoring North Carolina’s coastal waters. Their coastal locations provide opportunities to learn more about their living shoreline, water quality, and oyster restoration efforts, as well as opportunities to volunteer or become a Coastal Federation member.

North Carolina Estuarium (Washington)

The North Carolina Estuarium is an environmental education center located in Washington, a soundside community with a deep maritime heritage. The Estuarium provides extensive information about the importance of our state’s estuarine ecosystems and why we should protect them, including exhibits about the state’s oysters and oyster fishery.

Science by the Sea (Beaufort)

Science by the Sea provides eco-adventures with a choice of three modes of transportation: kayak, stand-up paddleboard, and a flat-bottomed bateau cruise. Tours depart from the historic Beaufort waterfront and visit the four islands in the Rachel Carson Reserve. Visitors can observe diverse habitats and estuarine creatures, including oysters, that dwell in these waters.

North Carolina Estuarium, an environmental education center in Washington.

SHELLEBRATE: NORTH CAROLINA OYSTER WEEK

Join the NC Oyster Trail October 10 to 16 to “shellebrate” the history, culture, economy, and ecology of oysters in our state.

Last year, Governor Roy Cooper officially declared North Carolina Oyster Week in a statewide proclamation.

Eighteen in-person and virtual events for the public provided opportunities to engage with oyster growers and harvesters, seafood restaurants, seafood retail markets, recreational outfitters, coastal conservation and education organizations, and seafood festivals.

Again this year, throughout October, a wide range of different events and programs will continue the shellebration. Visit NCOysterTrail.org for the complete list of festivities, more places to see on the Trail, and other resources. Follow the NC Oyster Trail on Facebook and Instagram.

The NC Oyster Trail

Seafood in Coastwatch

More about seafood from North Carolina Sea Grant

Michaela Abraham is a North Carolina Sea Grant community engaged intern who studies fisheries, wildlife, and conservation biology at NC State University.

lead photo credit: Credit: Justin Kase Conder, © 2021 Justin Kase Conder.

by Kimberly Armstrong on August 28, 2022 | Reprinted from The Coastland Times

Original article published by N.C. Cooperative Extension, Dare County Center.

As the saying goes, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” And some might add that bold man must have been awfully hungry too! They might not be pretty, but these humble bivalves have been elevated to gourmet status and are consumed with gusto, paired with an ice-cold beer or a flute of champagne. Whether slurped raw in their own salty elixir, steamed, roasted, fried, or in a stew, they’re a culinary delight for the discerning (and adventurous) palate.

Katherine McGlade loves oysters. In fact, she likes them so much that she left her successful environmental consulting business to pursue oyster farming. Her company is Slash Creek Oysters, which she operates along with her husband, Spurgeon Stowe. “I had studied oysters, so I knew a bit about them,” she says. “And I thought there was a market for them that wasn’t being satisfied.” Add to that the fact that she had grown weary of having a desk job and was looking for a way to work outside.

That is how Katherine finds herself not heading to an office each morning but shoving off from the dock, steering her skiff through the shimmering waters of the Pamlico Sound, dazzled by sparkling sunbeams, in awe of an impossibly blue sky, and filling her lungs with tangy salt air. She reaches her five acre-oyster farm, blissfully aware that her days behind a desk are over, and her workday begins.

Oyster farming is mariculture – cultivating marine organisms in open water for food. And just like land-based farming, there’s a great deal of hard work and financial investment involved. Increased demand for oysters and depletion of wild oyster harvests have led to the popularity of oyster farming in North Carolina.

In the beginning, as Katherine explored the prospect of oyster mariculture, she reached out to established farmers. “They were all very generous with their time and with sharing their knowledge. It’s such a welcoming community!” She read an abundance of publications, reviewed academic research, examined step-by-step procedures, and utilized resources offered by North Carolina Sea Grant and UNC Wilmington. The Small Business and Technology Development Center helped with her business plan and assisted her in creating spreadsheets detailing cost, timelines, and projections. There was much to learn. “However,” she says, “at some point you just have to jump in and do it.”

She had a general idea of the area where she hoped to secure a lease permit (a lengthy process). She was aware of the pristine water quality and salinity of the Pamlico Sound, the distance from the mainland, and the lack of agricultural and storm runoff – all contributing to a superb location for oyster cultivation. So, when she happened upon an area tucked into a corner of Sandy Bay, off Hatteras Island, she knew that she had found that “sweet spot” and was eager to set up shop.

Meet FLUPSY. The FLoating UPweller SYstem is an essential piece of oyster farming equipment. It provides a protected environment for the oyster seed babies. Here the seeds are placed in silos with fine mesh screens as a pump constantly pulls seawater through the screens, delivering an all-you-can-eat buffet of tasty phytoplankton. They’ll remain here, receiving lots of care and attention, growing all the while, until their nursery days are over, and they graduate to the open-water of the farm.

Katherine uses mesh floating “grow-out” bags on her lease. The bags float on the surface allowing for adequate water flow and plentiful plankton, supplying the necessary nutrients for continued growth. Seaweed, algae, and barnacles attach to the bags potentially blocking water flow, so bags are regularly flipped to expose these organisms to air and light, reducing buildup. The bags are periodically emptied and pressure-washed as well. 

As the oysters grow, they are sorted for size and taken for a spin in the tumbler which breaks off the edge of the lip of the shell. This action promotes stronger, more uniformly shaped oysters and helps develop a deeper cup, promoting meatiness, and making them easier to shuck.

There are slow growers and fast growers, but it generally takes a year for the oysters to become adults. Katherine grows triploid oysters and because they’re sterile they don’t expend energy reproducing during the summer months (this is what causes fertile oysters to be thin and watery). As a result, they grow to market size faster and don’t lose body weight, remaining firm and plump. No more worrying about that pesky “R” month rule! These bivalves can be appreciated year-round.

Once harvested, the oysters are cleaned, packaged, and loaded into a refrigerated van, delivered on that day or no later than the next day. Slash Creek oysters are available in several Outer Banks restaurants and seafood retail shops.

Just as the taste of wine is influenced by the soil and climate in which grapes are grown (called terroir), the oyster’s distinct flavor reflects where it was grown (merroir). Slash Creek oysters benefit from an infusion of salty ocean water from Hatteras Inlet which is balanced by the briny waters of the Pamlico Sound. Katherine and her customers believe Slash Creek’s plump oysters with their clean, salty taste are the best. “There is much satisfaction derived from taking something from seed and growing a tangible product,” she says. “It’s rewarding to watch the oysters grow and to provide something to people that brings them pure joy.”

Oyster farming is labor intensive, dirty, stressful, and influenced by unpredictable and uncontrollable situations, such as storms, disease, and failed seed crops. “I’m filthy at the end of the day,” says Katherine. “And some days are so cold on the water, I feel like my fingers are freezing. But then there are other days on the water that are magical, and on those days, I feel like the luckiest person in the world.”

One might say the world is her oyster.

by Jennifer Kornegay on August 9, 2022 | Reprinted from Oyster South

FARM FRESH: GETTING TO THE MEAT OF SOUTHERN OYSTER FARMS

Cody and Rachel Faison are farming oysters to reap a harvest they can sell. But that’s only one aspect of their Ghost Fleet Oyster Co. farm in Hampstead, North Carolina. The couple puts equal emphasis on environmental sustainability, and they’re educating others about the need to improve local waters and sharing oyster aquaculture’s active role in these efforts. It’s why Ghost Fleet began its farm tours in 2021.

Photo by Justin Kase Conder / JKase.com

But before there could be farm tours, there had to be a farm. The Faisons started oyster farming in 2019 when they realized that, in conjunction with a shared love of eating oysters, they each had interests and strengths that would prove useful on an oyster farm. Rachel is an environmental scientist who specializes in sustainability. Cody has a food background, with a short stint at culinary school under his belt, plus a life-long love of fishing and being on the water. “We knew we could take these things and put them to work on an oyster farm,” Rachel says. “We became kinda obsessed with the whole culture of it,” Cody adds, “and felt we had to be a part of it. We couldn’t not do it; it’s a passion.”

The farm’s name stems from another pastime they’re passionate about. “We love diving off the NC coast, called the ‘graveyard of the Atlantic,’ and I saw a poster referring to the many shipwrecks as the Ghost Fleet of the Atlantic,” Cody says. “We felt like that name had a quintessential North Carolina feel to it, referencing the state’s maritime history and culture. And shipwrecks are great habitats for marine creatures. Wild oyster reefs and oyster farms are too. It just fit.”

Today, 50 percent of Ghost Fleet’s business comes from oyster sales, but the farm’s sustainability education – and the farm tours that teach it – are also a main pillar of the company. He and Rachel are both certified Coast Guard Captains, a requirement to take people on farm tours. Ghost Fleet also partners with local captains like Allen Wilson, owner of Coastline Captain, to help during the busy season and with large tours..

“We decided tours were the best way, a natural way, to educate our area on what this is farming stuff is all about,” Cody says. “Everything we’re doing and why is much easier to explain when we have people out at a farm site.” Tours of up to six people take to the water for three and a half hours. They start by looking at oyster seed and go all the way to Ghost Fleet’s grow-out farm lease, where they conduct a mini-harvest as a show-and-tell.  

The first lesson is teaching that smaller farm-raised oysters are tasty oysters that complement the wild harvest and deliver big benefits to the ecosystem. “The raw bar market wants what we are raising, but that’s the opposite of the history in this area, where people think only the big wild ones are good oysters,” Cody says. “We’re also teaching that you can eat farmed oysters all year-round now. And, we’re pointing out the environmental and sustainability positives of our aquaculture.”

The next lesson focuses on the “merrior” concept and is immersive with plenty of oysters for sampling. While North Carolina doesn’t allow eating farmed oysters right out of the water, the Faisons harvest a few and tag them just like they would for a normal, larger harvest, and place them in a certified shellfish cooler on the tour boat. Once they are down to temp, they get shucked and served to tour guests. “We try to interact with our fellow farms, too, and show tour folks that there are lots of great farms in these waters. We talk about how maybe they farm differently and how their flavor can be different too,” Cody says. “We really want to highlight the variety,” Rachel adds. “We liken it to craft beer.”

The tours have proven so popular, they’re running three to four a week yearlong, providing blankets and hot chocolate in the brisk winter months. This past summer, Ghost Fleet is quickly approaching 100 tours. And every trip is unique. “We start by telling them why oyster farming is important, why our business is important, but also ask them what they want to learn,” Cody says. They’re branching out too, adding a sunset option. “It’s locals and tourists signing up for our tours,” Rachel says. “They bring wine and snacks. It’s a teaching experience but lots of fun too.”

Photo by Justin Kase Conder / JKase.com

The main goal is to hammer home the community aspect of the oyster farming industry and invite tourgoers to join. In fact, there is an NC Oyster Trail that maps out restaurants, farmers, festivals and other aspects of the oyster community that they encourage their guests to explore. “We’re striving to get them excited about being a part of it as the consumer,” Cody says. “We have to have consumers to have an industry.”

Ghost Fleet offers free tours too; in fact, these outings make up about 30 percent of the tour schedule. “We take out 4-H groups, chefs and restaurant owners, local chamber of commerce and government people,” Cody says. “We want them to learn and then share what they’re learned. Not just for our farm’s future, but for the entire industry. More understanding is always better.”

And Ghost Fleet’s give-back mindset doesn’t stop there. The farm invests some of its tour revenue in a shell-recycling program. “It’s a service we provide for free to any area restaurant with oyster shells,” Cody says. Ghost Fleet worked with local restaurants to determine hurdles that they face when recycling oyster shells – such as the smell, staff education and transportation to recycling centers. Participating eateries get food grade buckets with lids, so they can use it right at their shucking station. When they’re full, they put them outside, and Ghost Fleet picks them up and delivers them to the North Carolina Coastal Federation, which uses the shells for reef restoration and living shorelines.

One restaurant just hit one ton of shells recycled through the program. “We’re showing that this industry is even more sustainable than you think,” Rachel says. “Yes, our oysters filter a lot of water, but we and other oyster farmers can and are doing so much more. We’re just doing everything we can to ensure we have healthy water. That benefits our farm, but it benefits everyone here.”

© 2023 NC Oyster Trail.