Good news for oyster lovers—after years languishing near death, the North Carolina oyster is back. Sometimes salty, sometimes slightly sweet and almost buttery, the range of flavors is as varied as the places from which they are harvested.
The oysters are almost all farm raised now; at one time North Carolina was one of the leading states in oyster production, primarily landing wild oysters, but over-harvesting and loss of habitat devastated the industry. However, over the past 10 years, oyster production has more than doubled in the state.
There may still be some wild oysters being harvested and brought to market, but that truly is the exception. There’s even an oyster farm on the Outer Banks—Bodie Island Oysters.
Farm raised doesn’t mean that the oysters are bland or all taste the same—far from it. There was story on NPR earlier in the year, talking about how the Southeast Coast could become the Napa Valley of oysters – and that may not be an exaggeration.
Like wine grapes, the taste profile of an oyster changes dramatically depending on its environment. North Carolina, with one of the most extensive estuarine systems in the world, creates the possibility of an almost infinite number of micro-climates for oysters and as the state’s harvest grows, the differences among different environments makes for some great tastings.
Bodie Island Oysters are raised on the Outer Banks grow in waters close to Oregon Inlet—waters that are still filled with sea salts, which is reflective in their taste. By comparison, Chadwick Creek Oysters is located south of the Pamlico River on the mainland side of the Sound where the waters there are slightly brackish and almost fresh. The oysters from there are mild with a rich, smooth flavor.
Although farm raised, the North Carolina oysters are not very far removed from the wild, and in many cases, the farms are adjacent to or even located on old oyster reefs. Because they are so closely aligned with the wild oysters—occasionally some of the wild stock will attach itself to the farm raised—they still have some of the characteristics of the original wild harvested oysters.
In the wild, some interesting things happen with oysters—so don’t be surprised if a fresh oyster shell is popped open and there’s a miniature crab moving around. Locally they’re called Crab Slough Oysters—the rumor holds that the miniature crabs are baby blue crabs. An interesting thought, but the rumor is wrong.
The little crabs are the female version of the pea crab, Pinnotheres ostreum or Zaops ostreus. Soon after hatching the female pea crab attaches itself to an oyster sprat—the baby oyster before it has formed a shell. The male of the species continues to swim around, never finding a permanent home. The pea crab is parasitic, feeding off the food oysters take from the sea. If there is abundant food, it does not appear as though the oyster is harmed by its guest.
Pea crabs are edible; in fact, in 1913 the New York Times published an article that is still cited, extolling the flavor of pea crabs writing, “Oyster crabs are as dainty a morsel as the gourmet can have at any price.” Nonetheless, it can be somewhat disconcerting to pop open a raw oyster and see a crab scuttle across the meat. However, that little crab—which is edible raw or prepared—is one more indication of a healthy local market. Pea crabs only thrive in the warmer waters of the Southeastern United States.
North Carolina oysters are starting to show up on local menus. Probably the best place to check out the variety of tastes oysters can offer is Coastal Provisions in Southern Shores, where chef and owner Dan Lewis has been offering oyster tastings for the past few years.