NEW YORK — “Everyone’s growing oysters,” Chris Quartuccio says over his shoulder as he paddles a kayak across Long Island’s Great South Bay, where he’s raising some 300,000 Blue Island oysters on the shallow seafloor 50 miles east of Manhattan. He might be right.
Close to 100 oyster farms have sprung up during the past decade or so, in bays, creeks and tidal ponds strung along the Atlantic Seaboard from Virginia to Canada’s Prince Edward Island, according to Bloomberg Pursuits magazine.
Each oyster variety has its own distinctive look and flavor and its own fanciful name, including Walrus & Carpenter, Matunuck and, Quartuccio’s best-seller, Naked Cowboy, a favorite at the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York.
A century and a half ago, oysters and oyster canneries were a major industry. Oysters fed Native Americans and sustained early European settlers; 19th-century Americans consumed oysters more often than beef. Oyster beds were the coral reefs of the Northeastern U.S., keeping water free of silt and sustaining rich fishing grounds. By the late 1800s, overharvesting had destroyed many of the most productive beds, and by the 1960s, pollution and farm runoff had killed much of the rest. The 1972 Clean Water Act offered oysters a mulligan, and in the past decade, a locavore oyster revolution has taken off.
“People love tasting variety, and oysters have it even more than wine,” says Rowan Jacobsen, author of “A Geography of Oysters,” a guide to the U.S. locavore oyster scene. “They’re a concentrated form of the water in which they grow.”