The Lowcountry is your oyster
By Kathleen Parramore
Beverly Chopan of Lowcountry Oyster Co. sorting oysters by size. Images provided.
My version of heaven: a chilled martini, a dozen ice plated Lowcountry oysters with a mignonette sauce and a table of friends in any kind of weather.
Oysters are part of the bivalve family, as are their relatives scallops, mussels and clams, because their shells are made up of two parts. Oysters and other bivalves have been around for more than 500 million years (Cambrian period). The oysters back then could be three feet long and weigh more than 20 pounds. That would have made some oyster roast!
Archeologists have discovered that early man cooked oysters over a fire or heated stones. These early humans discovered oysters do not move once they are attached to a surface, and so it was much easier oysters to gather in those shallow waters than to hunt for meat. During the 1990s, archeologists found a cave in South Africa with evidence of humans eating shellfish more than 164,000 years ago.
The wealthy Greeks and Romans loved their oysters. Greeks were the first to cultivate oysters; they even used their shells to cast ballots in elections. The idea of oysters as an aphrodisiac comes from the Greeks: Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love, was born of the sea foam in an oyster. After the fall of the Greek Empire, the Romans set about cultivating oysters for their extravagant meals, as transportation from the sea was costly and ineffective. These cultivation methods are still being used today. During the Renaissance, the poor working class became more knowledgeable about tidal water flow to supply oysters to the wealthy upper class.
Native Americans loved their sea island oysters. Remnants of shells have been found all around the coast. The extra shells were baked to extract lime and then mixed with sand, oyster shells and water to make tabby. Some of these structures still stand today, as the tabby can withstand the elements of the Lowcountry.
As oysters became more prevalent, the Golden Age of Oysters (the 18th to 19th century) provided oysters for all classes of dining tables. Larger production and cheaper oysters led to the decline of meat, fish and poultry purchases. Simply, oysters were abundant, cheap, rich tasting and the most plentiful source of protein. Because of their popularity, oyster houses opened up all across the country in the larger cities. Perhaps this was the start of the raw bar craze.
The beginning of the 20th century saw a decline in oyster production due to overharvesting. New York and New Jersey, major oyster harvesting states, shut down production. Oyster harvesting moved farther down to the Chesapeake Bay but they, too, had to stop production for the same reason.
A recent New York Times article likened the different tastes of oysters, referred to as the “terroir,” to those of different wines. The oyster taste imparts the flavors of the sea, the topography and the climate. In oyster speak we refer to this as the “merroir” (mer for “sea”). Where an oyster grows has a significant influence on how it tastes. Wines have thousands of varieties, but oysters have only five: the Atlantic oyster from the East Coast; the Kumamoto, introduced from Japan, that makes the West Coast its home; the Pacific oyster native to the coast of Asia; the European flats (belons) and the Olympia oyster, which is native to Northwest. Adam James of Hama Hama Company, a family-run oyster farm in Washington state, remarks, “Oysters don’t just consume algae and phytoplankton but also organic detritus in the water, like seagrass, alder leaves or, in our case, fir needles.” Adam sounds like a sommelier describing his oysters: “mild and clean, firm like an under-ripe peach.” Our Lowcountry oysters’ merroir is described as sweet, salty and earthy.
Left, Trey “Cricket” McMillan, owner and president of Lowcountry Oyster Co. Right, oysters getting to maturity.
I had the experience and pleasure of taking a tour of the Lowcountry Oyster Company in Bennetts Point in the ACE Basin. Trey McMillan, the owner, describes his oysters as 100 percent traceable, and they can be delivered to your door overnight. Trey is one of six certified oyster farmers in South Carolina. Because of operations like Trey’s, there is no longer the rule stating oysters can only be eaten in months with an “r.” He enjoys giving tours of his operation to dispel this notion and much of the misinformation about oyster farming. He says, “Our two-hour tours are a little bit science, a little bit nature, a little bit culinary and a little bit rock n’ roll.”
The first step he takes in cultivating oysters is obtaining “broodstock,” which are the parent oysters providing gametes. There are three methods used to cultivate:
1. taking seed oysters and distributing them over existing riverbeds:
3. putting seed oysters in racks, bags or cages that are held above the bottom and cultivated by removing the mature oysters, which can help to protect from predators but is most expensive; and
5. placing seed oysters in a cultch within an artificial maturation tank. The tank is fed only by seawater and the temperature may be altered to hasten the growing process from several years. This method also saves the oyster from predators, but it is the most expensive to build and maintain.
The farming of oysters is even restorative, relieving pressure on land-based protein sources. Also, a single oyster filters 24-96 liters of water a day, removing most of the particulate matter in the water column. The particulate matter of clay, silt, detritus and phytoplankton can be harmful. Oysters sequester these contaminants and excrete them to the bottom of the waterway.
Charlotte Caldwell interviews Frank Roberts of Lady’s Island Oysters in her book The Faces of Local Food. Roberts remarks about the fragility of the marine industry in our area and how he treads lightly in this fragile system, maintaining the smallest footprint possible.
Ben Moïse, a Charleston native; outdoorsman; lawman; oyster roaster; avid reader, writer and storyteller; and S.C. game warden for nearly a quarter of a century (“served with distinction”) told me that oysters are a carefully managed resource, and the stock he saw before leaving three years ago were the best he has ever seen.
Nutritionally, oysters are a great source of zinc, protein, thiamin (vitamin B1), niacin (vitamin B3), vitamin B12, vitamin D, selenium, iron, omega 3s, magnesium and copper. They are low in calories yet loaded with nutrients. Oysters also contain a recently discovered antioxidant called 3,5-Dihydroxy-4methoxybenzyl alcohol (DHMBA). DHMBA is a phenolic compound with powerful antioxidant compounds.
A few tips: only choose those oysters with closed shells, and if you prefer to cook before eating, don’t put too many in a pan, as overcrowding can lead to some being undercooked. And as always, buy local!
What to drink with oysters? France rules here: Muscadet from the Loire Valley, Champagne and Chablis — but chilled vodka is also a good combination.
We have so many excellent restaurants in our area that serve oysters; they are too numerous to list. I would only urge that you order the local oysters and make sure of the source you are eating.
If you get to the big city of New York, try the oyster roast dish at Grand Central Oyster. The oldest restaurant in Grand Central serves 30 varieties of oysters including our S.C. oysters. I dream about this dish!
After 25 years in the technology field, Kathleen Parramore earned an MSc in nutrition from University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and then a degree in culinary arts from the Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Tech. She is a writer, consultant and dinner party caterer in the Charleston area.