Posts Tagged ‘Florida’

Tonging for wild oysters in Apalachicola Bay

I met Kendall Schoelles around dawn at 14.2 miles west of the John Gorrie Memorial Bridge on Route 30A. (That’s how they measure distances in Apalachicola, Florida.) We drove his pickup down a packed dirt path to a marshland dock, where we boarded Schoelles’ shallow-draft oyster boat. We were headed for the oystering grant that’s been in his family since the late 19th century. The Schoelles family grant used to be 1,100 acres; after government takings, it’s down to 158. That’s enough to keep Kendall and his brother harvesting enough oysters to make a living. Most Apalachicola oystermen, like those pictured above, have to make do with the public bars.

Apalachicola Bay oysters are the pride of the Gulf of Mexico – plump, sweet, and salty. It’s the last place in North America where wild oysters are harvested by hand by oystermen in small wooden boats. It’s back-breaking work, not unlike the small-boat lobstering I used to do in Maine, and I felt honored that Schoelles let me come along to participate, if only peripherally, in this vanishing way of life. Food doesn’t get any more locavore than shellfish from a town’s front-yard bay.

Apalachicola Bay is a unique environment on the Gulf of Mexico, created by an extensive barrier island system at the mouth of the Apalachicola River, which drains much of Georgia and the Florida panhandle. The plankton-rich mix of salt and fresh water creates optimal conditions for oysters. Apalachicola bivalves have always been the premium Gulf Coast oysters, so prized that oysters from elsewhere in the Gulf were sent here for packing so they would be shipped out in crates stamped ”Apalachicola.”

Schoelles revved the engine and we sped through the weeds into flatwater, unable to see more than a few feet in the fog. I asked how he found his lease under such conditions. ”Mostly, I just know,” he told me. ”I’ve been coming here most of my life.” Schoelles has never fished more than two months anywhere else but on his lease. He paused for effect, ”Of course, the last four or five years I use GPS.”

We anchored on a bar and Schoelles got down his tongs, which resemble two garden rakes connected together like a pair of scissors. The fog was starting to lift, and I could see that loons ringed the boat because tonging stirs up the small fish that they like to eat. The chicks were diving feet from the gunwales while the adults kept their distance. Both herring and laughing gulls had keen eyes on the boat.

Tonging is intensely hard work – reaching down to the bars, closing the rakes, and hauling the catch to the surface. Schoelles did it methodically, moving the boat a few feet every few minutes, until we had a huge heap of oysters and other sea life on the deck. With the sun trying to peek through the fog behind him, he seemed to glow beatifically.

Then we sat down for the grunt work. Because Apalachicola Bay oysters are wild, not farmed, they grow in clumps with a slew of other organisms – mussels, clams, sea cucumbers, giant algae, and other creatures I couldn’t possibly name. The oysters have to be separated from all these other objects – mostly by banging on the junctions with a steel culling iron without cracking the shell. All the small oysters must be tossed back to grow. Schoelles held out whelks and starfish to take ashore to die because both are oyster predators.

The cracked oysters (it’s easy to smash a shell by accident) became bird food for the gulls that follow the boat. One laughing gull has been coming to Schoelles’ boat every morning for two years. How does he know it’s the same gull? He doesn’t – not for sure – but the two seem to have an understanding.

The birds of Apalachicola eat well – but then so do the people. For more on where to enjoy the nutty, buttery flavor of Apalachicola Bay oysters, see my profile of three restaurants in the October 28 Boston Globe: “Where to eat oysters in Apalachicola.”

10

11 2012

Tupelo honey hits Apalachicola’s sweet spot


Honestly, the oysters were what first drew us to Apalachicola, the sleepy little town on the Florida panhandle where a barrier island at the mouth of the Apalachicola River creates perfect conditions for the tastiest bivalves on the Gulf Coast. (But more about that in our next post.) Pat wrote about some of the town’s charming characters (and a delicious chocolate kumquat cake) for the Boston Globe. Here’s the online version.

One of those characters was John Lee (pictured above), whose shop Retsyo, Inc. (that’s ”oyster” backwards) sells all manner of Apalachicola souvenirs – including the honey that bees make from the nectar of the white tupelo gum tree in the miasmal swamps of the Apalachicola River. According to Lee, this so-called ”champagne of honeys” is reputed to do everything but cure the plague. He even claims that it’s the only honey that diabetics can eat without disturbing their blood sugar levels.

We can’t vouch for Lee’s good-natured claims, but we can say that tupelo honey has a distinctive taste – sort of high, sharp, and slightly metallic, but with musky undertones. Lee also likes to toss recipes off the top of his head. His suggestion of a salad dressing made from olive oil, lime juice, ”a dime’s worth of honey,” and hot sauce was intriguing enough that we played around to get the proportions right. Scale it up if you like to have lots on hand. We sized it for the juice of one lime (about 3 tablespoons) so we can make it fresh each time.

TUPELO HONEY AND LIME DRESSING

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon honey
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 dash hot pepper sauce (Tabasco works well)
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
a grind of black pepper

Combine all ingredients and agitate well until emulsified. Toss with salad greens and serve.

06

11 2012