Posts Tagged ‘oysters’

PEI: Not your average foodies

Scott LinkletterI can’t say I’ve ever see an island where so many people make or gather or process wonderful food. Between judging duties at the International Shellfish Festival I had the chance yesterday to drive around the island a bit, heading up to the north shore to see a mussel processing operation (more on that later on), pay a visit to a potato farm, catch a picnic in the fields, and visit Raspberry Point oysters. That’s Scott Linkletter at the top of this post, hauling a cage of oysters to show how they’re grown using an Australian system of posts driven into the soft bottom of shallow waters. The cages are suspended on lines that hang on the posts. Every few days he and his staff haul cages out so the sun can dry out any incipient seaweed or mussel growth that would impede the flow of water to the oysters. It’s an ingenious system.

CampbellsI also got a chance to join a picnic being catered by the Pendergast brothers, chef David and baker Richard, at Mull Na Beinne Farm, where Vernon and Bertha Campbell have grown gorgeous PEI potatoes since 1980. Here are the Campbells in front of their giant potato harvester, which is manufacturer in Prince Edward Island. (Yes, there are a LOT of potatoes here.)

Mussel rollsRichard and David put on a great spread that included mussel rolls (mussels and mayo on sourdough finger rolls), a fine chowder, and baked beans with oyster sauce. Then David picked up a guitar (Richard had a fiddle) and played some tunes. Check out this verse of his original, “Campbelltown.”

Tasty start to PEI International Shellfish Festival

lobster chowder2Mussels, oysters, or lobster? It’s hard to choose among them on Prince Edward Island, the small Canadian province with the massive shellfish harvest. This year I’m getting my fill of all of them as a judge of Garland Canada International Chef Challenge. But before the competitions got started on Friday the 13th, I joined 500 other diners for the Feast and Frolic kickoff dinner at the Charlottetown Festival Grounds. Food Network Canada star (and Islander) chef Michael Smith played emcee, and the students of the Culinary Institute of Canada did the cooking. It was an auspicious beginning.

The moderately deconstructed lobster chowder (above) consisted of a celeriac broth with foraged sea asparagus and green swoops of pureed lovage. A butter-poached claw and half-tail of PEI lobster was perched on a slab of perfect PEI potato (a fingerling cut lengthwise in thirds).

0 - salad servingAs Smith gleefully pointed out, locavore dining has always been the rule on PEI, and to drive it home, the salad course consisted of a big bowl of mixed greens and flowers (nasturtium, violas) and lettuce that each table harvested with scissors from planter centerpieces. Ilona Daniel of the Culinary Institute was at my table, so she mixed the dressing and tossed the salad.

Beef and crabBut the capper of the evening was an unusual surf and turf: braised PEI grassfed beef shortrib with some possibly local (I couldn’t find out) snow crab legs and a side bucket of PEI blue mussels. It was a reminder that even a small island like PEI has a resident beef industry, and that while most of us think of snow crab as a northern Pacific species, Islanders do indeed fish for them in the waters north of the island.

Off to Crawfish College in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

Crawfish dance
Breaux Bridge, Louisiana’s annual Crawfish Festival pretty much celebrates everything that is great about Acadian culture, from the mud bugs to the music to the Cajun proclivity for a darned good party. The heart of the festival, of course, is the mass consumption of crawfish farmed and wild-caught in St. Martin’s Parish. This year the organizers put a little twist on the festivities by offering a crash course for those of us who did not grow up on intimate terms with the Bayou Teche and the Atchafalaya Basin. They call it Crawfish College — a little introduction to the world of Cajun country’s signature crustacean. Over the next few days HungryTravelers will be hitting some of the course highlights.

The photo above, taken last night at Pont Breaux’s Cajun Restaurant (325 Mills Ave., Breaux Bridge, LA, 337-332-4648, www.pontbreauxscajunrestaurant.com), might explain the appeal. When crawfish are in season (March into June), people eat a lot of them – and then dance the calories away to the accordion, fiddle, and guitar of a Cajun band.

Crawfish Randy Leblanc Randy LeBlanc, the gentleman holding a platter of boiled crawfish, owns Pont Breaux’s, and he is an aficionado of all matter Cajun, most notably music and food. The restaurant has a live band every night and also prepares some other terrific seafood. My favorite (non-crawfish) dish might be the shrimp and oyster brochette, which consists of a good-sized prawn and a fat oyster wrapped in a piece of bacon and deep-fried. It’s served with a stuffed potato, jambalaya, and bread.

Crawfish eatersThe all-you-can eat crawfish boil is exactly what it sounds like. I watched one old boy (a disk jockey at the Cajun-Zydeco-Swamp Music radio station KBON, 101.1FM) devour three entire platters of boiled crawfish. Most folks, like those shown here, had enough to handle just eating one.

All in all, lots of crawfish and Cajun music made a perfect overture to Crawfish College. You have to eat ‘em before you study ‘em.

01

05 2013

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