Growing Chesapeake Oyster Connoisseurship, One Brand at a Time

Environmental Commentary by Kate Livie

Witch Ducks, Ruby Salts, Pleasure House: Today the Bay is teeming with small aquaculture startups whose evocative names are just one strategy to attract a new kind of consumer—the oyster connoisseur. At oyster events and stylish raw bars, these elite consumers will pay handsomely for an oyster that lingers on the palate. But this new luxury market is crowded with large, established brands whose customers request their favorites by name—a challenge for fledgling oyster farms in a region where “a dozen Chesapeakes, please” used to suit just fine.

For the Chesapeake’s aquaculture brands to survive, the Bay’s oyster lovers need to go beyond generalities to develop connoisseurship with a locavore sensibility. Taste your way to your favorite small brands. The next time you belly up to an oyster bar, demand a dozen or two. It’s only when oyster consumers in the Chesapeake region are prepared to put their money where their mouth is that the Bay’s luxury oyster industry will have a hope of survival against a mountain of Blue Points, Kusshis and Damariscottas.

The challenges facing Chesapeake entrants in the “white tablecloth” market are exemplified by events like Washington, D.C.’s Oyster Riot. There, where hundreds of local foodies paid for the privilege to select from shoals of international oysters, just one Chesapeake brand, Battle Creek, was offered—evidence of the struggle facing small local oyster growers to get a foot in the door of the competitive connoisseurship market.

But securing a spot on the ice in this who’s who of the oyster world was just the first obstacle facing Bay brands at the Riot, where participants were largely unaware of the Chesapeake oyster’s growing place in the luxury food market. Though the attendees were shellfish sophisticates—the ideal patrons of the Bay’s Watchhouse Points and Choptank Sweets, familiarity with individual Chesapeake oyster brands was scanty and out-of-date. “Aren’t Chesapeake oysters totally depleted?” commented John, a DC native. “I mean, can you even really buy Bay oysters anymore?” This off-handed dismissal, frequently repeated by other Rioters, is one of the major factors working against small local oyster farms. If oyster connoisseurs in the Chesapeake can’t be bothered to educate themselves about today’s staggering array of shellfish being grown in their own backyard, who will?

But the Chesapeake oyster’s “perception problem” can be overcome easily enough, as Oyster Riot participants quickly discovered. “I love the sweetness of these oysters. They have the perfect amount of brine, ” commented John, whose preconceived notions were quickly dispelled by a plate of Battle Creek’s fluted, oval oysters. Betty, whose husband had introduced her to 15-cent Chesapeake oysters at Lexington Market in the ’60’s, agreed. “These have the perfect balance—little salt, a little sweet…I would definitely buy these at a restaurant.” In just a few minutes, Battle Creek had two new connoisseur converts, but for the Bay’s farmed oyster brands to become established in this growing upscale market, they need scores of new consumers willing to challenge their familiar Blue Point comfort zones.

As the participants at the Oyster Riot discovered, introducing yourself to the burgeoning array of Bay-grown oysters is anything but onerous. Available in every size, shape and intensity of brine, most of the Chesapeake produces oysters gently seasoned with a faint kiss of salt that gives way to a sweet, almost creamy complexity. After sampling a few, it’s easy to understand why aficionados describe oysters with the same breathless terminology as fine wines. And just as you might inquire after your favorite vintage at a restaurant or shop, Bay oyster lovers need to know and request their preferred aquaculture brands at oyster bars and grocery stores. With dozens to choose from—all local and sustainable—it’s an edible self-education that benefits the economy and the environment of the Chesapeake Bay.

The power of consumer demand is key to the success of the Chesapeake aquaculture industry, and it all starts with a simple request. The next time you slide into your seat at an oyster bar, order a dozen Barren Islands or Stump Coves. Then await the arrival of the briny beauties, knowing that you’ll be changing the future for the Chesapeake Bay’s fledgling oyster farms with every satisfying slurp.

Kate Livie writes from Chestertown, Md. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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