Taste of a Place | Water Gives Oysters Unique “Meroir”

Nov 22, 2015Fall 2015

“More than any other food, oysters taste like the place they come from,” writes author Rowan Jacobson in his connoisseur’s guide Geography of Oysters. “While they are creatures of the sea, they draw their unique characteristics from the land and how it affects their home waters … Think of an oyster as a lens, its concave shell focusing everything that is unique about a particular body of water into a morsel of flesh.”

The unique taste of an oyster is called its “meroir.”

A takeoff on the viticulturist’s “terroir” — the characteristic taste of a wine imparted by the soil, climate, and topography in which its grapes are grown — the meroir of an oyster derives from the sediments, algae, and salinity of the location in pond or bay where an oyster is raised.

Rhode Island’s oyster meroirs are considered among the best: According to Geography of Oysters, “Some of the most savory oysters in the world come from a geographical arc running from the eastern end of Long Island, along the ragged Rhode Island coast, to Block Island, Cuttyhunk, and Martha’s Vineyard: the line marking the terminal moraine of the most recent glacier. Along that arc, mineral-rich waters produce salty oysters with unparalleled stone
and iron flavors.” 

Farmer: Perry Raso
Location: Potter Pond
Meroir: Crisp, briny, with a sweet finish

The 7-acre Matunuck Oyster Farm, with its associated Matunuck Oyster Bar restaurant, has played a big role in putting Rhode Island oysters on the map. Owner Perry Raso not only produces a very popular oyster, he has also made his farm a center for education and ecotourism, inviting the public to see, touch, and taste his oysters while taking in the experience of Potter Pond.

Like many oyster growers, Raso got his start in wild-harvest shellfisheries, diving for steamers and littlenecks in Point Judith Pond. But after completing a degree in aquaculture and fisheries at URI, he decided to try something new, and he leased a 1-acre aquaculture site in Potter Pond. That small beginning didn’t last long.

“The 1-acre farm that I started in 2002 expanded to 3 acres and then to 7 acres,” Raso recalls. “In 2006, the farm was producing a lot of oysters and I was selling them to Boston and New York, and I wanted to ensure a future for the farm. I was running the business out of a section of a rental house in a nice neighborhood. I had a couple of employees and a lot of gear. It wasn’t a sustainable way of continuing my business.

“So I purchased a run-down restaurant that was shut down for a couple of years, because it was the only commercial dock on the pond. I figured I’d open the restaurant with the farm-to-plate theme …  From that 1-acre farm with one student employee, now 11 years later, there are 12 people on the oyster farm, the vegetable farm has six employees, and depending on the time of year, the restaurant has between 150 and 250 employees.”

In addition to greeting guests at the restaurant, Raso connects with the public through farmers’ markets, events, and educational workshops at the farm.

“Open air markets like farmers markets have been a great way to connect with the customers. Community events are a great way to get our name out there, and a great way to keep it out there. We also sell juvenile oyster seed and take part in restoration projects. And agritourism … It’s a way to foster acceptance of the business. It’s also a way to create revenue and spread the good word about shellfish.”

Farmer: Billy and Russell Blank
Location: West Passage, Narragansett Bay
Meroir: Saltier than the ones grown in Salt Pond

Billy and Russell Blank have spent their whole lives on the water, starting with quahog diving and lobstering. In the early 2000s, they were facing some tough choices. While they loved quahogging, the price for quahogs was sluggish — and meanwhile, their lobster catch was declining.

“We needed to do something,” says Billy Blank. “And then aquaculture came along. We watched [quahogger and early aquaculturist] Lou Ricciarelli. For about three or four years we watched him. And it looked promising.”

Ricciarelli was an early pioneer in growing oysters using modern methods and is widely considered to have been ahead of the curve. His untimely death in a diving accident in 2009 was keenly felt throughout both the wild-harvest and aquaculture industries.

“Unfortunately, he didn’t get to see the whole thing turn into what it’s starting to turn into,” laments Blank.

By that time, the Blank brothers had already followed in Ricciarelli’s footsteps, setting up an oyster lease off Rome Point, in North Kingstown.

“We started with $10,000 between us,” remembers Billy Blank. “We sold our lobster gear, most of it. Ten years ago, 10 grand. And without the boats and the trucks, I’m gonna say we’re probably now sitting on close to half a million in total equity. We probably have over a thousand cages.”

Although the brothers continue to harvest wild quahogs in their spare time, aquaculture has proven to be the right decision for them, Billy Blank says.

“The quahogging industry as a whole hasn’t progressed with the times. We do it because it’s a beautiful job out there. It keeps you in shape. The freedom. But you still got to pay
the bills at the end of the day. If you want to have a house, if you want to have a retirement, if you want to have a truck, you have to keep money coming in. I think this [aquaculture] is the wave of the future because we’re the middleman … We harvest them and sell them directly to the co-op. So we get to decide how much we’re going to get for them.”

: Nick Papa
Location: Ninigret Pond
Meroir: Freshwater springs in the pond add a sweetness to the flavor

Nick Papa grew up in the Warwick quahogging community, but he found his own destiny in oyster growing.

“My dad was a shellfisherman for his profession,” says Papa. “I started going with him, and he would pay me a couple bucks to sort and count all of his clams. Being out there so regularly, I always wanted to see if I could do it myself. Finally, I talked my dad into letting me take his boat out, and the experience when I did was pretty special, being out there and being in charge of myself and working. The bay is just so special, I almost got addicted to being out on the bay … I couldn’t imagine being away from it. But I could see the ups and downs of the quahogging industry itself.

“Somehow I ended up moving my boat from Warwick to Wickford, and I met the Blank brothers and Lou Ricciarelli. They always offered to show me what they were doing with the oysters. It was pretty different from quahogging, where no one will tell you anything about what they’re doing. So I decided to try it out. I figured it would be more consistent, that you wouldn’t have to sell them if the price was low. And since it’s so sustainable, and it’s good for the environment, I couldn’t help but to give it a shot.”

Papa eventually took out a lease in Ninigret Pond and started the East Beach Oyster Company. The location was close enough to his grandparents’ house on the pond to feel familiar, yet far enough away from Warwick and Wickford to escape the skeptical glances of Papa’s quahogger friends.

“There were some heated debates about aquaculture when I was younger, so I kind of kept it to myself that I was even trying it,” Papa admits. “Because it’s still kind of a bad word to a lot of the quahoggers.” His quahogger father was not opposed to the project on ideological grounds, Papa notes. “He just thought it would be a lot of work. And since I didn’t know much about it, I wasn’t doing it efficiently at the time, so at the beginning, it was quite a struggle. So my dad was on the fence for quite a while.” Since then, Papa’s father has started working side by side with him on the 3-acre oyster farm. In fact, Papa says, “Most of the quahoggers were pretty positive about it after they found out what I was doing.” Ultimately, Papa finds he can satisfy his addiction to being on the water just as well on the oyster farm as on his old quahog boat.

“It is special for the obvious facts of the beauty of your surroundings. Sometimes you might work right through a sunset, you might see the most beautiful sunset of the year. It’s part of my lifelong goal of just trying to spend time outdoors. I enjoy all of the weather types. There’s something special about all of those conditions: the rainy windy days, or when it’s snowing, or when it’s springtime and you can hear the thunder. There’s a fondness to the memory, I guess.”

: Dave McGhie
Location: The Cove, Portsmouth
Meroir: It reminds people of that taste you get in your mouth when you’re swimming

Dave McGhie started oyster farming after being inspired by Roger Williams University associate professor Dale Leavitt’s community class in practical shellfish farming. He was contemplating applying for a lease site at some point in the future when all of a sudden, opportunity knocked.

“I heard about a lease that was up for sale because a fellow had passed away, unfortunately,” says McGhie. “But we ended up helping the widow out by buying the lease. That happened in May 2013. So we bought the lease with some oysters there at the farm, not knowing how many, and we bought some gear.”

McGhie has worked on boats his whole life, including a stint as a quahogger in the early 1990s. But oyster biology was entirely new to him.

“The oysters were a learning curve,” he admits. “I’m sure we’ve killed some oysters … They grow way faster than you think, and you never have enough gear.”

Having worked previously in wild-harvest fisheries, McGhie was initially surprised at the level of cooperation among growers throughout Rhode Island.

“Commercial fishermen, they don’t help you much,” McGhie explains. “And aquaculturists will go out of their way to help you. Guys have invited me to their sites, and I’ve visited their farms, and done some upweller work with other guys. I think they realize, if someone gets sick from an oyster in Rhode Island, they’re not getting sick from an oyster from Dave McGhie’s farm, they’re getting sick from a Rhode Island oyster. There’s no distinction between my farm and anyone else’s farm. I think they realize that the industry is only as strong as the weakest guy. And there’s enough market share right now that you don’t have to cut each other’s throats.”

Island Park Oysters are grown in a 2.4-acre lease in the water body known as “The Cove” at the northern tip of Portsmouth. The farm is in shallow water, accessible by walking in waders at low tide. The location is part of the draw for McGhie.

“There have been days when I’ve been out there and the horseflies are the size of helicopters, and the sun was beating down, and there was no wind, and you’re sweating. It is a farm, and that’s a four-letter word. And sometimes it really is farm work. And there have been other days when you go out in October, and it’s just beautiful, and the ospreys are hunting around, and it’s just the greatest thing. The air has that smell of marsh and salt air, and it’s just perfect. There’s probably more of the horsefly-biting days than those other days! But there’s enough of those nice days to keep you going back.”

— By Sarah Schumann
     Photographs by Angel Tucker

This story is excerpted from the forthcoming Rhode Island Shellfish: An Ecological History. Contact rhodeislandseagrant@gmail.com to obtain a copy.

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