Chef Michael Beriau, a two-time winner in the culinary Olympics, is no stranger to good food. So he was thrilled when he had the opportunity to create four recipes that would showcase the potential locked in a shucked, frozen oyster from the Cape.
He prepared several dishes, including cumin-fried oysters with an enchilada vinaigrette-topped black bean, roasted corn, and rice tortilla bowl and butter-poached oyster tartlets with anisette and hollandaise glaze. Then he invited some foodie friends.
“People love oysters,” he said. “The folks that came over my house to taste oysters couldn’t wait to get there.”
He served known-to-be-tasty Maryland oysters and the untried ones from local waters. The Cheseapeake Bay denizens did not disappoint, but the Cape oysters came out on top; time after time, in blind tastings, “the Cape oyster was hands down the winner, it had the most pronounced flavor profile,” Beriau said.
Five more chefs who participated in the contest felt much the same way. They rated the frozen, shucked Cape oyster tops, from ease of preparation to saltiness.
The results of the pilot program, designed to research the viability of a market for shucked oysters from Massachusetts, were encouraging. Currently there are no oyster processors in Massachusetts and shucked oysters available to restaurants are commonly sourced from the Chesapeake Bay or the Pacific Northwest.
“If we were given a variety, we are confident that the Capes would be the favorite,” one chef commented.
The project team of Barnstable County Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, Woods Hole Sea Grant, Wellfleet Shellfish Promotion and Tasting, and the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance was funded by a NOAA Sea Grant and partnered with local members of the American Culinary Federation.
Abigail Archer, Fisheries & Aquaculture Specialist Cape Cod Cooperative Extension & Woods Hole Sea Grant, said there is interest within the Massachusetts shellfish aquaculture industry to diversify and supplement income by creating value-added products such as shucked oysters.
She coordinated the pilot with Chef Michael Pillarella, president of the 100-strong Cape Cod & Islands Chefs Association, who picked up Falmouth-grown oysters from their six-month stay in the freezer and delivered them. The chefs decided on the recipes and sent information and photos to Archer. They then created each recipe twice – once with Cape oysters and once with those from Maryland.
“The chefs put together an incredible array,” Archer said, including various fried oyster recipes.
The partnership has been working for several years to increase and expand markets for Cape shellfish. This project is part of that larger effort.
“Since 2015, when the Fishermen’s Alliance invested in the renovation of ARC Hatchery, we have been tracking issues that impact shellfish harvesters and the hatchery, which is a vital resource for shellfish aquaculture and propagation programs in Massachusetts,” said Melissa Sanderson, the Alliance’s chief operating officer.
More than 93 percent of total state aquaculture production is from oyster culture, and in the Northeast, oysters on the half shell account for more than 95 percent of oyster sales.
“With significant oyster culture growth over the last decade, it is imperative to examine potential areas for market growth to ensure that demand continues to be greater than supply,” said Sanderson.
As towns turn to oysters to help clean up local estuaries, farmers are worried the oyster market will be flooded by product grown through municipal efforts for water quality.
“Cape Cod grows delicious, sought-after oysters, but there often is a glut in the fall, as farmers try to sell as many as possible before overwintering them, sometimes selling at a loss,” Sanderson explained.
Shucked oysters could provide a new outlet for oysters that are too big (or ugly) for a raw bar, she added.
Beriau and other chefs were quick to point out they would be willing to pay a premium for a local oyster. The buy fresh-buy local movement is strong on the Cape.
Restaurant owners are accustomed to buying pre-shucked oysters for fried oysters or oyster stew that mostly come from the Chesapeake or Washington state, Sanderson said.
“The overwhelming feedback was that chefs are excited about the possibility of a local shucked oyster and would prefer to use it, even as a frozen product, over a shucked oyster from ‘away,’” Sanderson said. “Hopefully a shucking house will be willing to take the risk to shuck some Cape Cod oysters. Fingers crossed that Cape Cod shucked oysters will soon be available throughout the menu, not just on the raw bar, and that this will be a tasty solution to the autumn drop in oyster prices.”
Beriau is a strong supporter. “These (growers) are our brothers and sisters, they are in our backyard,” he said. “I’ll do anything in my power to help.”