The uninitiated are always surprised by the differences between oyster varieties. A mile north or south from one grower to another is enough to change the sweetness, texture, and brininess in any given crop of oysters. Connoisseurs know that there’s gold in them thar shells, complex and subtly different gold.
That capacity for so much diversity within such a small geographic area means that there’s plenty of room at the table, so-to-speak, for the men and women harvesting local oysters. According to the Coastal Resource Management Council’s (CRMC) most recent annual report there were 73 aquaculture farms – including farms dedicated to mussels and clams – in the state and 8,434,541 locally harvested oysters were sold for consumption last year. Aquaculture is a booming industry here because, as we all know, oysters are delicious and our waters are full of them. Farms dedicated to harvesting the bounty of shellfish grown in our waters dot the coastline from Westerly all the way up into Narragansett Bay.
Oysters, being the big export that they are, get a lot of attention. Solid branding and a lot of exposure make them one of the stars of the local aquaculture scene; think buck-a-shuck deals at bars and restaurants, or some of the bigger oyster-focused festivals that pop up annually in Providence and Newport. Their reputation as an aphrodisiac helps, too. As does that variety in flavor. For example, Walrus and Carpenter Dutchies, grown in Jamestown’s Dutch Harbor, are salty with a clean finish. Meanwhile, Salt Water Farms’ Quonset Point Oysters, harvested from Narragansett bay’s East Passage, can have a subtle or more intense salty start and end with a more refreshing, briny finish. Move to the Bay’s West Passage and Wickford Oyster Co.’s Fox Island Oysters sport a medium brine start and a buttery finish. A matter of miles becomes a world of flavors, most often – and best – enjoyed raw and slurped right from the shell.
But there’s more than just oysters below local waves. Mussels aren’t grown in the same quantities or varieties as oysters, but they’ve carved out a niche by taking center stage in certain popular dishes around the state, like Red Stripe’s extensive moules & frites menu at both their Providence and East Greenwich locations, or in a co-starring role in Paella at Spain of Narragansett. American Mussel Harvesters, based out of Quonset Point, ships three varieties of farm-raised and wild mussels across the country, proving that a little mussel goes a long way.
CRMC’s report points to an aquaculture industry that will continue to ride this successful wave into the future. That’s good news for farmers and businesses; there’s no such thing as too much of a good local product, after all. But it’s even better news for diners.