The way is narrow and shallow into Fish Creek, a remote bend in the ACE Basin where Taylor Sikes goes to check on his oysters. Hooking a right off the South Edisto River, Sikes guns the flatboat as he enters the nearly hidden creek, fully aware that he has about a foot of clearance underneath. A single white heron welcomes him, flying in front of the boat as it slips between tall banks of grassy pluff mud.
When Sikes left the dock 20 minutes earlier at Bennett's Point, an outpost roughly an hour-and-a-half removed from Charleston by car, his co-worker Danny Hieronymus shouted a boast over the puttering engine that more or less summed up the appeal of oysters from this part of the state: "We're in the ACE Basin, baby, as pristine as it gets." The basin, a 350,000-acre estuary named for the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto rivers that flow through it, remains largely undeveloped, thanks to public and private conservation efforts. As a result, it also produces clean, silky, enormous oysters.
Sikes and Hieronymus work for St. Jude Farms, the company that sells the famed Otter Island single oysters to an ever-expanding roster of Charleston fine dining establishments: The Ordinary, High Cotton, Amen Street, 39 Rue de Jean, FIG, Fleet Landing, Coast, the Boathouse, the Harbor Club, and on and on. Owned by real estate magnate Bob Doran, the company only earned its permits and started selling oysters in October 2012, but it has already moved more than 40,000 oysters from the water to Lowcountry tables.
Out on Fish Creek, the banks widen until Sikes is cruising through a 2,000-foot-wide stretch of water 17 feet deep. Sloughs of clustered oysters line the mud, but Sikes isn't interested in those proletarian clumps, the small-time stuff of backyard oyster roasts. He's in it for the singles, the solitary mollusks whose luxurious size and deep-cupped shells make them ideal for dishes like Oysters Rockefeller. Sikes is a project manager, so he doesn't do much of the actual harvesting. That task falls to a team of up to eight pickers who travel farther out to Otter Island, where they don full-length waders and handpick mature specimens. In the chilled water where the rivers meet the Atlantic Ocean, they slog into the famous coastal pluff mud, which smells like sulfur to some, home to others.
Once the oysters are picked, they go into the wet storage float, a mostly submerged box structure in the middle of Fish Creek with art-deco wire whirligigs on top to keep seagulls away. Sikes custom-designed the float to hold up to 50,000 oysters at a time in cages that let the river water flow through. This arrangement keeps the oysters alive while filtering out nearly all of the sediment that can build up in their shells. As Sikes pulls the boat up to the float and boards its wood-plank deck, he explains why the float is an integral part of St. Jude Farms' success. "As the restaurants want the oysters, we'll come out in the morning and pull the cages," he says. "When it gets to restaurants, they only came out of the water two to four hours earlier."
Nancy Hadley, who leads the shellfish management section at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, says it pays to be picky when it comes to harvesting oysters. "The ones going more for quantity than quality are the ones that are doing the most damage," Hadley says of commercial harvesters. When pickers take entire clusters out of the water, including empty shells and immature oysters, they take away shells that could have been homes to future generations of mollusks. It's best, she says, to knock off the unneeded shells and leave them where they lie, rather than take them to shore.
Sustainability and farm-to-table food are in vogue in Charleston's dining scene, and St. Jude Farms is marketing itself as an environmentally responsible company. When the oystermen bring in subpar oysters, the company sends them back out with the shells to place them in the water. Sikes has also been planting native bamboo on the river banks. As oysters glom onto the bamboo, their weight eventually pulls the reeds over in the mud, slowly forming a mat of bamboo and shells that can form a new oyster bed.
The Otter Island oyster is a creature worth preserving. Eaten raw (that is, still alive), it fills the entire mouth and gushes between the teeth. It is a rush of wet salt and little else, and it leaves the cheeks feeling cold and pickled. The taste is pure and unadulterated, like the ACE Basin.
Sikes says his boss, Bob Doran, has been eating the company's oysters at The Ordinary every day — an exaggeration perhaps, but to what degree is uncertain. "I'm like, 'Boss, if you'd just stop going there, maybe we could keep up,'" Sikes jokes. He has worked for Doran for 10 years, piloting his yacht up and down the Atlantic coast from Maine to the northern tip of South America, but the oyster venture didn't come up until about three years ago.
"It was just kind of a pet project that happened over a glass of wine one night," Sikes says. St. Jude Farms was already working on raising grass-fed beef on property near Greenville, and Doran gave Sikes the go-ahead to start working on the oyster project.
Down in the ACE Basin, Sikes started raking down oyster beds and applying for the requisite permits. He enlisted the help of operations manager Hieronymus, a childhood friend with whom he had picked oysters in Wrightsville Beach, N.C. Recently, St. Jude Farms started harvesting clams, too.
"Eventually, we want to turn this into a high-end food distribution company," Sikes says. "The oysters were kind of like a logical first step, to break that ice and get your foot in the door with these restaurants." Already, St. Jude Farms is striking deals with regional fishermen, selling from an ever-changing seasonal menu that includes speckled trout, triggerfish, and flounder. In May, when oyster season ends, they'll start pulling Carolina grouper, snapper, mahi, and wahoo from the water.
St. Jude Farms has made all of its sales in the restaurant industry, a world Hieronymus knows well. He studied at Johnson & Wales when it was still located in Charleston and then worked in the kitchen at the Greenbrier restaurant in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. "I'd rather supply these Mike Latas and these very culinary-aware chefs," Hieronymus says. "I want to supply them with the best regional American seafood."
Up ahead in the river, Sikes points out a pair of flat-topped mounds that rise from the surface of Fish Creek. They are prehistoric mounds of oysters, he explains, untold thousands of years old and piled high from times when oysters grew much larger. "It'd be interesting to get into the middle of it and just see, because I've got an oyster shell my brother gave me from North Carolina back at the shop, and it is this big around," he says, holding his hands just past shoulder width like a fibbing fisherman.
There is a precolonial feel on the ACE Basin, where traces of Edisto, Combahee, and Ashepoo Indian civilizations still exist. The oyster pickers sometimes find arrowheads in the oyster beds. It's also the sort of place that becomes rarer every year, where man has intentionally left nature to run its course. On the boat ride back to Bennett's Point, Sikes points out a pair of dolphins, their dorsal fins peeking in and out of the water. The sea islands writhe with rattlesnakes, and a bald eagle keeps watch from a barren treetop.
As the sun inches lower and the boat judders over tiny waves in the South Edisto, a lukewarm breeze starts to blow, whipping off of the water's surface and filling the mouth. For a moment, it tastes just like an oyster.