One-hundred thousand fit in the palm of your hand.
The nearly translucent Lady's Island triploid seed from the Beaufort oyster hatchery will grow in the salty water of the Stono over the next 13 to 18 months, absorbing different salinities and nutrients from the inlet where the Kiawah, Folly, and Stono rivers meet. And the triploid seed doesn't reproduce, allowing the oyster to spend all of its energy filtering, feeding, and growing.
- Ruta Smith
When they're pulled from their cages after a year-and-a-half of growth, only one oyster will fit squarely between ring finger and thumb tip. Behold, the Crassostrea virginica, the East Coast oyster and the Lowcountry's precious pearl, available year-round as consistently delicious singles thanks to the growth of local oyster farming. Diners are enamored, restaurants are scouting, and vivacious, educated young farmers are strapping on their mud boots to answer the bivalve's siren call.
Founded in 2016, Charleston Oyster Farm is the first oyster farm in the City of Charleston, operating off of a (tiny) private island west of Folly Beach. Their wholesale facility is located in the old Backman's Seafood on Sol Legare Road, but co-owner/founder Caitlyn Mayer says they rarely have to use it except in the dead of summer. "In the winter it's cold enough we can take them right out of the water and straight to the restaurant."
She says this nonchalantly, as if all of their arduous farming, distribution, and marketing is handled by a multitude of employees. In reality, it's just Mayer, her husband Peter Bierce, and his twin, Tom. They're all smiles, tow-headed and blue-eyed; when we take a tour of the farm, one of the twins (we truly can't tell the difference) is wearing flip-flops. Mayer's blonde ponytail is tucked up into a cap, large hoop earrings on display. They're at ease on their beat up pontoon — more Castaway raft than seaworthy vessel — espousing the boon of mariculture as we head out to their 1.7 acre water farm.
Happily crowded on the pontoon are the three farmers — with degrees of geology, marine biology, and environmental science under their belts — and local chef dream team Corrie and Shuai Wang. Oh, and Corrie's mom. The Wangs, along with their friends at Park Circle wine bar Stems & Skins, are opening their first restaurant, Jackrabbit Filly, later this year.
- Ruta Smith
They plan to "build a really awesome raw bar" at JF, they say, with two oyster selections daily, one local and one from one of their old favorites like Island Creek Oysters, located in Duxbury, Mass. The oysters will be accompanied by creative garnishes and sauces as well as tartars, sashimi, chilled chawanmushi, and other small bites instead of just "traditional shrimp cocktails and standard raw bar items."
It's fitting that the Wangs, who enjoyed great success as a quirky, itinerant concept before landing this brick-and-mortar, would be drawn to the Charleston Oyster Farm's product, equally cheeky and flavor-forward.
Charleston Oyster Farm, unlike other (also young) area farms including Lowcountry Oyster Company, Barrier Island Oyster Co., and Toogoodoo Oyster Co., uses bottom cages to grow their oysters. Ideally, the Bierces and Mayer say, they'd be able to use floating cages like their peers. The permitting, however, is much easier to procure for bottom cages.
Like the name implies, the cages are out of sight, out of mind, sitting at a very specific depth and distance from the shore. One of the main challenges with bottom cage-grown oysters is that you get inconsistent sizing. Not ideal when you're trying to market and sell your product to restaurants.
Mayer's made the most of it though, saying that they've been able to market two separate oysters: the Mosquito Fleet Petite, an homage to the Gullah Geechee fishermen of the area, and the Perky Sea Cup, named after Mayer's well-endowed friend. "My friend's boobs ... those actually were the reason we started the farm," laughs Mayer. "We came up with the name and said 'we should do this!'"
The petite takes around 13 months to grow to harvest size, and the sea cup will grow between a 13 and 18 month period. We pop open some sea cups on the pontoon, Tom being sure to rinse off all the mud (they're typically thoroughly washed to get them sparkly and white before they're sent off for wholesale). They're lovely, though, in their natural state. It's probably in the low 70s outside, and the oysters are only slightly cool, not ice-cold like you find when you're throwing down for market price mollusks.
- Ruta Smith
"OK, chefs, what do you think?" Mayer asks. Shuai pauses, "creamy, briny." "So beautiful," says Corrie. We down a couple more and pop the Prosecco the Wangs brought. Mayer crouches next to the cage — "it's an entire ecosystem, there are crabs and shrimp and fish, depending on the season we've had lobster and ocotopi."
Before starting their own company, Mayer was getting her master's degree in environmental science (specifically water quality) while working in food and bev; Tom did marine construction and commercial diving on Folly; and Peter worked for the SCDNR South Carolina Oyster Restoration and Enhancement Program, helping rejuvenate the state's wild oyster population, and also managed different mariculture operations along the coast.
Together, they decided to purchase the small, overgrown and marshy goat island, which they've named 'Meridian,' three miles from the Atlantic, securing the water rights off its shore.
We tie up the pontoon and make our way (carefully) down the rickety dock to the island. It's quiet and buggy and muddy. We spy McMansions in the distance.
"It's a new industry, when we started there weren't others to just go work at and learn the trade plus no one else is using this gear type," says Mayer. Between their education and real-world experience, the trio is able to grow some damn good oysters in a relatively tiny water farm with a system they designed themselves. Mayer even leads a College of Charleston field course a few days a week.
While they'd like to expand operations — their current farm was initially supposed to serve only as their nursery — and secure some floating cage permits, for now, they're going to focus on spreading the good word of the good oyster, and putting those Perky Sea Cups on a plate near you.