Sunday, February 15, 2009
So you like your Oysters in the winter...
Well, I just got back from PEI, and I know what you're thinking. Most sane folks would like to go to some place warm and sandy for a few days before Valentine's. Oyster Shuckers aren't necessarily sane, but I was asked to talk as a guest speaker for the Island Oyster Grower's Association's annual general meeting. Quite an honor for a simple city kid from East York, to be asked to chat about oysters, something these gents have known for generations. Naturally, I said yes in about 2 seconds, and asked if they had a day or two to listen to me blather on.
Johnny Flynn grower of the fantastic Colville Bay Oysters called over to James Powers of gorgeous Raspberry Point Oysters, and asked if we could be taken out on a tour of winter harvesting. This is a special treat, as the boys usually only go out once or twice a week to prep your oysters, so to land on the day is quite lucky.
I made a quick video of the work that is involved in getting oysters out to the many oyster bars and restaurants across North America, for us to better understand what oyster growers go through in the coldest time of the year.
The majority of growers or harvesters will try to get oysters to marker all year 'round, but are thwarted many times because of weather. In the summer the growers may be halted due to heavy rain, and warm weather causing a red tide bloom, but in the winter, you can guarantee on ice.
In the PEI, ice and snow blanket the "Island cradled in the waves" like a Colorado ski resort, minus the mountains. Pine trees, churches, and clapboard houses pop through the snow creating breathtaking views despite the breathtaking chill.
The day we went out it was -10˚C and not rain, but lightly falling slush, big enough to feel when it hit your head, just to make things interesting. Thank God, Scott and Johnny had extra foul weather gear.
We suited up, hopped in the back of the pickup, outfitted with chains on the tires, and made the five minute drive to the middle of New London Bay.
First things first, a grower has to prep the site, 3-4 months ago. Like squirrels socking away nuts for the winter. Scott and the crew spent allot of time, grading out oysters based on shape and size into 100 count perforated boxes. The boxes are stacked, 12 high, and six columns across into racks - 7200 oysters in total per rack. The racks are positioned in the deepest part of the lease area in approximately 15' of water, so when the ice comes in , the rack won't be disturbed.
Then they wait for the impending ice floe.
In the dead of winter, most of the growers on the island will close up. December is usually the last month for the serious ouster grower, fulfilling the Christmas orders, and then closing up shop for the winter. Repairing gear, and preparing for the spring thaw will take up allot of time, or you fish something else. There are several, maybe a dozen packager in total across PEI that can winter harvest.
Once we make it to the harvest site, a buoy is selected, and snow is removed, exposing the ice sheet. One of the crew members, fires up the 24" STHIL chainsaw. Mmmm chainsaw power....
Rumbling away, the saw tears into the ice, and a 6'x6' square opening is cut. Four thinner blocks are created for ease of moving, and are pushed under the floe, instead of being hauled out. In the good ole days, the ice would have been sold off for "iceboxes".
Once the opening is free of blocks, an A-frame hydraulic winch is positioned over it, and the hook is lowered into the icy blue-black water. James is fishing for the buoy-line like my boy fishes for prizes at the EX in the summer. Once James has the line, the winch is activated, and a mass of grey boxes is slowly lifted to the surface, displacing PEI's signature red silty mud from the bottom, causing the now blood-coloured water to surge up, and stain the ice. A couple of minutes later the rack is lowered onto a sled attached to the back of our pick up, and we are off to the grading shed of the PEI Oyster C. The tricky part is to get the oyster into the shed before they freeze in the cold air. Luckily it is only a balmy -10˚C with little wind, and a short drive. (I was thinking more of me than the oysters at this point.
When we got back, the crew takes the oysters, and runs each grey box through a washer, check for "winterkill" when the oyster dies off in the shell, and gets very smelly (sulphurous eggs, gas, death in general). To check, the basically smell for it, three to five guys will check and re-check each box after washing.
Once the boxes are packed, then they are tagged and ready for shipment.
Grab a beer, check out the video, and when you next have an oyster in the dead of winter, think of, and thank the grower for heading out onto the ice pack, the shucker has the easy job.