Warning, the following article includes references to oyster sex. What? You think oysters don't do it? Two words: Cole Porter. Oh, need a reminder? Well here are a few lines from Porter's famed song: "Oysters down in oyster bay do it /Let's do it, let's fall in love."
Oysters are hermaphrodites. Some are simultaneous hermaphrodites, meaning they have both bits at once. Others, are egg-bearing sequential hermaphrodites, i.e. they start as males and then, as they age, become female. And those sequential ones just happen to be the local kinds you like to slurp down at The Ordinary — Crassostrea virginica, a.k.a. Eastern or American oysters. Just remember that detail, as it'll prove useful later.
The second important fact: no matter the name, Otter Island, Caper's Blades, etc., all local oysters are Crassostrea virginica. But, how, you may ask, do they all look and sometimes taste different? Well, just like plants, oysters' varying characteristics are attributed to the regions in which they grow, and those characteristics vary accordingly, be it in clusters tucked near low tide or on the bottom of the bay. But what's in demand right now are deep cup-shaped oysters. If you've tried Clammer Dave Belinger's cultured Carolina Cup, then you know what we're talking about.
For Belinger's plump singles, the oysterman harvests younger wild oysters, separates them from the clusters, and allows them to mature in ocean crates on their side; this creates a cup and a really thick oyster. The result: a sought after variety for both aesthetic and textural reasons due to thickness of the oyster. Now local seafood outfit St. Jude Farms is taking its culturing technique one step further by growing Charleston Salts, a sterile variety they're hoping will develop into the region's hottest new oyster cup.
St. Jude Farms sits on the South Edisto River portion of the ACE Basin. The two-year-old seafood outfit is one of the first South Carolina companies to test out the sterile triploid oysters, or oysters with three sets of chromosomes.
"They don't spawn, so they grow faster," says Shane Doran, St. Jude's PR manager. And that increased growth rate, plus the cupped half-shell, could be a culinary cash cow for the young company.
Here's why: While areas farther up the East Coast have been growing triploids for nearly 40 years, the product is relatively new to the South. What researchers in Virginia have discovered is that triploid oysters have lower mortality rates than diploids, or traditional oysters. Bonus No. 1. Add to that the fact that they also have a greater weight yield and a higher proportion of market-size oysters than diploids, and you're shelling out a highly marketable product.
Encouraged by these stats, St. Jude Farms reached out to marine biologist Bill Cox for advice on their first harvest. "Two things happen in the summer," Cox says. "Oysters gonads get bigger and the oyster prepares to spawn."
If you've ever eaten a late spring oyster, Cox adds, you may have noticed a creamier texture. "That means it's ripe," he says. Ripe and full of 10 million eggs or plump with sperm; in fact, its body at that time may be up to 75 percent reproductive tissue. Those gametes (eggs and sperm) will get released out into the ocean. So if you haul in an oyster a day after egg expulsion, you're getting a limp shadow of the previous days' oyster. "In July that oyster is a really tired oyster," Cox says. "We call them water bellies because they're see-through. Really that means their belly is full of water. That's disappointing to customers."
But since triploids don't reproduce, they skip the water belly stage and instead just continue to grow plumper. "Charleston oysters have typically always been saltier, but smaller. This is the best of both worlds," says Doran. "It'll be big like a Gulf oyster, but meatier and brinier — it's ideal really."
The process at St. Jude Farms started last year with the arrival of 180,000 spat, tiny baby oysters no bigger than your pinky nail. The oysters are then divided into mesh bags of 4,000 spat apiece and placed into 130 cages. Once in cages, they float at the top of a water column in a brackish nursery. "The current is fast at the mouth of St. Helena Sound, which helps the oysters grow faster, as well," adds Doran. Every few weeks, the oyster cages are thinned out, redistributed, and flipped to encourage cup-shaped growth.
And while only two St. Jude Charleston Salts have been taste tested (we got the first verdict: extra salty), chefs are excited about the possibilities. High Cotton Executive Chef Shawn Kelly recently joined the St. Jude Farms team on the water to get a closer look at Charleston Salts.
"Locally, we have lots of wild oysters, but generally they all lack the large, deep cup that guests feel good about paying top dollar for," says Kelly. "This particular product is going to give oyster lovers in Charleston a trademarked name and consistent product that hasn't previously been available from our local waters."
Which is to say Charleston Salts will be a boutique oyster. "It's a labor intensive process," says Doran. And you know what that means? Charleston Salts will cost ya.
So when will you be able to take a bite of these plump, briny, engineered oysters? Doran says that's up to DHEC. But if things turn out right, we expect the first Charleston Salts in September or October.