Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Crabby News

You can ask any waterman crabbing on the Bay this year how the season is going so far and you will undoubtedly get a similar grunt from all of them; it's not good.  I probably didn't have to tell many of you this.  If you happened to purchase steamed crabs this year, a summer tradition in these parts, or be in the market for fresh crabmeat, then you already know exactly what I am talking about.  That is, if you don't go comatose from the sticker shock.

Crab prices this year have been excessively high, which means a lot coming off last year's costly figures.  It's not that watermen are over-harvesting.  Quite the contrary, they just aren't finding crabs.  Earlier I explained why this may be the case and predicted an "off" year for the fishery, but even I thought that the fall would bring price relief as local harvests amped up.  Normally, the fall is when crabs are at their fattest and tastiest, and it also when supply seems to outpace demand.  But even if the local harvest redeems itself for its summer dearth in the next few months, don't expect prices to decrease.

When it rains, it pours.  Murphy's law.  Can't help for losing even when I'm winning.  Any of these can fill in the blank describing the remainder of the crab season.  It's as if Ziggy is writing the script.  What should be a great time of the year to purchase blue crab is just not going to pan out the way we were hoping due to the fact that Venezuela crab meat is going to disappear from the market starting this week and it will not return until November.  Venezuela is a major contributor of crabmeat to the U.S., delivering around 20,000 pounds to Miami airport daily.  Even though BlackSalt doesn't carry Venezuelan crabmeat, when that amount of product is missing from the market, everyone feels the pressure.

To compound woes, Gulf crabmeat production is going to take a plunge as the delayed shrimp season finally gets underway.  The shrimp season is awfully late this year, one of the main reasons why domestic shrimp prices are also a headache for many consumers, and unfortunately the two operations do not coexist peacefully.  Most gulf crabbers will pull their pots from the water in fear that shrimp trawlers will snare their wares.

So, to the rescue comes our local blue crab, the most sought-after of all blue crabs.  The good news is that there will be great, fatty crabs this fall from our native waters.  The bad news is that both Venezuelan and Gulf crabmeat will become scarcer, laying the burden directly on the backs of both our local watermen and local blue crab.  You can argue that Chesapeake Bay crab is the best tasting crab out there and that all other crabs are inferior.  You can't, however, argue that we need other sources of crab for a healthy and wallet friendly market.  As you might find out in the next few months, sometimes its difficult to have your crab and eat it too.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Introducing A New Species

There are five main species of oysters made regularly available in oyster bars and markets throughout the United States.  You may not recognize the species names, but any oyster eating novice will recognize some of their trade names: Belon (Ostrea Edulis), Olympia (Ostrea Conchaphila), Kumamoto (Crassostrea Sikamea), Wellfleet (Crassostrea Virginica), and Hood Canal (Crassostrea Gigas).  The only actual species native to the U.S. are the Virginica and Olympia, the rest were implants from foreign shores, but today all are staples in any self-respecting oyster palace.  So it is very rare when a "new" species of oyster reaches these shores and is made available for purchase, but that is just what is happening at BlackSalt Market for a limited time and I can honestly say I haven't been this excited to taste an oyster in quite a while.

Let me introduce the rare and unique Ostrea Chilensis, also known in New Zealand as the Tio Point or Bluff Oyster.  Tio Point oysters are a Chilensis species oyster grown fully submerged in the pristine Marlborough Sounds located northeast of New Zealand's South Island.  The Tio Point is a flat oyster and is closely related to the European Flat oyster, or as we recognize it, the Belon.  They can only be found growing wild in Chile and New Zealand and are highly prized in both countries as choice delicacies.

Tio Points are produced by Kono, a Maori owned business, and are grown sub-tidally using the rope method in the clean, nutrient-rich waters of the scarcely populated Marlborough Islands.  These growing methods allow for the oysters to grow cleanly, uninterrupted and with easy access to flavor boosting nutrients.  The resulting oyster has a plump, firm meat, with zesty aromas, metallic brine, and a slightly sweet, steely crisp.  The Tio finishes long and strong and leaves the mouth with an exotic burst of flavor unparalleled at the oyster bar.  It may not be for the uninitiated oyster slurper but, if you're a veteran the experience to taste a Tio Point could create a whole new base line of oyster excellence.

Tio is the Maori word for "oyster" and Tio Point Oysters exemplify what quality oysters can be and why we are so attracted to them.  It's an experience, a flavor, a moment of meeting nature in an unadulterated bite.  Tio Point oysters won't be an item that we will be able to bring in often, as the costs prohibit this, but they are special enough to at least try once.  Every oyster tells a story.  The subtleties of flavor betray in a moment what took nature years to develop.  Harsh winters and long summers spill out in crisp meats, flaked with steel resolve and electric brine.  The Tio Point is a story unlike any you have heard before and for a short while your mouth can listen in on its memoir.            

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

National Oyster Day

August 5th is National Oyster Day and I am calling on all of you experienced and novice ostreaphiles alike to come out and feast on nature's most delectable bi-valve.  Oysters are celebrated for their fascinating, incomparable flavor, but did you know that getting your fill of oysters actually helps clean the Chesapeake Bay and other natural estuaries?  Thanks to agencies such as the Oyster Recovery Program, the more oysters that are eaten, the more oysters get planted for the following year.  The Oyster Recovery Program builds reefs out of recycled oyster shells for new oysters on which to grow, just like they would naturally in the wild, and the more oysters you eat, the more incentive farmers have to increase their crop for next year.  This equals more oysters in the water, making for cleaner water for all species.

Oysters are a vital part of our estuaries and the natural environment.  They can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day.  Clean water is very important for the growth and development of other plant and animal species such as eelgrass, bluefish, crabs, rockfish, trout, and bass.  Oysters have been consumed and adored by man for over 10,000 years, but just in the past 200 years pollution and over-harvesting has decimated North American oyster populations.  We have depleted natural oyster beds to a point in which it is critical to focus a concerted effort to replenishing our waters with the life saving and life giving shellfish.   There is no better way to do this than to eat more oysters!  

Whether you prefer the cold, crisp, salty meats of Canada; the clam-like, briny, coppery, firm meats of New England; the buttery, crab-like meats of the South; or the algal, melon-sweet, plump meats of the West - there is definitely an oyster out there to suit your tastes.  This week you can try your hand at East Coast and West Coast varieties at BlackSalt Fish Market, Republic of Takoma Park, Blacks Bar and Kitchen, and Pearl Dive Oyster Palace.  BlackSalt Fish Market is even offering a New Zealand oyster that is considered a delicacy amongst connoisseurs, a rare find on this side of the planet.  So come and celebrate the oyster on National Oyster Day by eating a few dozen.  If you are like me, you might want to extend the holiday and make it National Oyster Month.  The Bay would thank you for it.