Photo: norfolkdistrict, Flickr
In Westmoreland County, Va., at the bottom of Nomini Creek near Chesapeake Bay, there's a bed of oysters with a chef's name on it -- actually, it's got her son's name on it. Jamie Leeds, chef-owner of Hank's Oyster Bar in Washington, D.C., and Alexandria, Va., has started working with a local oyster farmer to develop her own variety of oysters on her own reef, named Hayden Reef. The project is also helping to restore the bay.
Oyster farmer Bruce Wood (of Dragon Creek Aqua Farm) had been delivering oysters to the restaurants since 2005, and he and Leeds would end up chatting during deliveries and developed a good working rapport over the years. Says Leeds: "It's just great to have that relationship, to really know where your product is coming from." So he felt comfortable approaching Leeds about recycling her shells. Using the roughly one thousand shells Leeds' restaurants go through each week, Wood was able to build an artificial reef by creating a wall for spat (oyster larvae) to cling to.
In another life, Wood was a retired Air Force colonel, just passing by the area, when he came upon a murky, unmanaged creek. "The first thing I thought was, we got to get some oysters in here to clean this up," says Wood. As natural filterers, oysters ensure better water quality -- they're typically able to filter up to 50 gallons per day, and that's just one oyster. So Wood saw the potential for double duty: to provide restaurants with a local product and to restore the ecosystem of the bay. "The creek empties into the river, the river empties into the bay, and the wheel goes round and round and we clean the bay," he says. Wood now works with about sixteen local restaurants, including Leeds' two Hank's Oyster Bar locations.
But first, Wood needed to build these oysters a home. Without a place for the oysters to cling on, you end up with no oysters and a dirty creek. "It got to be a hobby, then it got to be a habit, and then I found myself with 35 acres of water rights." By piling leftover shells into the water, Wood creates a place to support the weight of new oysters. The spat then breeds non-stop over the warm months until the water grows cold. Once they stop breeding, the spat start to grow, developing outer rings, which get thicker and larger until a shell forms around a juicy, plump oyster.
Wood says this is the real reason why we don't eat oysters in warm months -- they're just not big enough. Since the oysters are busy spawning, they don't really leave a lot of time to bulk up. "Think about it," he says, "when you're looking for love, don't you burn more calories? Same with the oysters." They're also milkier then, notes Leeds, "which turns people off, I think." But by the time Leeds gets them, they're full grown to about an average medium size, and they're "crisp, clean, with lots of liqueur, and meaty," she says.
The low salinity level in Chesapeake Bay also lends to a milder, sweeter product. "People talk of terroir -- well, there's also merquoi," says Wood, meaning the waters in which an oyster lives greatly affects its flavor, just as cheese will take on the taste and aroma of whatever environment a milked animal foraged on. So it's important to protect natural waters, just as you'd want to protect the quality of your dirt for produce, animal products, or wine, for that matter.
Leeds' first exclusive stock of oysters are expected to be delivered from Hayden Reef around October or November 2011. As for the menu: Hank's Oyster Bar makes a po' boy, a fried oyster dish and sake oyster shooters, but Leeds also plans to serve these new Hayden oysters on the half shell with the others she serves from the East and West coasts.
For now, though, it's time to grow. Creamy plumpness awaits.