On the Farm: Walrus and Carpenter Oysters
The holiday season is also prime oyster season.
Small, white-capped waves chop at the flat bottom of Jules Opton-Himmel’s handmade boat as he navigates us to the center of Ninigret Pond in Charlestown, where he raises Walrus and Carpenter Oysters. Although Hurricane Sandy brought devastation to many prime commercial fishing areas in the Northeast, Rhode Island’s coastal ponds, like Ninigret, were spared. The pond is its own estuary separate from Narragansett Bay. “The coves provide us a great deal of protection,” Opton-Himmel explains. “And even the higher-than-normal water levels can work in our favor because the oyster bags are secured to the bottom of the pond.”
On three acres leased from the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council for the past four years, Walrus and Carpenter has increased its yield annually; this year 900,000 seed oysters were planted – each about the size of a dime – and Opton-Himmel will monitor the bivalves regularly over the next eighteen months to three years as they mature into marketable (and delicious) commodities.
Opton-Himmel, an environmental scientist by trade, and his former partner, Sean Patch, a Wall Street trader-cum high school teacher, met in New York City and discovered a mutual appreciation of boats and oceans. They both transplanted to New England with their significant others and started Walrus and Carpenter, but Patch has since left the business. Drawn by the excellent water quality (“An oyster’s flavor comes from its water;” Opton-Himmel emphasizes, “whereas wines express terroir, oysters express merrior”), Walrus and Carpenter oysters now appear on the menus of some of Rhode Island's best eateries, including the Mooring in Newport and New Rivers in Providence.
Almost every day, Opton-Himmel is on the boat by 8 a.m. From there, he and his small crew pull hundreds of mesh bags from the bottom of the pond and hand sort the oysters within. Some of the bags are attached to PVC frames and some are attached to a bamboo sculpture that was salvaged from an art exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. As the oysters grow, they are moved to larger and larger mesh bags to provide greater water circulation. Since oysters are filter feeders, exposure to flowing water is essential. This process continues until the oyster is large enough to market. Every oyster from Walrus and Carpenter is harvested on the day of market and personally delivered to chefs within four hours. “It’s true farm-to-plate service,” Opton-Himmel says proudly.
Opton-Himmel harvests oysters year round, and November is prime season. “Once the water temperature starts cooling down, the oysters start fattening up for winter,” he explains. “They develop a deeper cup and the muscle grows to store glycogen for the coming winter. Combine this with the already excellent flavor from Narragansett Bay waters and it’s easy to see why oysters are such a great part of winter holiday celebrations.” We’ll slurp to that! walrusandcarpenteroysters.com
Photo by Suzanne Opton.