Buried Treasure

Dean Yaxa tends his cages on the legendary Pipes Cove.

Dean Yaxa tends his cages on the legendary Pipes Cove.

A little more than 100 years ago, when New York City’s ravenous appetite for oysters — and its cumulative soiling of its surrounding waters — depleted the shellfish beds around Manhattan, Greenport rose to fill the demand.

“The whole bay bottom was cut up into oyster beds,” said Ed Jurczenia, whose family owns the Silver Sands Motel and Beach Cottages just west of Greenport Village. In his book, The Food and Wine of the North Fork, John Ross notes that as early as the 1920s companies like Lester and Toner, J. & J.W. Ellsworth, and the Greenport Oyster Company ran extensive harvesting and processing operations. (Ellsworth maintained an office in London to handle its European business.) Steam powered boats dredged thousands of acres of bay bottom, and a good shucker could process eight gallons of oyster meat a day. Greenport High School’s teams used to be the Oystermen. (They are now called the more gender-neutral Porters.) These were legendary finishing grounds, sheltered from storms but with a salt content reminiscent of the ocean that could punch up the flavor of young oysters brought in from elsewhere. Pipes Cove, the area just in front of the Silver Sands that looks onto Shelter Island, was particularly well-suited.

“I remember in the first grade we went around and everybody said what their father did,” said Jurczenia, who grew up in Greenport. “And everybody was in the oyster business except me.”

But in the 1950s, a combination of pollution, overharvesting and a couple of well-publicized food poisonings decimated the local industry. Production dropped from a high of about 25 million pounds of oyster meat in the 1920s to one million pounds in 1960. It seemed as though Greenport would never ship another oyster to the Big Apple. Until today.

The view of Pipes Cove and Shelter Island from the Silver Sands’ beach.

The view of Pipes Cove and Shelter Island from the Silver Sands’ beach.

Six years ago, Jurczenia received a cache of 1,500 baby oysters from the nearby Cornell Marine Center. Today, his supply stands in the hundreds of thousands and Pipes Cove Oysters is one of a growing number of start-up oyster farming ventures that have become the toast of New York connoisseurs again. The Grand Central Oyster Bar’s Fifth Annual Oyster Frenzy on September 28 and 29 will feature Pipes Cove’s harvest side by side with 30 other top oysters from around the world.

“The problem is not selling them,” said Jurczenia recently as he waited on the shore for his longtime friend and new business partner Dean Yaxa to motor over with his first harvest of the morning. “Even if everybody growing them here on the Island quadrupled their business, there’s still too much demand.” While the price of a clam has remained at 15 cents for the last two decades, the price of oysters has jumped to 50 cents or more.

Local restaurants and chefs, like the Seafood Barge and Big Mama’s in Southold, the Jedediah Hawkins Inn in Jamesport, and Art of Eating catering in East Hampton, have also become reliable customers. “We had to get some of the chefs to get back in the swing of using oysters,” said Jurczenia. “Some may not even know how to open them.” Jurczenia remembers when every restaurant on the North Fork served raw oysters and oyster stew. “Oysters were like the first fast food.”

Yaxa reaches the shore and starts raving about the bushel full of shellfish sitting on his deck. It’s not long before Jurczenia, who is ogling them like a chest of jewels, cuts off his business partner: “You’ve got a knife, right? Aren’t you going to let us try some?”

Yaxa pries one open and hands the dripping half shell to his partner who instantly sucks it down. “I’m a chewer,” said Yaxa, who calls the flavor slightly nutty. “I like to chew it and let the taste buds explode in my mouth.”

In the science of oyster flavor, what matters is flow. Steady movement of water means that oysters constantly receive a new supply of the microscopic algae that they eat. Compared to a brackish creek or deadend inlet, Pipes Cove is like being in the middle of the ocean. “We’ve got Peconic Bay on one side and freshwater marshes on both sides of me,” Yaxa explains, pointing to a 17-acre wildlife sanctuary Jurczenia created in memory to his father, Thomas. The bay deepens as it approaches nearby Shelter Island to the south, encouraging even more flow. And this water is impeccably clean. Twenty years ago, Jurczenia spent nearly one million dollars to put the entire 40-room motel on town septic. “The water’s as clean now as when the Indians were here,” Jurczenia said. “The DEC has told us.”

That doesn’t make the work easy. Pipes Cove is a hands-on operation—“We handled each oyster,” said Jurczenia, “and that’s why we say every one has a name”—and the oyster farmer’s lot is maintenance.

Throughout the year, Yaxa will regularly pick up each wire cage that holds the developing shellfish and remove any algae or other accumulation, as well as any parasites and predators he can dislodge. Crabs steal young oysters and there are all sorts of other creatures—tunicates, sponges, drills, and quarterdecks—that clog the holes in the cages, compete with the oysters for food, or cling to the shells.

Inspecting the harvest.

Inspecting the harvest.

Given the strong demand, there’s a powerful incentive to sell smaller oysters that have just grown during the summer. But Pipes Cove chooses to sell only oysters that it has kept in the water for at least one winter, since it feels that younger oysters have shells that are too thin and prone to chipping. “Anybody can sell shit and you don’t want to do that,” said Yaxa. Jurczenia offered a more nuanced explanation: “I know that we’ve got a great product when I go into the kitchen and the waiters and chefs tell you how good it is. It goes back to the clean water and elbow grease. It’s not like we have great brains. We just have a great place.”

Darlene Duffy, Jurczenia’s wife, often leaves Greenport at 4 a.m. so she can make deliveries to Manhattan and be back home by around 9 a.m. These “boutique oysters” aren’t harvested until they are ordered and marketed directly to fine restaurants. “They’ve got just a hint of what I perceive when you salt a watermelon,” said Mike Garvey, general manager of the Grand Central Oyster Bar, who likes to refer to an oyster’s “aqua-oir,” a variation on the wine-related term “terroir” that describes a shellfish’s unique flavors based on the water and grounds where it is raised.

For the Silver Sands (which Jurczenia’s mother bought in 1947 for $1,500, having to borrow money for the $15 deposit), oyster farming is more than just a side business. It’s a perfect complement to running a motel where weary city folk come to enjoy the pristine outdoors.

“It’s sort of like a little eco-tourism,” said Jurczenia. Sun bathers come over to see the haul, while curious children look up from their sand castle construction sites every time Yaxa starts his motor to move between the pattern of buoys that mark the cages of shellfish. In fact, oyster farming provides a sort of foundation for ecological resurgence, since the cages provide food for crabs, fish, and other sealife. “We’ve seen baby blackfish and even small codfish in the cages. And I’ve never seen cod here before.” (In the hotel’s lobby, which contains model whaling barks, scrimshaw, and unique oyster shells from the area’s fishing history, a big Ultravision shows visitors images from the “osprey cam” trained on a nest in the memorial wetlands.)

And if the sealife comes back that could mean hundreds of boats plying these waters again to feed the craving of folks who might visit Long Island in search of the perfect oyster. Which would make both Jurczenia and Yaxa happy. “To see 100 boats out here,” Yaxa said, “scallopers, flounder fishers, and oyster farmers. I think there’s a great potential to bring it back.”

ROASTED OYSTER STEW
By John Ross

Light your char grill and let the coals turn white. Place two dozen oysters on the grill and roast, covered, about five minutes. Remove to a tray and open the oysters with a knife, scraping all the meats and juices into a bowl. Meanwhile soften one half stick of unsalted butter in a bowl and add chopped tarragon, thyme, shallots, garlic, and lemon juice. Mix well and roll in a piece of foil and refrigerate. In a small saucepan heat one cup of milk and a cup of heavy cream. Do not boil. Add the oysters and their juices and stir in the herb butter. Season with pepper and coarse salt and serve with oyster crackers.

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