SOUTHOLD—A 24-by-40-foot greenhouse stands above a cavernous underground hatchery on the Shellfisher Preserve off Peconic Bay in Southold. There five species of algae incubate in a circulating system of 40 150-gallon cylinders, flushed with seawater that the algae turn green, yellow and brown—like homegrown animal feed, it’s a complete diet for the oysters that grow beneath.
Outside, cooperative-owned docks hold bobbing mesh bags of the full-grown bivalves, and down the road, they’re likely being served on the half shell with a wine pairing at Paumanok Vineyards or on a plate at Manhattan’s historic Grand Central Oyster Bar, where the first batch was unveiled to the public last November.
Peconic Pearls, as they’ve aptly been named, are sweet and briny and pick up the distinctive minerality of the bay just as wine grapes glean flavors from the surrounding earth. Farmer and co-manager of the operation Karen Rivara handles the oysters often and gives them plenty of space to grow into thick-shelled, full cup-shaped slurpers unlike typical thin teardrop-shaped varieties that form when overcrowded. Charles Massoud, co-owner of Paumanok, claims they have few rivals. “For the longest time, I thought Paris had the best oysters in the world. And today, I would tell you the North Fork does, and I think Karen in particular makes the best ever,” says Massoud, adding that anyone who’s met her quickly identifies her commitment to detail.
He also attributes the flavor to freshness. In Paris, he says, oysters may have up to a few weeks’ delay from harvest to your plate. They’ll last, but he admits, something in the taste of the ocean is lost. “We are very grateful to have them in our own backyard.” He and wife, Ursula, offer their nearby vineyard’s deck for oyster tasting on any clear-enough summer weekend afternoon. To pair: a good dry white wine, like their chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, dry riesling or Festival chardonnay. It’s a luxury that’s newly returned to the area.
More than 20 years ago, the same dock was thought to have seen its last oyster. A family named Plock had owned the then-22-acre oyster farm since the 1940s, when they grew some of the Island’s best under the Shelter Island Oyster Company label with a helpful marketing mascot named Oscar the Oyster and an innovative onshore facility that allowed year-round oyster production and also allowed for mariculture research. But after the death of
John L. Plock Jr., the family’s only son, in the late ’70s, acre by acre was soon put up for sale. The last 14 drew the attention of the Peconic Land Trust, a nonprofit organization established in 1983 to conserve the farmlands of Long Island.
“This property could never be reproduced today given the regulatory constraints,” says Tim Caufield, vice president of the trust, who thought it’d be a shame to lose it. “[The Plocks] were very much ahead of their time,” he says. The family had built a creek to send water inland for private waters, buffered from the bay, and a bottomless barn, where oysters could stake out the winter. While other operations were blocked from harvest by a sheet of ice, the Plocks could source from the barn. To save the property from housing development, the trust reached out to nearby Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program to devise a plan to set aside a space that would keep the local oyster market alive and maintain health of the ecosystem. The program later became the “de facto stewards of the land,” says Caufield, after the Plocks donated it in the early ’90s.
Meanwhile Karen was building an oyster business of her own in a basement in Shirley, Long Island, and had been sniffing around the Sound long before it was publicly acquired. “She had known about the Plock family for years,” says Caufield. “In fact, she just called me up one day and said, ‘Why don’t we go check it out?’”
After studying Marine Science at Southampton College, Rivara dabbled in research labs from the early ’80s—when she had her first raw oyster and grew algae for the Blue Point Oyster Company—to the early ’90s when she became a lab director for Cosper Environmental Services. In 1994, she developed the Aeros Oyster Company in Shirley, which became the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative now occupying the old Plock operation, renamed the Shellfisher Preserve after the Land Trust acquired it. (Shellfisher Preserve is the water-of-origin nametag you’ll find on a bushel bag of Peconic Pearls.)
She and husband Gregg Rivara, fittingly an aquaculture specialist at Cornell’s Marine Program, now live on the land with their two daughters and manage the hatchery—they added that algae-growing greenhouse in 2007, making for a facility capable of growing oysters from seed to market size. Karen also supplies seed for four other members of the cooperative, who share the dock and the barn outside Karen’s hatchery, and sends stock to Connecticut, where the company conducts research on oyster diseases.
Besides the pleasure oysters impart on our palates, they have the power to preserve our city-bound waters—inextricably linked to our actions on land. That’s because oysters are born filters with the capacity to clean 50 gallons of water daily. Their complexly layered bodies begin as microscopic larvae that, when magnified, look like tiny swimming “letter D’s with eyelashes,” Karen says of the fascinating scene in her petri dish.
They spawn in nearly 80-degree weather in the deepest cavity of the site’s underground hatchery, where the fruits of the above greenhouse flow down through tubes in the concrete, grass-topped roof. Here, the Pearls breed and grow larger as they’re brought closer to 60 degrees, from spat (baby shellfish) to three-millimeters wide—from invisible appendages affixed to eggshell particles to adult bivalves building shells of their own—before they’re ready to move out into the bay. It’s a system that delays their interaction with shellfish predators, deadly algae blooms and other threats that could cripple young stock, as proven by the suffocating “brown tide” that has threatened the area’s supply since 1983.
Karen hopes that one day a dock will overlook the bay and host on-site tastings and perhaps a lecture series on marine stewardship. “Whatever you do on land affects the bay,” she says, staring back at the dock-in-development she imagines with French doors and conversations of sustainability—with fresh samples of nature’s best cleaners, of course. “I want to grow out the grass, too,” she says, pointing to land brushing the coast. “Maybe beach plums or rose hips,” she dreams aloud. It’s all part of the harmonious culture she’s brought to our shores, so much like her amiable nature and easy offering of a wealth of aqua-knowledge.
For now, find Karen giving shucking lessons at Jimmy’s No. 43 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side where Peconic Pearls come three for $5. Less than 10 miles from the bay on County Road 48 in Peconic, Sang Lee Farms offers a weekly vegetable CSA with a package deal for 50 oysters per month from May 31 to November 8. “Karen is a customer of ours,” says Karen Lee of her and her husband Fred’s farmstead retail space stocked with homegrown produce and locally sourced Asian specialty products that work well with oysters. “She usually harvests them that morning and brings them right over to me.” Lee notes many customers decide to plan dinners shortly after pickup in order to share their abundant CSA stock with friends, but oysters can last a few weeks if simply placed cup-side down in the fridge.
Or have them served to you at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, whose executive chef, Sandy Ingber, was on board from the beginning. “I was going out east to Oysterponds on Long Island,” he says, noting a visit to one of his purveyors. “He said, ‘Would you like to go to a hatchery?’ And I said, ‘Gee, that sounds great, I’ve never been to one.’”
Karen was just growing seed then; no oysters yet in the water, he remembers. “But she had this vision.” And with good merit. “This oyster really has a wonderful flavor. It’s got a nice amount of brine. It’s really full of meat—it’s beautiful,” says Ingber, who serves them cold with mignonettes of wasabi and sake. He also serves them broiled at the historic bar, and for their launch, they took a ride with black truffles for a tasting plate of oysters Rockefeller. “But generally people can expect to find them on the half shell,” he says, advising a dry white or Champagne for a tablemate. “And, of course, stout beer.”
But above their flavor, Ingber, too, admires the charitable quality of this local luxury. “I admire Karen and Noank Aquaculture for what they’re doing,” reflects Ingber. “We really have to do things to this earth that will keep it sustainable for the rest of our lives, and she’s certainly got a first step in doing it.”
Jessie Cacciola has written for Time Out New York, the Atlantic Food Channel and Salon.com, as well as other New York Edible magazines. She’s developed oyster envy but did not steal any from the barn.