Now that the months have run out of “Rs,” South Carolina oysters are the stuff of summer dreams, right?
Wrong! Thanks to modern aquaculture practices, we can finally dispense with this once-practical piece of advice and enjoy Lowcountry oysters all year long.
A strict adherent to the “only eat local oysters in ‘R’ months” rule, I, too, was once perplexed to see S.C. oysters on raw bar menus in the midst of hellish summers. It was a server at The Ordinary in Charleston who schooled me on changes in aquaculture practices along our coast that made this miracle possible. Using modern, sustainable techniques, dedicated mariculturists are busy year-round growing and harvesting oysters in some of South Carolina’s most pristine waters. Specifically, they are producing what’s known as “singles,” oysters that easily separate for shucking ease – a draw for restaurants serving them on the half-shell.
The life cycle of farmed oysters is fascinating with minute larvae swimming in tanks of swirling sand to discourage clustering and encourage single oyster growth. When they are large enough, the oysters are transferred to large mesh bags or cages that are submerged in saltwater creeks. The oysters are tumbled regularly, which promotes thickening of the shell. This results in a deeper “cup” – something prized by half-shell aficionados who like lots of natural oyster juices or “liquor.” Because they grow entirely underwater, farmed oysters can feed and filter nonstop – something not possible when subjected to the flux of tides. This helps keep the oysters pristine for eating.
On a recent round of Charleston-area raw bars, I enjoyed Sea Clouds from Barrier Island Oyster Co. and Single Ladies from Lady’s Island Oyster Co. Both were delightfully briny and tender, infused with the clean, bright flavors (merroir) of the South Carolina waters in which they were grown. What a treat!
Look for these oysters and other locals like Toogoodoozies (Toogoodoo Oyster Co.), Lowcountry Cups (Lowcountry Oyster Co.), Perky Sea Cups and Mosquito Fleet Petites (Charleston Oyster Farm).
There is one important instance in which the R-rule still applies: harvesting wild oyster clusters. This requires a modicum of precaution, with the harvest season controlled by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. It won’t be long, though, until oyster season opens in the cool of fall and we gather around the table for the shucking of roasted bivalves. Sigh.
In the meantime, shake off that sweat, belly up to a few coastal raw bars and crush a heap of those South Carolina singles!