The bridge you see in the background of the above picture runs over PEI’s Pinette River, a small estuary about thirty minutes’ drive from downtown Charlottetown. This summer, the National Criminal Law Conference was hosted in the island’s capital and, as part of the program, the organizers had arranged a number of tours for attendees to choose from during our ‘free’ afternoon of the week. A few were simply sight-seeing drives, one involved kayaking, whilst another, which definitely appealed to me, was called ‘The Oyster Lover’s Experience’.
By the way, the boats you see in the foreground above have nothing further to do with my story (indeed, I think they may actually be lobster boats); rather, our tour took us to the home of John and Jackie Gillis, not much more than 500 yards from the bridge. John harvests oysters from a small leasehold on the estuary and, together, he and his wife regularly offer a three hour ‘experience’ during which small parties can learn a little about the business of actually fishing for oysters( and, just as importantly, get to sample their fill of the freshly shucked article). If you are interested in attending one of these ‘experiences’, Jackie maintains a Website providing contact information, and I can heartily recommend you do so if you get the opportunity. I learned a lot and really enjoyed myself, as you can see, if you read on.…
Here is the Gillis home, which is located about 150 feet or so from the water’s edge. The boat is the actual boat that John uses for his harvesting and, as you can see, is much too small to accommodate the dozen or so members of my tour party. Accordingly, John has hauled it up near the house so we can all get a closer look and watch a short demonstration of the harvesting technique.
Here is a view of the estuary on which the house sits. If you look closely, you can spot the red and white buoys that mark (in part, at least) John’s fishing lease. For those unfamiliar with the term, an estuary is basically the where river meets sea and the water is neither fresh, nor completely ‘sea-salty’, and is referred to as ‘brackish’. I forget exactly how far the Gillis lease is from the open sea but I seem to recall John saying it was about a half-mile or so.
Here, John is giving my party his homespun, introductory ‘lecture’ on the business of oyster fishing. It was very informative, filled with lots of anecdotes and digressions, and allowed us all to learn quite a bit. John actually laughed at one point, apologizing that he hadn’t given the talk in quite a while and hoped he ‘hadn’t left anything out’, but lots of us had plenty of questions, and he was only too happy to answer.
Up front, in the bow of the boat, for those nautically inclined, is the anchor, which, John explained is a necessity for oyster fishing. To the right, you can see what looks very much like garden rakes but are, in fact, the ‘tongs’ used for the actual harvesting. Beneath these, and only partly visible in this picture, is another implement that is also important for the job …
The tool that John is holding in his left hand is especially important as it fills two roles. Now, I am sure John gave us the proper name for the implement but I am afraid I have forgotten it so, for the purposes of this post, I’ll simply call it ‘the claw’.
Anyway, when John is fishing, he will drive his boat out to a likely spot on his fishing lease and heave the anchor overboard. His type of fishing, he explained, takes place in relatively shallow waters and, usually, he can see the bottom quite clearly. The oysters may be quite plainly visible but, often, they are all but buried in the mud, or covered by layers of seaweed. This is where the claw comes in…
First, John can use the long-handled claw to ‘punt’ along the bottom, using it to maneuver his boat back and forth as he scans the bottom. Then, he can move weed or mud away with the metal teeth and, finally, haul up individual oysters for inspection.
Once a suitable ‘trove’ of oysters has been located, the ‘tongs’ come in to play. As you can see, the rake-type parts are actually hinged together and can be operated just like giant salad tongs. John not only showed us how this was done but allowed anyone who wished to give it a try. For the purposes of demonstration, he has improvised his own ‘sea-bed’ complete with oysters and clams.
I have included this close-up of John’s ‘sea-bed’ to show you something interesting. John has quite a collection of various objects he has ‘tonged’ up over the years and two of them he shared with us are the bottles at the bottom of the frame. The first (a 7Up bottle, maybe?), has clearly been on the bottom for quite some time as it is well-encrusted with barnacles. The second, however, is much more interesting and is known, because of its shape, as a ‘torpedo bottle’. They were manufactured in Belfast (the one in Ireland, not the namesake in PEI) and contained, I think, beer. What makes them unique is that the rounded bottom ensures that the contents must be finished in one ‘go’ as it cannot be set down once opened. A rather clever marketing gimmick, I’d say…
Anyway… here is John’s demonstration ‘haul’. In order for oysters to be kept for sale, they must have grown sufficiently to match certain dimensions. The length must be at least that of the ‘calipers’ John is demonstrating with one of his sample oysters, while the width must at least the diameter of the metal circle to the left. If it fails in either respect, an oyster must, by law, be thrown back. This, as we shall see shortly, can have a rather curious impact on the oyster’s subsequent growth…
There are a couple of outbuildings on the Gillis’ property and one of these is John’s ‘Oyster house’ where he sorts and cleans his harvest for sale. Some oyster-fishers sell to ‘middle-men’ for later re-sale, but John deals directly with local restaurants. Operations, like his, must conform to certain standards to ensure hygiene and safety, and I have to say that, from my own observations, John’s Oyster-house was almost surgically scrubbed and clean.
By the way, for those who don’t know, all the oysters on the Atlantic shores of North America (and the Gulf coast) represent a single species properly known as Crassostrea virginica. However, like a given type of grape harvested for wine, the taste and quality of oysters reflects local water conditions and they are chiefly named according to their place of origin. I asked John what his were called and he laughed. He said that, since his were harvested from the Pinette River, he just called them ‘Pinette River Oysters’. But, he added, once delivered to local restaurants, they generally appear on the menu as ‘Pinette Fancies’.
Now, I am a true ‘Oyster Lover’ in that these shellfish are among my most favorite things to eat and, I have to say, that the best thing for me about the whole ‘experience’ that day was the fascinating oyster lore that was imparted by John…
The first thing he explained to us was the classification scheme by which he sorts oysters for sale. Basically, there are three categories, which, by order of descending quality, are: ‘Choice’; ‘Standard’; and, ‘Commercial’. To be ‘Choice’, an oyster must have the nicely rounded ‘tear-drop’ shape that is characteristic of the species, and it must be so formed as to be easy to shuck and also lie flat on a plate for attractive presentation. This type can be seen on the left in the above picture.
The second oyster shown is more representative of the ‘Standard’ classification; the shell is ever so slightly unbalanced along one axis (it would thus tend to lie on a slight slant) and, more noticeably, it is rather thin and elongated than the choice type. According to John, some restaurants will insist on choice oysters only, while some will take standards as well (although he did add that they generally must be fairly large ones in that case).
Oh… note the rather deep ‘pit’ in the lower half of the right-hand specimen. This is where another oyster attached itself to the shell and began to grow before being later detached. This happens quite frequently but doesn’t really affect marketability, even for service ‘on the half-shell’, as the top, or flat part of the shell is usually discarded.
The above specimen could only very optimistically be regarded as ‘Standard’; it is twisted about two axes and would probably have to be sold as ‘Commercial’ grade. These sorts are generally destined for canning, either in chowders, cooked in brine, or as smoked oysters, and what is interesting about their ‘defective’ shape is the way that it occurs…
In its early life, a larval oyster floats around for a while and then later sinks to rest on the bottom where it attaches to rock and grows with a cupped lower half, and flat ‘top’. If the larva fails to land on rock, or other similar surface (like another oyster), it will not live and, if it fails to land ‘flat’ (either in the larval stage or, later, after being thrown back as being undersized), its growth, which tends ‘upwards’, or towards the surface, will result in twisting around one or more axes. This can be especially pronounced when a discarded oyster lands upside down.
Finally, I have chosen these two ‘Choice’ oysters to illustrate something else I learned… If you look at the ‘hinge’ end of the one on the right, you can see that the shell is formed out of layers, thus giving it an appearance a little like Puff, or Filo-dough pastry. Now, several layers can be formed in a season, which makes them not very useful for gauging age (as with tree-rings), but the layers for each season’s do tend to form discrete patterns in the upper shell which provide a useful guide. By my guess the left specimen is 6 or 7 years old, whilst the other is five or six. John may be more accurate (and might possibly even disagree completely), but I think that my guess is at least close.
The best part of the day for most of the party was the hospitality and refreshments. We were treated to Schooner Beer, a nice white wine, clams grilled on the BBQ, and as many oysters as we could shuck and eat. Before getting down to the shucking, though, Jackie had prepared a platter for a quick sampling. Alongside, she provided the traditional lemon and horseradish, a Mignonette, several hot sauces, and, unusually, some pomegranate seeds. I am a purist and never ‘adulterate’ my raw oysters with anything, not even lemon juice, but the pomegranate seeds were a first for me and I am sorry I didn’t give them a try.
John gave a demonstration of shucking for those who had never seen it before and then several us, yours truly included, lent a hand.
John and Jackie certainly have an impressive collection of ‘Shuckers’. The rightmost one on the upper row was particularly interesting to me and turns out to have been made from an old rail-road spike. I gave it a try but, really, I like the smaller ones better.
This was the first crate of ‘goodies’ we consumed. At the far end are some of the clams that got grilled. Jackie and John called them Quahogs but they were not the same as the type I grew up calling by that name. Those ones are quite a bit larger and, to my mind, are not very good, while, these sort, which I would probably have called ‘Cherrystones’, were absolutely delicious. I am very sorry I didn’t take a picture of them during and after cooking, but Jackie served them with a number of accompaniments, including melted butter and chopped, crispy bacon. The bacon was very nice but, in truth, these clams were so sweet and tender they needed little else.
Well, our experience came to an end shortly after finishing a second crate of oysters. Some people only ate one or two whilst I, and a few others, probably consumed around two dozen each, thus making the day, even for this reason alone, a great one.
In closing, I would like to thank Jackie and John for a very pleasurable and informative experience, and some great hospitality. To the rest of you, I just say give this a try if you can…