February is a great month to eat oysters. Not just because of their reputed aphrodisiac qualities (Casanova swore by the virility-boosting effects of oysters — daily downing 50 for breakfast), but also because they’re particularly tasty right now. “This time of year, oysters are just fabulous,” says Amandine Hall of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group. “They’re really plump, and the conditions provide the perfect storm.”
For both reasons, the Harbor View Hotel has founded a tradition of hosting an annual event called “Romancing the Oyster.” The cocktail-style event, which will take place on Saturday, Feb. 10, at 6 pm, will feature oysters from a half-dozen farms, shucked and served up by the local farmers, along with oyster-inspired treats by Executive Chef Richard Doucette, passed hors d’oeuvres, pasta and salad stations, and desserts. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the M.V. Shellfish Group. Diners can feast on Oyster Rockefeller, Oyster Po’ Boy Sliders, Grilled Oysters in Brown Butter, and Oyster Jambalaya with Housemade Andouille Sausage. The sampling and dinner will give attendees the chance to chat with the growers and learn more about the flourishing oyster-farming industry on the Island.
“It’s a really unique opportunity,” says Hall. “The oyster you’re eating is being handed to you by the person who’s nurtured it since it was a seed. It’s sort of like Meet your Grower.”
Hall compares local oyster farming to microbreweries: “They don’t produce super-large quantities. Oysters taste different depending on where you grow them and the time of year. It depends on the food that’s present, the amount of algae, and the saltiness of the environment. Vineyard oysters are an amazing product. They’re rich and plump and have a nutty taste. They’re unique. They sell really well in Boston.”
Luckily for patrons of the event, not only are they getting the oysters as fresh as possible, they’ll also be enjoying the view of the harvest grounds. Most of the local farming is done in Katama Bay. The Harbor View takes full advantage of its bay, lighthouse and Chappaquiddick view by offering picture windows with panoramic views in its Lighthouse Grill restaurant.
The Katama oyster boom began many years back when the M.V. Shellfish Group launched an educational program to encourage locals to start farming. The Shellfish Group is dedicated to preserving and expanding the Island’s traditional shellfisheries, through spawning shellfish and enhancing the existing beds, and by a continuing vigilance to improve and maintain the water quality crucial to a viable shellfish industry.
“We’re like the CSA for the towns. We produce the seeds,” explains Hall. “The town shellfish constables nurture the oysters for an extra couple of months. We make sure that the beds are sufficiently stocked so that they’ll keep producing and remain healthy.”
The number of small Katama Bay oyster farming operations has decreased since the launch of the program, but since then, Chilmark has started a similar program, and there are now people farming in Menemsha Pond. The Harbor View will feature oysters from both locations, as well as from some off-Island growers.
Hall says that shellfish are healthy both for people and for the environment. “They’re the perfect little package of saltiness,” she says. “Nowadays people are concerned about food hurting the environment. Looking at different types of protein, oysters are a great choice. Shellfish actually help the environment. They clean the water. They’re filter feeders. You don’t have to feed them. They’re a crop that doesn’t require watering or fertilizer. All of the problems that come with land farming you don’t have to worry about with aquaculture. When you grow oysters, you’re actually doing a service to the ecosystem.”
Hall has a special fondness for the oyster. “It’s a very stoic animal,” she says. “They can live up to 50 or 100 years. Scallops and clams only live a couple of years. The oyster has survived a very long time. They’re really hardy. Oysters have sustained so many communities. Native populations have been eating oysters for centuries.”
“Romancing the Oyster,” a cocktail-style event, will take place on Saturday, Feb. 10, at 6 pm at the Harbor View Hotel’s Lighthouse Grill. Tickets are $60 per person, and include oysters and light fare. You can purchase tickets online. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the species through innovative aquaculture techniques. Further details can be found on the event’s Facebook page.