PAINES CREEK OYSTER COMPANY
Words and Photos by Catherine Bieri
There has been a long-standing tradition of the oyster as a primary food source for people around the world. In the early 19th century, oysters were considered a common food for the working class. In the present day, however, they are considered a delicacy featuring a prominent place on the menus of small fish shacks and five-star restaurants alike.
Today, the oysters we eat are mainly harvested from oyster farms. Joey Werzanski, the owner of Paines Creek Oyster Company, generously offered to spend a morning touring me around his oyster farm, located on the Brewster Flats. Also known as the tidal flats on Cape Cod Bay in Massachusetts, some say they are the widest tidal flats in North America. During low tide, the water recedes nearly a mile into the bay; revealing the tidal flats and the smooth sand bars. It’s during this shift between low and high tide when Joey’s oyster cages are accessible and he’s able to come out and work. At high tide, the oyster cages are under about thirteen or fourteen feet of water, depending on the moon and various tidal factors.
To reach his oyster farm, we have to walk out about 1/10th of a mile from the shoreline. “We can’t drive out here,” Joey says. “So everything we bring, we have to walk back.” He explains that the landscape has changed over the years since he first started his business. Joey used to be able drive on a portion of the flats to the east where there was a river that no longer exists. He informs me, “We’re allowed to bring out some equipment in the early spring when no one’s around and the late fall.”
In Brewster, there are about 10 oyster farms including a few owned by the town. Werzanski’s grant is only an acre of area in total. “Something this size is more of a boutique farm,” he tells me, “You can grow comfortably a million oysters on a half acre.“ This is about all Joey uses of his one-acre parcel.
“It’s a long process,” Joey says. “You have to go through the town, the State, and then Federal….it has to be approved on various levels. It took me almost two years to get the first trap and cage in. It takes a while,” he explains. During this back and forth communication between the agencies, the land is surveyed by the State for the natural habitat where they literally walk the GPS coordinates. This is done to make sure there isn’t a natural population of wildlife that will be disturbed. Once approved, the end result is a grant from the town to proceed.
It starts with the seed. Joey purchases his from the Aquaculture Research Corporation based in Dennis, located in the next town over. The seed is basically a little baby oyster. Then comes the equipment, which mainly consists of the oyster cages. Varying in size, the cages are usually made of either plastic or metal. Joey uses 36x36” and 30x30” cages with mesh openings anywhere from ½” to ¾” to 1” openings. The baby oyster seeds are initially placed in the smaller cages with smaller openings. As they grow, they are moved to larger cages with larger openings to ensure optimal water filtration and room to grow. Another factor for proper water filtration is the cleaning of the cages. This helps to avoid large buildups of sand, algae and barnacles that can block the mesh holes and prevent the nutrients from getting to the oysters.
Once the oyster seeds have been planted, it can take up to three years for an oyster to mature. For example, if you took two identical oysters, one may take four years to grow to maturity and another may take two years to mature. They’re all on their own pace. In order to have a continual production, the oysters are always in various stages of growth.
Paines Creek oysters are harvested in high water in order to ensure their freshness. Keeping them in the water longer and out of the direct sunlight is key. Once they are harvested, the outer shells need a good cleaning to remove barnacles, sand and any other residue. The whole process makes for a lot of work. Someone is out almost every day either tending to the cages, sorting, or harvesting.
Each farm has its own technique for cleaning and culling (or sorting) and harvesting oysters. Bigger operations may take the oysters out to warehouses where they have a cylindrical sorter. Some farms have barges that they attach a compressor to with a hose coming off, similar to scuba diving equipment. They’ll dive into ten feet of water and may be under for several hours while sorting and harvesting. This is usually where a reef has been built up. For smaller operations like Joey’s, it’s an all-manual process.
Though Oysters can be harvested year round, sixty to seventy percent of Cape Cod restaurants are closed during the winter season. This causes demand to shrink considerably during this time. Harvested oysters make their way off the cape to other destinations. However, during the winter season many oyster farmers on Cape Cod remove their oysters and cages from the waters. Oysters can survive in the cold and become dormant, but salt water complicates things when it freezes. Ice forming in the Cape Cod bay tends to damage the cages and anything in its path. The ice will crush the cages, and in the years when it’s been frozen enough that icebergs have formed, an unlucky oyster farmer may find his cages miles down the coast destroyed. So it’s a risk – and it’s a risk that some oyster farmers do take.
All but about ten to fifteen thousand of Paines Creek Oysters are removed from their cages during the winter and stored in walk-in coolers or temperature-controlled areas packed with snow or ice. The ones left in the water are for Joey’s family and friends.
Oysters taste like the environment in which they grow - the salinity, water quality and algae are all factors. Here in Brewster, the water is clean, and continually flushed out every day with the tidal changes. As a result, the oysters are getting a renewed amount of nutrients each day. The oyster shells, themselves, remain fairly clean because the sun bleaches them daily when they are exposed during low tide. I was given a large bag of oysters to sample that I shared with friends over cocktails. They were salty, briny, with an ever-slight sweet and buttery taste. Delicious.
Paines Creek Oysters can be found at the pizzeria owned by Joey, aptly named Joey’s Pizzeria. He believes that he is the only Pizzeria in the US that owns an oyster farm, cultivates oysters and sells them. I think he may be right. ∂