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Dennis David, co-owner of IROC Oysters, works on his oyster farm in the Indian River Lagoon. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)

Oysters farmed in Florida are a shucking success among tide-to-table crowd

I am eating an oyster on a boat in the Mosquito Lagoon. Dragonflies hover. Herons stalk the edge of the mangrove. Cages bob in chest-deep water, each holding a cache of bivalves in various stages of growth. Mullet breach amid the rows. The floating nursery, like its natural counterpart, is a haven for myriad species, an ecosystem unto itself.

The oyster is briny, its crisp salinity courtesy of the waters from which it was plucked moments ago. It is nutty, buttery, succulent and comes courtesy of Dennis David’s efforts.

But David is not an oysterman — not in the traditional sense. He is an oyster farmer.

And so, despite this bivalve’s creamy, untamed lusciousness, it is not wild. It is an IROC Oyster.

That stands for Indian River Oyster Company, of which David is president and owner. He’s also the captain of the small, cluttered vessel on which I sit, watching as he and a young student of shellfish aquaculture work the farm’s lease — rotating cages, noting the animals’ growth, harvesting.

Farmed Florida oysters are making headway into the food scene at an increasingly rapid clip. Gourmands coo over upmarket sampler menus touting coyly named boutique varieties like Saucy Ladies, Salty Birds and Magnolia Bluffs.

Sunshine State oyster aquaculture is only a few years old, and last year its farmers took 3.9 million oysters to market.

The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services began approving the modification of on-bottom clam leases for oyster use in 2013. Since then, oyster farming has grown impressively, from zero to 76 modified leases and more than 60 new ones as of 2018, according to data from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Farmers like David, who founded IROC in 2017 following a 38-year career with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, are seeing a rise in market demand, fueled less by the demise of the Apalachicola fishery than it is by an increasing level of appreciation by educated culinary professionals seeking not merely high-quality but local, tide-to-table delicacies to showcase artfully, on ice, at their upscale bistros.

People like Orlando restaurateur Jason Chin.

“We’re part of something that’s greater than one individual in the supply chain,” says Chin, a self-described oyster nerd. “And it feels so good to be able to support the Florida economy, to support the people who are dedicating their lives to something I am so passionate about.”

A selection of Florida oysters is presented on ice with sauces at The Osprey Tavern in Baldwin Park.
A selection of Florida oysters is presented on ice with sauces at The Osprey Tavern in Baldwin Park. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)
Setting the table

Chin owns and operates Seito Sushi Baldwin Park, Reyes Mezcaleria and the Osprey Tavern. He’s bougie about his bivalves, a fact about which he is out and proud. The word “fetish” came up at least once during my conversation with his business partner, Sue, who also happens to be his wife.

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This good-natured snobbery was born of a visit to the now-defunct Fulton’s Crab House at Disney Springs when he was in his late teens.

“These oysters were from the West Coast. Washington, I think,” he recalls. Then the tasting notes begin to flow, and Chin becomes a seafood sommelier.

Jason Chin owns and operates Seito Sushi Baldwin Park, Reyes Mezcaleria and the Osprey Tavern.
Jason Chin owns and operates Seito Sushi Baldwin Park, Reyes Mezcaleria and the Osprey Tavern. (Jon Whittle Photography)

“When I tasted that metallic, mineral-y, nori-seaweed-y, cucumber essence — that elegant, profound oyster flavor — it hooked me. Game over,” he says.

But his first taste of Gulf coast oysters left him wanting.

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“They were flabby and flavorless … I wasn’t interested in ever eating them again,” Chin says.

And yet last month, his Osprey Tavern hosted the Florida Oyster Revival — a $60-per-person event showcasing not only the flavor and versatility of Florida’s aquaculture but also benefiting the Southern tide-to-table movement.

Farmers, David among them, shucked their wares and educated the masses. Most often, at this August soiree, dispelling the R-month myth, a falsehood that has fused itself to our culinary practices, much like spat to a reef.

For ages, people have been put off summer oysters. “Only eat them in months that have an R,” was the rule.

One of the reasons for this practice is that wild oysters generally spawn during summer months. Reproduction requires lots of energy, fuel — glycogen.

“The glycogen they store — which is what makes them extra sweet and creamy — is used up when they spawn,” Dennis explains.

IROC oysters, however, don’t reproduce at all.

Neither do their Gulf Coast cousins, farmed in Florida Big Bend areas like Panacea and Alligator Harbor. All are hybrid triploid oysters, the succulent man-made mules of the shellfish world.

“Their flavor and quality remain the same year-round,” Dennis says.

Armed with newfound knowledge, guests mingled in a cocktail-party setting, sampling an array of preparations by lauded Orlando chefs.

Chin presided, glowing with enlightenment.

It’s a good word, really, as he delivers his impassioned praise with the fire of a Panacea-baptized preacher.

What sparked this 180-degree epiphany? Kimball House.

The famed Decatur, Ga., eatery was extolled in its founding year of 2014 by just about everyone: Bon Appetit, The New York Times, CNN. It was Southern Living’s No. 1 New Restaurant. It was a James Beard semifinalist.

Chin covets the Kimball House oyster program. And when he discovered that its luxe and lengthy happy hour menu featured Southern oysters, he was stunned.

I thought they only served fine oysters,” he says, acknowledging the pomposity of his word choice with a laugh. “But [Kimball House’s] selection, preparation, presentation, my level of respect doesn’t get any higher.”

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There were four Florida oysters on the menu. Chin tried each.

“I was blown away. Impressed. And honestly dumbfounded that these Florida oysters not only stood up to the others but were some of my favorites of the night.”

He wanted them for the Osprey Tavern. His hunt for plump and palatable Panacea Pearls was on.

Dennis David, co-owner of IROC Oysters, works on his oyster farm in the Indian River Lagoon.
Dennis David, co-owner of IROC Oysters, works on his oyster farm in the Indian River Lagoon. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)
A farming foundation

Farmed Florida oysters may be making headway in the local foodie culture via the platforms folks like Chin are just now beginning to provide, but clam aquaculture needs no such pomp.

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It’s been enjoying success for decades already — principally in Cedar Key.

Leslie Sturmer, shellfish aquaculture extension specialist with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, was there when it all started 25-plus years ago.

“This is where the programs that introduced shellfish aquaculture to the west coast of Florida were centered,” she says. It’s grown massively since. “Probably 90 percent of Florida’s clams come from Cedar Key.”

Florida oyster aquaculture is in its comparative infancy, but it comes almost organically as the once robust Apalachicola fishery persists in its decline due to factors including drought, water shortage and a mad rush to harvest in the wake of the BP oil spill.

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The wild oyster’s near demise has not brought about a Jason Chin-like epiphany for fisherfolk whose families have been wielding the tongs for well over a century, though multiple retraining programs have attempted to inspire that shift.

Boomers in boots: Aquaculture as a second career

It’s been newbies — young people inspired to earn a living off the land and away from a desk as well as Baby Boomers looking for similar liberation but with no interest in retirement — who have taken up the mantle to become the first wave of Florida oyster farmers.

“There’s been an increased premium market demand,” Sturmer notes. “Couple that with the fact that Florida has great infrastructure, a very viable hard clam aquaculture industry, meaning we have people who know how to grow shellfish, we have a leasing program that’s very proactive, we have favorable rules and regulations, we have hatcheries that produce seed.”

Florida’s preexisting Division of Aquaculture, says Bill Walton, Ph.D., was one piece. White boots on the ground were another, he jokes, referencing the standard footwear for shellfish farmers.

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Walton is an associate professor and extension specialist at Auburn University — known as “Dr. Oyster” among his peers and cohorts.

“You already had people out there who make a living growing shellfish in the water,” Walton says.

Two Docks Shellfish out of Bradenton is one such operation, farming serene acreage within sight of the graceful Sunshine Skyway Bridge, breeding clam seed in a hatchery in Vero Beach.

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Aaron Welch III founded the business with his father a few years back when the older Welch — following a successful career as a research scientist and agricultural consultant — embarked on a second go as a clam farmer.

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They’re about to move into oysters, as well. Florida’s quarter-century or so of clam aquaculture has made the addition of oysters far easier, but the differences in the way these animals grow have necessitated lease and language modification.

“The way that our clam leases are granted to us requires that we farm on the bottom,” Welch explains. “The bottom and six inches up from there.”

Until now, that hasn’t been a problem for Two Docks. Clams grow on the bottom. The small animals are placed in mesh bags and planted there to filter feed — with periodic check-ins — until large enough to harvest.

Oyster farms, to grow their product well, require water column leases, which means the entire “column” of water is necessary, from sand to surface. Oysters grow best in the top 18 inches of the column, where most of the food is. The floating cages also allow farmers to affect positive changes in their development, features that make them more attractive to the end-users.

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“The half-shell market is very specific,” Welch explains. “You have to produce a certain kind of animal the market wants and must intervene very actively in the husbandry cycle to achieve that nice cup shape, that full meat-to-shell ratio.”

Auburn University School of Fisheries Associate Professor Dr. William “Bill” Walton looks at the oysters in their floating cages.
Auburn University School of Fisheries Associate Professor Dr. William “Bill” Walton looks at the oysters in their floating cages. (Preston Keres / Courtesy photo)
Truck to shuck

The most profound difference in clam and oyster aquaculture, however, is not the process — it’s the product.

“Most consumers don’t think about where their clams are coming from,” says Walton. “Florida produces an amazing clam, but theirs is not a story of connecting chefs to farmers. The oyster is a humbler animal — it takes on the flavor of where it’s grown.”

Remember that sommelier spoken word from Chin? It’s not off base. Wine enthusiasts use the term terroir, which denotes things like soil, topography and climate, factors affecting the characteristics of the grape. Oyster lovers have a newer take on it: merroir.

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“It’s not a real word,” Walton says, laughing, “but it is. Even oysters grown in proximity, depending on the salinity and the minerals in the water can produce substantially different flavors. And so, the oyster’s environment becomes something very important for the chef to know.”

Chefs want different things — petite oysters, deeply cupped oysters that hold the animal’s “liquor” — and they want different levels of salinity. Tasting menus at upmarket oyster bars describe each oyster with its own sexy “wine copy.” Words like “earthy,” “mushroomy” and “mollusky” are becoming part of the lexicon.

“It’s become critical for chefs to meet the farmers so that the people who put their hands on their product — a lot — to help shape it. We don’t want farmers pushing out product and hoping somebody buys it. We’d like to have a market there, waiting for it, eagerly.”

Chin was.

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A few weeks after his Kimball House come-to-Jesus moment, he ran into a local chef at an Orlando event. As the two tucked into the oyster bar, Chin relayed his Kimball House experience and hit the oyster lottery. His friend “had a guy.”

That guy was Colin Slemkewicz of Sublime Oyster Supply, a tide-to-table distributor.

Colin Slemkewicz works the water at Gulf Springs Sea Farm in Spring Creek in Wakulla County.
Colin Slemkewicz works the water at Gulf Springs Sea Farm in Spring Creek in Wakulla County. (Courtesy Lynn Davis)

Slemkewicz, a native of the Big Bend, is part of a split-generation oyster farming operation; his mom and stepdad started up Gulf Springs Sea Farm in Wakulla County awhile back, and in the time since, he’s fallen deep into a mostly empty niche business delivering boutique Florida oysters to restaurants within 24 hours of harvest.

“That’s why I started my company,” he says. “There are a lot of chefs and restaurateurs who want tide-to-table product, quality, local product. I’m filling a void.”

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Slemkewicz comes to Orlando every Friday with product, stopping in New Smyrna on the way for IROC oysters before delivering the briny goods.

Chin had been offering two selections at Osprey — an east and west coast variety — but once he tasted the Saucy Ladies, the briny goodies from Alligator Harbor and elsewhere, he made all his east coast oysters Florida oysters.

Colin Slemkewicz, owner of Sublime Oyster Supply, delivers a supply of fresh oysters to The Osprey Tavern in Baldwin Park.
Colin Slemkewicz, owner of Sublime Oyster Supply, delivers a supply of fresh oysters to The Osprey Tavern in Baldwin Park. (Patrick Connolly / Orlando Sentinel)

Slemkewicz supplies other well-known Central Florida haunts, such as Luke’s in Maitland, Dovecote in downtown Orlando and Reel Fish Coastal Kitchen in Winter Park. Two-time James Beard semifinalist Chef Henry Salgado, whose Txokos was a Basque hit at East End Market several years back, sees Slemkewicz regularly, too. His brand-new New Smyrna Beach eatery, the Local Pearl Oyster Shoppe, is on Sublime’s client list as well.

For Chin, who plans to continue his efforts touting Florida’s growing tide-to-table movement, it’s about more than just eating oysters, it’s about sharing his passion and supporting the growers that allow him to do so. And so, he will continue to spread the Florida oyster gospel.

“I just want to scream it from the rooftops.”

amthompson@orlandosentinel.com

Amy Drew Thompson is the Sentinel’s Multimedia Food Reporter. She eats and she writes things. Amy Drew wears many hats, literally (she loves hats) and is highly flexible, literally (she loves yoga). New Yorker by birth, Orlandoan by choice, she delights in sharing the delectable spoils of her adopted city.

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