National Oyster Day may be one of those silly made up holidays, but this past National Oyster Day, which fell on Friday August 5th, will always be remembered as the day I joined Norm Bloom and his family from Copps Island Oysters for an afternoon filled with an education in oysters, a tour of their oyster farms and most exciting, shucking and slurping. Organized by Earthplace, Westport’s non-profit nature center for environmental learning and specifically in support of their Harbor Watch program, a group of ten arrived on yet another sparking summer day.
Our visit started with a tour of the Copps Island Oyster facility on Norwalk Harbor. We were led by Don Bell, who has worked with Norm for a number of years and is both knowledgeable and passionate about oyster farming and preserving the high quality standards that Copps Island Oysters are known for.
We first entered the processing building and saw first-hand the off-loading of oysters from one of the large fishing vessels, the Catherine M. Wedmore, captained by Norm’s son, Jimmy. A team of discerning workers inspect every oyster for size, and if too small they go into a pile know as “Throwbacks” to …yes get thrown back to grow further. Those that meet their standards are sorted, washed and bagged. Most of the oysters that Copps Island sells are 3-4 years old.
We next visited the Harbor Watch Lab with Pete Fraboni from Harbor Watch and Dick Harris who started Harbor Watch in the 1980’s and now works for Norm. They walked us through how Harbor Watch samples local water for oxygen levels, chemicals and other impurities. In the last couple of years, Harbor Watch has developed a program with local towns including Stamford, Darien, Westport and Fairfield to test the waters and report on water quality and identify any unusual changes. I was happy to hear that the local waters have been improving dramatically every year and credit the high quality of the Sound.
We next learned that there are over 200 different varieties of oysters, mostly named for the body of water they are farmed in, yet only 3 species; Eastern oysters which are farmed from Maine to Texas and are the most plentiful, West Coast Pacific Oysters, and Asian/Japanese oysters. Each variety has its own characteristics from salinity to shape of shell, which is result of the type of water or terroir and type of topography of the sea floor. Over 20 gallons of water flow through a single oyster every day, flushing out impurities and keeping the oyster clean and hydrated.
Now it was time for the fun to begin as we boarded the Catherine M. Wedmore and went out for an oyster run with Jimmy, Norm and the oyster crew.
With over 12,000 acres of oyster farms Copps Island Oysters sells over 20 million oysters every year, primarily to restaurants including local favorites, The Whelk, The Spread and L’escale. They also ship nationwide and in the last three years, the Copps Island oyster brand has grown in popularity and demand for its mild salinity and meaty size. They are perfect eaten raw with just the “liquor” juice or with mignonette or cocktail sauce, as well fried and sautéed and used as the base for oyster chowder.
The ride out to one of the oyster fields was just beautiful as we enjoyed the fresh air and being on the water. Jimmy took us out to an area just off the Norwalk Islands, which are marked by flags attached to long poles. The flags actually mark the farms perimeter. Huge cages with spikes are dropped into the water and dragged along the sea floor to scoop up the oysters. When they are hauled back up they are full to the brim with thousands of oysters. The well trained crew then inspect the oysters to determine the overall size of the oysters and they either decide to bring them onboard and put into huge coolers, or drop them back in.
This goes on multiple times a day, 12 months of the year regardless of weather.
As we made our way back to shore, we were all impressed at both the science of oyster growing and the hard work that went into the actual oyster farming. Once back on the dock, Jimmy explained their new program of actually growing oysters from tiny shells just started this year where a nursery off the dock is actually creating the future generations of oysters that will be seeded in sheltered harbors up the coast in Noank and Stonington.
Our next stop was an unexpected treat, as our tour guide, Don, took us over to The Museum. Housed in a converted 2-car garage were thousands of vintage and antique oyster cans of all sizes, a collection Don started years ago and Norm encouraged him to organize and display. Although oysters are no longer sold in cans, these colorful tin cans gave us a unique view into an oyster business of the past.
Our final stop was in the Copps Island Gift Shop, where Norm’s daughter, Jeanne, has created a fun, colorful shop that includes logo apparel, oyster shucking knives and gloves, and a variety of oyster serving pieces and beach themed goodies. You can stop in to shop or order fresh oysters or lobsters to take home.
Of course no trip to Copps Island Oysters is complete without some oysters, so Norm expertly gave us a lesson in shucking…deftly digging into the shell to break the bivalve and then prying open the oyster shell to reveal the meaty delicacy and its juice. We shucked and slurped thinking how much better the ones we shucked ourselves seemed to taste. Or at least we thought so!
We ended the day more knowledgeable and much more respectful of our local waters and of one of our favorite low calorie, high-energy foods. In the future, we will take our time to savor each oyster we eat instead of slurping them down in record time.
Copps Island Oysters
7 Edgewater Ave