You may have been told not to eat raw oysters in months that don’t have an R. It’s not true. It was a beautiful, temperate August afternoon when I stood on Hummock Island slurping freshly harvested oysters and casting their shells onto the ground below.
Westport-based Hummock Island Oyster Company has long been known for their outstanding oysters. The pond where they are situated dates back to 1741, when it was awarded as a grant from the British King. In the mid-1800s, a house was erected in the center so that an “oyster guard” could reside there full time. The farm stayed in the family through the generations, with father-son duo Jeff Northrop Sr. and Jeff Northrop Jr. running the business today.
Hummock Island Oyster Company’s clients are impressive. Blue Hill Farm, recently named one of the top restaurants in the entire world, uses their oysters exclusively. Rizzuto’s and The Whelk get oysters from them directly. Pagano’s serves as their Connecticut distributor, placing the oysters in additional prominent restaurants like Pearl. They have distribution in Pennsylvania, Boston, and New York as well, and even had a relationship with Whole Foods for seven years.
“A life-size picture of me used to be in all the Whole Foods fish departments,” laughed Jeff Northrop Sr.
Hummock Island Oyster Company recently started offering “oyster tours,” giving the public an opportunity to visit the island, witness the operation, and taste oysters fresh from the sea. I eagerly accepted their invitation to participate, which is how I found myself indulging in oysters in early August.
The tour began at Elvira’s, a lunch-spot-meets-market in Westport on Hillspoint Road. The meeting spot affords participants the chance to stock up on water and snacks (and use the bathroom if needed!). Our group consisted of six people, a smaller group considering that tour sizes range from six to twenty people. In general, they try to keep groups small to provide a more intimate experience.
One piece of advice: leave yourself plenty of extra time for parking. The Westport beach area offers a lovely backdrop, but it also means that throngs of people are there enjoying the outdoors. There is a small lot across from Elvira’s and some street parking next to it, but if those spaces are taken you may find yourself doing circles through the neighborhood until something frees up. I’d consider a drop-off, if possible.
After a short, informative introduction, our tour leader, Casey, took us to the boat launch located across the street on a cute, beachy cul-de-sac. Jeff Northrop, Sr. helped us onto a medium-sized wooden fishing boat (a “New Haven sharpie”). Northrop told us that the boat choice is intentional, as they strive to keep everything about their operation as authentic and unobtrusive as possible.
On our journey, he pointed out the numerous oyster cages floating in the water. They had a particularly difficult time during the major hurricane a few years ago, so they now use double decker cages... that hold 1,000 oysters a piece! Unlike some other fisheries, they don’t add anything to the water. In fact, the oysters themselves serve as natural water filters. Their presence means that the pond is 44% cleaner than Long Island Sound!
When we arrived on the island, we were greeted with fresh oysters to try. We were given some time to explore before reconvening again as a group. The island itself is really unique and fun to peruse. It consists of the main house and what looks like another small house… but is actually a boat!
“The town was concerned when they saw what they thought was us building a house in the middle of the pond,” Northrop chuckled. “We wound up driving around in circles to show them it was a boat!” It’s an efficient way to store extra equipment, and the design matches the main house.
The main house reminded me of one of the houses you might find in a historical village. Since it did function as a home decades earlier, it contains original furniture, photographs, and even the paddles constructed by one of the “oyster guards.”
The island also holds an enormous “oyster tumbler.” It resembles a horizontal column with holes of varying sizes on the outside. Oysters need to be separated by size to distribute nutrients, and the machine shakes them out of the holes, thereby sorting them.
Next, we met back up on the porch of the house for a shucking lesson! Casey plucked an oyster from a giant bucket of newly harvested oysters and demonstrated the proper technique. Those who wanted to had the chance to try shucking oysters, and we all took turns opening them under Casey’s direction. And you know what opening more oysters means… more eating!! There was no shortage of salty, refreshing goodness.
The afternoon unfolded in a free form, relaxing manner. Though tours average an hour and a half, Jeff and Casey did not rush us at all. Everyone was more than happy to relax on the island (and of course eat more oysters!) so we slowly spread out to take it all in. They encouraged us to bring snacks and beverages, so guests pulled out wine, champagne, and sandwiches. Some lounged in the Adirondack chairs on the deck, while others continued trying their hand at shucking. Casey and Jeff punctuated the peaceful afternoon with educational dialogue about the equipment and their business. It was the perfect mix of informative and fun.
My friends and I also used the time to chat more informally with Jeff. His passion certainly comes through. He tries to keep everything of the highest quality; he does not believe in stock piling and only harvests two orders at a time.
“We try to be good citizens,” he told us. They insulate their generators to muffle any sounds for their neighbors, donate to the community, and minimize their footprint in the pond itself.
Slowly, the group started coming back together, signaling a natural conclusion to the tour. We ate (several!) more oysters and made our way back onto the boat. The ride back was as beautiful as before, but after getting to know each other better and filling our bellies with tasty oysters, there was more comradery and discussion. It was a great end for a great afternoon.
Tours are offered May-September, with the full schedule available at www.oysterfarmtours.com.
As a special offer, readers can get a discount when booking the tour by using the code CD315!