Fishers Island Oysters

Sep 26, 2007

The award for best oysters of the fall so far goes to Fishers Island. I sampled all three of their varieties this week and was stunned by the fresh, firm, sweet meats. Fishers Island, just off the Connecticut coast, has been one of the most important oyster hatcheries for decades. Many of the best oysters on the East Coast are grown from Fishers Island seed. But the oysters that grow out on the island are proof that the genes are perfectly suited to the local terroir. As they should be: Steve and Sarah Malinowski, proprietors of Fishers Island Oysters, select about 100 rock stars from their one million full-grown oysters each year to serve as brood stock for the next generation. Every year, the oysters get more perfect. After twenty-five years of this, the Malinowskis have an extraordinarily deep-cupped oyster on their hands.

Fishers Island oysters come as two-year-olds, petite three-year-olds, and large three-year-olds. Steve says that the two-year-olds are sweeter, but I was drawn to the large three-year-olds for their amazingly firm texture, thanks to a substantial adductor muscle. All three were briny (31 ppt), but not chokingly so. The oysters spend most of their life in a brackish pond where they’re protected, then are salted up in the mouth of West Harbor, which gets a good slug of Block Island Sound seawater. Steve tells me that his two-year-olds will continue to cup up and sweeten up as the water temperature drops and should be ideal around November. They owe their sweetness to the unique phytoplankton assemblage swimming around Fishers Island.

What you notice about a Fishers Island is the strikingly clean finish. After the strong hit of salt comes a medium, tightly focused body and then no aftertaste other than sweetness, which reliably kicks in around chew #5. It’s not a strong flavor, but it’s a zesty one that makes you immediately want another. Probably the clean taste is due to the growing method: hanging lantern nets. These oysters never touch mud, and thus don’t acquire any muddy or mineral flavors. The Malinowskis keep a whopping 17,000 nets in the pond, pulling them by hand every three weeks to let the sun kill any fouling on the nets and to make the oysters strengthen their shells. A day later, they go back in.

About 75 percent of Fishers Islands go to 50 of the best restaurants in New York. Citarella is the one retail outlet that carries them. The good news, for those of us not in Manhattan, is that Fishers Island ships direct to individuals: 631-788-7899 is the number to call. Since the Malinowskis keep their oysters right in the water and pull them to fill orders, you won’t find a fresher oyster unless you haul it out of the sea yourself.

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