“I’m envious of land farmers,” says Matt Gregg, standing hip-deep in brackish, low 40-degree water on the south end of the Barnegat Bay. “I’m starting to shiver.”
It’s a sunny, crisp November afternoon and Gregg, the founder of 40 North Oyster Farms, draws a laugh from everyone else in attendance, though we’re safe and warm in the boat. Joking aside, having talked to the 33-year-old for the past hour, we’ve learned there’s no place he’d rather be.
When Summit House opens in early 2017, our raw bar will feature several oyster varieties cultivated by 40 North, one of a small group of such New Jersey operations that are creating a renaissance of the once-flourishing industry here.
Summit House, a seasonal American restaurant, aims to bring the best, freshest -- if possible locally grown -- food to our home in downtown Summit, New Jersey. It’s not lost on us that in order to accomplish this, building strong relationships with local farmers, fisherman and select purveyors is crucial. That’s what Summit House Executive Chef Martin Kester, formerly chef de cuisine at Ninety Acres in Peapack, New Jersey, has done for the better part of a decade in sourcing the Garden State’s finest ingredients.
“One of things I love about New Jersey is that its size and varying landscape has created a long history of culinary diversity,” says Kester, a Hackettstown native.
That diversity once included lots of oysters. New Jersey fisherman brought in millions of bushels a year in the early 1900s. By the 1950s, overconsumption and disease had destroyed the industry. With the help of oyster farmers applying sustainable practices and a lot of research by scientists such as those at Rutgers University, local oysters are on the rebound.
“New Jersey is just now seeing the return of many high-quality, organic food sources, and farmers such as 40 North are working to bring oyster farming back with deep understanding and delicious results,” says Kester. “These are exactly the kind of provider relationships Summit House is looking to cultivate.”
40 North is one of about a dozen oyster-farming operations in New Jersey, many very small, according to Gregg. For comparison’s sake, there are more than 50 such growers in Rhode Island, he said.
“On the East Coast there’s only one variety; it’s all the same species, the Eastern oyster,” says Gregg. “But just like a wine grape, it’s going to taste different based on the region it grows in.”
Oyster Farming 101
40 North doesn’t catch oysters. Rather they cultivate them over anywhere from 18 months to three years. The process begins with taking baby oysters, known as seed, putting them in fine mesh bags and growing them while protected in fiberglass tanks called upwellers at a land-based nursery. As the oysters grow, feeding on nutrients from the flow of water, they’re moved to increasingly larger mesh bags, eventually placed in the bay. Helped by the flow of water, they then feed on algae and are hand-tumbled every six weeks, creating the ideal dense, deep shell.
There are about 14,000 protected acres of nearby, nutrient-rich meadows and marshland, with every high tide feeding the oysters, who help maintain the environment by protecting against overgrowth of algae. There were about 4 million oysters growing on the five acres we spent our afternoon visiting.
“The biggest thing is salt, how much salt is in the water,” says Gregg. “Oysters need to grow in an area that’s a mix of fresh and salt water. They’re a hearty animal; able to tolerate low and high salinity.”
Gregg spends most of his time raising oysters named the Rose Coves, while colleagues work in other areas on the bay, tending to the less salty Swan Point oysters.
“It’s a much saltier oyster, but it’s sweet too,” he said of the Rose Coves.
Keep an eye out for the Rose Coves and Swan Points as Summit House opens our doors early in 2017.
If you’re an oyster fan, you’ll be happy as a clam. Yeah, we went there.