N.Sea Oyster Co. wants to put Topsail oysters on the map using some unique cultivating methods that only make an oyster’s flavor better.
The buzzword "craft" seems to pop-up on all sorts of menus today -- craft beers, craft sandwiches, craft bowls, but what about craft oysters?
N. Sea Oyster Co. out of Hampstead and Topsail Sound has developed some bivalves with flavor properties so unique, chefs are clamoring to put them on their menus.
"Our motto is that it only takes one," said N.Sea Oyster Co. owner and founder Conor MacNair. "It takes just one of our oysters and you will be hooked."
Unlike some young boys, who know they want to be firemen or police officers when they grow up, MacNair knew at age eight he was destined to be an oyster farmer. When he was surfing as a boy, his uncle, also an oyster farmer, explained that he had oysters to thank for the every single wave, as oysters are a key part of the ocean’s healthy ecosystem.
From that point on, MacNair knew he would study marine biology (he did at UNCW) and go on to become oyster-obsessed.
I set out of the boat ramp off Sloop Point Loop in Hampstead with MacNair and his wife, Alyssa, to see the N.Sea Oyster Co. farm in person last week. After a year of tasting their oysters in restaurants and watching the young farmers on Instagram, I had to see the farm in person and learn the magic behind their oysters they’ve dubbed "The Divine Pine," and "Dukes."
These two oysters, both grown from seed in Topsail Sound, are only feet apart, yet they have different flavor profiles. The Duke has a lightning strike of saltiness with all sorts of gorgeous aftertones. The "Divine Pine" has a unique bright green gill around its edge, reliant on the presence of a seasonal Haslea algae in the growing area. This green gill, along with a muscly adductor, hit the palate with a salty punch followed by a clover honey-flavored sweetness unlike anything I’ve experienced in an oyster.
Their motto, "It just takes one," took on a whole different meaning for me -- the flavor was so rich, I really only needed one to be transfixed, satisfied and smiling. I didn’t need my usual oyster roast accoutrements: saltine crackers, lemons and cocktail sauce along with eight dozen oysters and a few beers. In fact, cocktail sauce on these might be an abomination.
Both oysters are surrounded by waters with higher than 30 parts per trillion (ppt) salinity levels, close to what is found in the ocean, MacNair said.
Foodies can probably now understand why these beauties are a chef’s dream.
The green gills on the "Divine Pines" were an unexpected gift from a higher power, the couple told me. Hurricane Florence destroyed most of the young, tiny oysters they had started from seed in 2018. But several months later, as the team closely surveyed the waters and the oysters, the green gills showed up -- signs the water was extremely healthy.
"Mother Nature almost shut us down, but then all of the sudden she gave us this huge gift," Alyssa said.
MacNair explained the gills were like "striking gold" for the farm, because they are so rare and impart a unique flavor.
"Once we found these green gills, we kind of freaked out, because this is what could put North Carolina and Topsail oysters on the map," he said.
MacNair talks a lot about merroir -- the culinary term derived from "terroir," which describes the flavors imparted to wine from the soils they are grown in, only merroir describes how oysters gather the flavors of the water. The merroir is partly to credit for the good flavors, but credit is also due to unique growing methods. To start, the farm is set up with little baskets (an Australian method that stands up to strong hurricanes) where the baby oyster seeds grow over a long, slow period of time. They tumble around in the baskets, building up muscle and fat. Eventually all the movement helps them develop a deep cup that chefs adore for presentation.
After trying a few, we also check out the farm’s small batch of scallops, growing under a French-style trellis line. The raw scallops are sold to restaurants as sushi-grade. I tried one and nearly died at the thought of how good they would be with wine.
Then we met "tumbledore," the farm’s giant tumbler floating in the sound. Once harvested, the oysters are tumbled and washed in their own familiar waters, which helps with shelf-life and, again, flavor.
As we slowly creep out of their "oyster vineyard" and back to the boat slip, MacNair casually drops they have another oyster they offer during the year, the "BBQ oyster."
"We use a family recipe for a compound butter with bourbon, brown sugar, chipotle and adobo seasonings and we let that mixture chill overnight," he said. "Then we shuck our oysters and put some of the butter on them, grill them until they caramelize slightly and start to bubble -- it’s gotten us into some good catering gigs."
Basically they cultivate these "BBQ oysters" to be a larger size, so that when cooked down, they don’t shrivel to the size of peas.
So my question for the community is, who is going to nominate these farmers for a culinary award for flavor? I’d do it, but I’m too busy watching the N.Sea Oyster Co. on Instagram, dreaming of those green gills and this legendary bourbon-brown sugar-butter BBQ oyster I have yet to taste.
Reporter Ashley Morris can be reached at 910-343-2096 or Ashley.Morris@StarNewsOnline.com.