Ark of Taste
The Wellfleet Oyster is a bivalve marine mollusk that originated in Wellfleet Harbor on Cape Cod, MA. Wellfleet oysters benefit from nutrient rich coastal waters that provide phytoplankton and produce a consistently exceptional oyster. The cold water slows the oyster’s metabolism, which causes the mollusk to build up reserves of glycogen, giving the meat a sweeter flavor. Twice daily as the tides recede, their meats become firmer in texture because they are accustomed to holding their shells tightly closed with each tidal change. Wellfleets take between 2-3 years to mature, and are around 3” in size. Their shells are rough, heavy, and grayish in color. The meat when fresh should appear cream to beige in color and be surrounded by a clear liquid. However, this can vary by harvest location and season. The oysters famed luscious taste can also vary between the six different estuaries in Wellfleet Harbor from which they are harvested. These estuaries are Great Island, Blackfish Creek, Mouth of Blackfish Creek, Loagy Bay, Indian Neck, and Inner Harbor. Each location imparts unique flavor nuances within the oyster, which can be generally categorized as briny, buttery, fruity, and minerally.
Historical Info and Preservation Efforts
Wellfleet is located halfway between the tip and elbow of Cape Cod, and nearly 50% of the town’s land is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Native American populations lived and traveled along the Atlantic coastline and used Wellfleet oysters for a variety of purposes. The meat was used for nourishment, while the shells were pounded and mixed with clay to create a plaster between the logs of their shelters. Shells were also laid along the dense forest edge to increase the accessibility of the coastline and protect against damaging storms. Thousand year old mounds of discarded oyster shells, called middens, have been found lining the New England coastline. Unfortunately, wild oyster populations quickly declined as European settlers moved into the area. Europeans encountered the Wellfleet as early as 1606, when the french explorer Samuel de Champlain arrived and named it “Port Aux Huitres” (Oyster Point), for the bountiful oyster populations. Wellfleet’s oyster beds drove the town's early economy, and even today vibrantly support the local community and contribute to tourism. The population of Wellfleet increases six fold during the height of the tourist season, and one large attraction is the annual Wellfleet Oysterfest. These oysters are the second largest industry for the town next to tourism, and support 250-300 local shellfishermen who responsibly care for the waters.
In the early part of the 20th century, untreated sewage and industrial waste flowed freely into Wellfleet’s waterways and challenges tied to climate change like warming waters, increased ocean acidity, and disease have decimated stocks of the oyster. In addition, a norovirus outbreak at the 2016 Wellfleet Oysterfest created extreme stock shortages last year. The town of Wellfleet has established a College Scholarship program for deserving high school seniors to study marine science, and has thus far awarded around $80,000. In addition, the town has created a Shellfisherman Relief Fund dedicated to supporting sustainable oyster production and over $380,000 has been directed to support these initiatives.
Wellfleet oysters benefit from nutrient rich coastal waters that provide phytoplankton and produce a great tasting oyster. The plump meats have a mild sweet flavor, brininess, and a crisp clean finish. When purchasing Wellfleet oysters, they should be alive and have shells tightly intact. The oyster meats can be used for soups, stuffing, fritters and stews. They taste great fried, grilled, smoked, steamed and baked.
Or check out some additional readings
“On the Rebound, New England Oysters Face Climate Change Threat” Lindsey Konkel for Scientific American “The Wellfleet Oysterman” Thoreau “The Oyster Guide” and “American Terroir” by Rowan Jacobsen “The Essential Oyster” by Julie Qiu Wellfleet Shellfish Promotion and Tasting Inc.