By Kate Berube
Housed at the site of the old Lace Mill, the Blue Point Brewery’s current operation is a mix of tradition and innovation. On a recent Sunday afternoon, I enticed some friends to come check out what they had going on down there with a well-placed mention of beer, whispers of a culinary master in residence and the promise of socialization after a year spent at home. In truth, I was there to see a man about an oyster.
It was at least true that the Brewpub located inside the brewery recently upped the ante’ by recruiting renowned Chef Paolo Fontana, who honed his craft while serving as apprentice to none other than Mario Batali at Babbo. Everything that comes out of his kitchen is exceptional but if you try his trademark 7-layer rainbow cookie cake, I promise you’ll dream about it at night. I had already eaten two pieces and was debating if anyone would notice me reaching for a third, when the waiter carried out what I had been waiting for. Two dozen authentic Blue Point oysters.
These days, the Blue Point name brings to mind great beer, but not so long ago it was once exclusively synonymous with oysters. Really good oysters. So good in fact, they were served in Buckingham Palace to Queen Victoria after she was said to proclaim she would eat no other. They became so sought after, that at the height of their popularity, a New York State law was enacted that clarifies that to be considered a Blue Point oyster, the bivalve must cultivate right here in the Great South Bay for at least 3 months of its life and prohibits the use of the name in any other circumstance, in an effort to stem the tide of imitations flooding the market. Unfortunately what had been there for eons took precious few years to destroy, and by the 1970’s, the shellfish population in the Great South Bay declined to the point where real Blue Point Oysters hadn’t been found on restaurant menus in my lifetime. Until now. We were here to investigate if they lived up to the legend.
Smothered in hot sauce and a creamy horseradish, Maris Stella Blue Point’s go down smooth, particularly when accompanied by Blue Point Brewing’s Shore Thing, a pale lager crafted on sight with a touch of Amagansett sea salt. You can drink easy knowing every pint contributes to the efforts underway to revive the Great South Bay, as a portion of each purchase funds four local nonprofits immersed in clean water initiatives. The truth is, there’s a reason things produced on our island are nationally known; the secret to our delicious bagels, beer, and oysters lies in our water. For a long time, it’s been in dangerous decline.
Keenan Boyle is a third generation baymen, like his father and grandfather before him. A homegrown Sayville native, Keenan is the caretaker of the Sayville Historical Society’s Edwards Homestead, a 1785 farmhouse where he resides with his family. But ask anyone in these parts, and they’ll tell you Keenan is the man to see about oysters. At 6 feet 7 inches, he wears the moniker TallMuthaShucka as a badge of honor. His laid-back affability and vast knowledge of the water endears him to library patrons and bar flies alike and generates a loyal following of shellfish enthusiasts. He’s committed to taking back the name Blue Point to mean unequivocally grown here in the Great South Bay on the South Shore of Long Island. And what better place to get that message out, than at Blue Point Brewery where if you’re lucky, you can catch him shucking oysters so fresh they were living in the sea that afternoon and spinning tales of a bygone era of bivalve glory.
After more than a decade of gathering other farmers’ yields, Keenan leased 2 acres of local seabed through the Town of Islips’ aquaculture program in January 2020 and started up his own operation, turning the TallMuthaShucka name into its own brand. His inaugural crop is set to go to market in 2022 as genuine Blue Point oysters. In the meantime, he works hand in hand with other local providers bringing their fare to the masses, including the incredible Maris Stella’s we tossed back at the brewery.
The next day photojournalist (and adventure aficionado) Belinda Randolph-Mills and I set out for Captree Boat Basin where we met up with Keenan and Maris Stella’s founder, Sixto Portilla, for a first-hand look at how sustainable shellfish cultivation is being reinvigorated on the south shore. Aboard Sixto’s work boat, the late afternoon sun was still unseasonably warm, and as I listened to our miniature expedition team talk shop, I leaned back to hold tight to the pure joy of being back on the Great South Bay after a long and difficult winter.
Sixto, a biologist by trade, was conducting research at a local hatchery when he won the lease lottery for an acre of seabed through Islip’s newly established program. Starting in May 2014, they had 20,000 oysters that first harvested in 2015, which grew to 500,000 oysters this year, as they worked to catch up with the demand.
“He’s been doing it for years, so he has the most established farm,” Keenan explained to us as we cut through the bay toward the underwater farmland. “His product is consistent and always available. The oysters I get from him have a deep cup and plump meat which is what I’m looking for.” I’m told that prized deep cup is attributed to the turning and care the oysters receive, a labor-intensive task that can be brutal during New York winters. The meat is made possible by the proximity to the Fire Island Inlet, and the steady flow of clean water and food it provides.
“Each year since we’ve been here, the water seems to get clearer and clearer.” Sixto, clad in a pair of waders, jumped into the frigid bay to haul one of the dozens of oyster bags resting on the bottom of the shallow water. Those oysters will be moved to floating cages as the weather warms up, but since October have been residing on the seabed floor. Dozens of oysters are dumped out of the single bag to the wooden counter.
As Keenan expertly shucked open the freshest oysters I’ll ever be privy to, Sixto notes that etiquette dictates the first one eaten be unsullied by any sauces, to allow for the detection of the unique underlying flavor.
Acquiescing, I took my time to chew through the soft yield to the undiluted briny sweet flavor.
In the ensuing quiet Sixto asked, “How does it taste?”
For a person who traffics in words by the count, I was momentarily at a loss for them.
It was both entirely different and strikingly familiar. If taste is the dominant memory sense, the triggered sensation can only be described as nostalgic. It was like diving into the heart of a wave on the clearest sun-drenched summer day at Davis.
“It tastes like Home,” I answered.
Look for the second part of this feature in next month’s Gazette, for a first-hand look at how an unlikely union between environmental conservation groups, local municipalities, science researchers, and fisherman is bringing our bay back from the brink and how you can get involved.