Thursday, December 11, 2008

Edible Delights & Rare Sights

As it is the month of December and slurping down small perfect raw oysters is part of the Christmas season celebration here on the West Coast, I thought I should comment on all the good wrapped around eating oysters.

It is interesting that the world is made up of oyster lovers or oyster haters. Pretty much a 50/50 split. For my part I have always been a big fan of oysters , raw and cooked. I think it stems back to early training. My dad had my brothers and I eating raw oysters fresh out of the sea while on our many summer boating holidays when we were just kids.

As it turns out oysters are really a perfect food. As a nouveau oyster farmer I began doing some research on oysters and was surprised to find out oysters are high in zinc, potassium, and vitamins A, B-12, C and D. Another big plus is oysters are a great source of cholesterol reducing omega 3 fatty acids. A few small oysters add up to about 70 calories and only 2.5 milligrams of fat. Add a splash of fresh lemon juice and you've got extra vitamin C.

Bob and I think our Pacific oysters grown in the waters of Blind Bay, Nelson Island have an amazing flavour and believe this is due to the "terroir" as it is now being referred to by "oyster aficionados". Our oysters are grown in deep water with plenty of current flow and an incredible amount of oyster nutrient for them to feed on.

The colder the water the better the oyster, and once we get into the month of December eating platters of raw oysters is definitely one of the perks of oyster farming. We recently spent two and a half days at the farm working to build up a supply of bagged oysters to ship to our Asian buyer. The weather is always an issue at this time of year and this trip we had a bit of good and bad. The first day was unbelievable and rare. I recorded in my oyster farming journal that the afternoon spent out on the rafts was spectacular and the surrounding bay scenery looked like a perfect day in July. Dazzling blue sky and a flat calm bay reflecting puffy white clouds floating by. The water was so calm and clear that we were able to see fifty or sixty feet down into the beautiful emerald green. The day's work ended fairly early due to the failing light late in the afternoon and we headed back to our dock at 4:30. Once we struggled out of the layers of "rubber" clothing I had Bob shuck a small pile of "slurper" oysters for us to enjoy before dinner. We got a fire burning in our wood stove and turned on the kereosene heater a sympathetic friend had lent us for the winter. Outside our little cabin night fell and we were surrounded by complete blackness . Rising over the island to the southeast were two brilliant stars , one of which I think was a planet only visible in the winter night sky. I lit all of our candles and waited for the cabin to warm up. This is always a bit of a joke as the holes and cracks in the log walls of the cabin are everywhere and sizeable. No wind is a blessing and this night we were blessed.

I decided we should celebrate being at Nelson Island on such a perfect winter evening and got out the icy cold vodka to have with our Pacific beauties. We poured the vodka into our glasses and dug in to the delicious oysters. The taste of the oysters was devine. Sweet, salty and finishing with hints of melon and flint. Nothing comes close to winter oysters right out of the sea. There was even the scent of ocean air surrounding them. While enjoying this decadent treat we were startled to see a strange glowing light out in the black night sky. This light appeared to be centered over Texada Island way off in the distance and it was a beautiful pinkish orange colour. At first we thought there was a terrible forest fire burning on the big island and we tuned in the radio to a local station for news on this disaster. The local disc jockeys were making no mention of any such fire and we sat puzzled by this strange phenomenon. All of a sudden I knew what this was. We were witnessing an amazing show of the Northern Lights! This is something we would never see in the city and it was truly spectacular. Waves of coloured light in the black velvet sky rising and receding over the silouetted island. We finished the oysters and marvelled at yet another unique winter experience while oyster farming at Nelson Island. There are many moments of fine locavore dining and unexpected beauty.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

All this work for how much money?!?!

Bob and I continued to learn the ropes of oyster farming with Rick's help. Him helping us for a period of time was a part of our contract when purchasing the lease. I think he was trying really hard to make us think this venture was a sane one and something we could handle easily. In reality the lights were turning on for the two of us and the amount of work necessary to run our stinky little oyster farm was incredible! We certainly had not thought out the process of growing and harvesting some 60,000 oysters that were lurking under the rafts. For starters Rick had led us to think we would only have to turn up to work the oysters three or four days a month . He had also assured us that we would not have to attend the lovely oysters in the dead of winter. This was kind of important to me as I had zero desire to spend time at our "summer" cabin in the winter, and getting there by small boat in a howling winter wind and big waves was frankly scary. I now know he flat out lied about how much time he spent working the oysters. He had two suckers in hand and just did what he had to do! Reality is it could have taken him a year or two to find a buyer for the oyster farm. He had another full time job and had explained to us this was something he did on days off or before and after his real work. There is absolutely no way one human being, even manic Rick, could handle the work of growing 60,000 hungry oysters by showing up a few days a month. AND being present every month of the year is totally necessary. I will save the winter stories for later and get on to our first sale of some 750 dozen oysters which translates to 9000 oysters. Oyster numbers are always counted out by the dozen as that is how the farmer gets paid. So much per dozen. We were about to find out this is diddly squat per dozen in relation to work/time spent getting them market ready.

Our third trip up to the island to work with Rick was in the middle of May. He had contacted his main buyer and arranged to sell some oysters. I was pumped. Money for work sounded good to me. It was time for us to learn how to "harvest" and sell oysters. I should mention here that when we justified our buying the oyster farm , based on Rick's numbers, we had figured on earning some $10,000 - $15,000 a year from our oysters and this would be put towards cabin upgrades and boat maintenance. A tidy little project to keep us somewhat busy and earning some fun money while spending leisure time at the island.

Rick's buyer of choice was a young Chinese lady who owns a seafood processing company located in Vancouver. Our oysters were going to be flown all the way to Singapore. I loved this idea. There was some magic to pulling the tasty oysters out of the waters of Blind Bay, Nelson Island on the west coast of Canada early one fine spring morning and them being eaten and enjoyed by hundreds of Asian oyster fans one day later. The trick was how to get the oysters out of the water, sorted into "size" piles, bagged up, boated over to a pick-up location where they could be loaded onto a truck and shipped down to a processing plant in Richmond. Once again this involved heaps of work and much more time than we had counted on. We hauled up stack after stack of oysters and Rick had us sorting and bagging at a pace that hardly left time for breathing. Sorting the oysters by size is a real pain in the butt. You have to eyeball each one and decide very quickly what pile it should be tossed on. This particular day we were working on extra small, small and mediums. Extra smalls measure out at two and a half inches to three inches, smalls should be three to four inches and mediums about four to five inches in length. Then there are the "ugly" oysters or those that ended up growing into weird shapes and are not acceptable to most buyers. These have to be tossed on to another reject pile and end up being food for the grower . Needless to say oyster farmers eat a lot of funny shaped oysters. We ended up taking two days for this work with half of the shipment being kept in shallow water close by our beach property to retrieve when we had the entire load ready to go. When it was time to move the oysters Rick used his small metal boat to haul the oysters over to a cove close to the Saltery Bay ferry terminal while we followed behind in our boat. The weather was warm and the seas fairly calm ,and with superman Rick along the moving of the oysters to a waiting truck didn't seem to be much of a challenge. It never dawned on me that this kind of trip could be fraught with real danger and yes we found that out later too. Loading the heavy bags into the truck was another job for real men and me. The boat with the oysters was pulled onto a beach boatramp and one hundred and fifty bags that weighed about twenty pounds each were hefted up and into the big transport truck. Once this was done I knew I would have to quit oyster farming before hitting sixty or we would have to try and find some young bucks to do some work for us. Something that would not seem so hard to do but it turns out to be almost impossible given the amount of money earned while farming oysters.

Bob and I recieved our first cheque a few days later. The total amount did not seem that bad. $2,200 . It was when we looked back and realized how long it took to grow the oysters and how much time and effort it had taken to get them to market size the big light went on. On this occassion we had made about $2.93 per dozen oysters! We worked out we were doing some of the hardest physical work we had ever done in some of the toughest conditions for approximately 50 cents an hour.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

First Experiences

I have made it safely home from another oyster farming expedition as I like to refer to my fall/winter jaunts up to the island. The four days we spent working on the oysters provided some of the usual hard physical work, really horrible November weather , and new moments of incredible beauty. But I digress. I would like to begin the tale of my oyster farming adventures at the beginning. This would be during the spring of 2007. April to be exact.

Bob and I had just spent the entire month of March travelling around Australia visiting with wonderful old friends of Bob's and enjoying all that Australia has to offer. I had never visited this amazing country and was truly knocked out by all I saw. As we moved from place to place and met up with Bob's Aussie friends we inevitably found ourselves mentioning our new purchase of the oyster farm. Our Aussie pals found this fascinating as there are plenty of oysters grown in Australian waters. This is a phenomenon I have noticed often. That being anybody we tell of our owning and working an oyster farm is simply wide-eyed and all ears for more information. As we would launch into our story of the purchase and the coming work as we envisioned it all, we would see the facial expressions change to a look of perhaps thinking we had become slightly unhinged. I have become quite used to this look from friends and anyone else we talk to about oyster farming. I mean really, why would any couple at our age that has never worked at anything that closely resembles growing seafood do this?! Its' one thing to talk the talk but to actually walk the oyster rafts requires a certain type person or personality. I think perhaps we are born risk-takers, love what we percieve as intriguing new adventure and definitely a little mad. I am not sure this is all bad but there are times when I wish I was married to a stodgy lawyer that would risk nothing and I was not so willing to walk on the edge. Trust me as I get older and older I am reigning in this part of me.

We returned from the heat and beauty of Australia and two weeks later travelled to Nelson Island to spend our first days working and learning with the fellow we had bought the oyster farm or oyster farm lease from to be more accurate. We had bought new all-weather gear and were outfitted head to toe in rubber. I thought we looked hilarious. I was not laughing for long. Turned out my really unattractive rubber outfit was necessary to keep me from being totally covered with seawater, every imaginable form of slimy sea-life, and really smelly oyster muck which I now think is oyster pooh. We stood out on the rafts in a cold spring wind with driving rain all around us and watched as Rick, the soon to be smart former owner, demonstrated the many work tasks we needed to know. Rick is a little younger than Bob and I, a small compact kind of guy , and definitely in top physical shape. Rick LOVES to work at a frenetic pace and prides himself on being able to do the job of ten men just like him. Not that we are fat and lazy but watching Rick literally run from one end of the chain of rafts to the other while carrying a heavy half stack of oyster growing trays was a bit intimidating. This particular day Rick was determined we were going to "sort" and "re-tray" about one quarter of the 2006 oyster stock growing on the rafts. I now know that means approximately 12,000 frigging oysters.

It might be time to describe the how the oysters grow process . The oysters we grow start out as "oyster seed". The size we buy are as big as your thumbnail and come in sacks of 10,000 or so. These iddy biddy oysters are placed in small plastic trays and then lowered into the water to a depth of five to ten feet to start slurping up all the yummy ocean nutrients flowing by them. From here they simply grow and grow and grow and need to be re-trayed and re-trayed and re-trayed until we harvest and sell them. All of this growing and retraying makes for hours and days of work. Anyways, back to the first "oh my God, what have we done" work day.

I think we started the day at nine in the morning and Rick worked us like slaves until the job was finally done at seven that evening. There was no lifting the head and stopping to enjoy the scenery, no idle chit-chat, no lunch , only a couple of drinks of water and only time for me to take two pees. I kept thinking surely Rick would want to leave for home in Powell River but no, he just kept flying around us determined we were going to work as hard as him. I think he delighted in seeing if we could keep up the pace. It got to the point where I was thinking he was a really irritating little shit and wishing he would fall into the fridgid water and have to leave. This was turning out to be a nightmare. Just as we were wrapping up lesson one, two of our dear friends dropped by the rafts on their yacht. They both looked fresh and relaxed and had come from a wonderful day of poking around the very pretty Sunshine Coast , lunching on freshly caught prawns and chilled white wine and were wondering if we might want to join them for dinner. I am not exaggerating when I say I have NEVER been so dog-tired, so beaten-up, had the worst head-ache of my life and looked like a wild-eyed witch covered in stinky goo. Not too mention I was having a really bad hair day!

We said good-bye to Rick, staggered off the rafts into our little boat and headed for our dock. Our friends Peter and Judy would have normally laughed at us until they ached but instead they were so blown away with how we looked and our story of the day's events they actually felt sorry for us. Once we had cleaned up a bit we were allowed on to their pristine, warm and cozy boat. They poured us both a monster scotch and we relaxed like never before in our lives. I think I was fast asleep at ten that night, did not move until the next morning and when I did it felt like I had run a marathon.

Well you know the rest. We went back for more. I will tell all in time.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

A fifties moment.

It is surely true that people in mid-life do seemingly crazy things. Deciding to purchase an oyster farm was such a mid-life moment.

Bob, my husband, and I had often looked out at the small floating structure in the middle of the bay where my family has long had a summer cabin and thought if the oyster farm came for sale we should buy it. The oyster farm first appeared one spring about ten years ago and it was not exactly welcomed by our family. Our once pristine and stunningly beautiful bay view now had "some thing" in it. We figured if we ever owned the oyster farm we could at least control the size and look of it. Well there we were a year and a half ago enjoying a perfect Labour Day weekend on Nelson Island and catching up on local gossip with a neighbour when he announced the oyster farm was going to be offered for sale. Normally we would have been saved from this madness by simply not having a swack of money to spend on something so foreign to our everyday life. However, that September we had the dough and were in the mood to spend it.

The oyster farm officially became ours that December and ever since my first work experience out on the stinky, slippery oyster growing rafts I have had a love/hate relationship with the thousands of Pacific oysters that are now mine.

I have wanted to write about all my oyster growing fears, frustrations and joys for some time and recently had lunch with a new friend that literally challenged me to write a blog. I have lots to tell and will ..........later. I am heading off for another few days of oyster farm work this Tuesday and must sign off to tear around the stores buying supplies for our four day stay at the cabin. Nelson Island is not exactly a place where any forgotten food or drink can be remedied by a quick car trip to a grocery store. There are no roads or power or stores close by and it all calls for some planning , packing and hauling of supplies every time we travel to the island. Basically a four hour journey by car, ferry and small boat from our comfy warm house in West Vancouver to the dock of the really rustic cabin sitting on the edge of Blind Bay, Nelson Island.

More when I return smelling of oyster muck and glad to be back to creature comforts.