The American East Coast Oyster (Crassostrea virginica) of the Delaware Bay was one of the most prized and highly sought after oysters in the world. Its succulent flavor, reminiscent of the salty sea, made it a favorite of seafood lovers all over the United States and trainloads of freshly harvested oysters made their way daily all across the country to cities like Kansas City and San Francisco. In nearby Philadelphia, the Delaware oyster had been a prized delicacy since Colonial times and ubiquitous sellers crowded the narrow, oyster shell-paved streets, offering raw oysters, oyster stew, and brined or fried oysters to passers by.
Since the early 19th century the culturing, harvesting, shucking, packing and shipping of oyster from the waters of Delaware Bay has been a major component of the economic, social and political fabric of the countries of Cumberland, Cape May an Salem in South Jersey. Many of the small towns of the area were among the key centers engaged in various activities associated with the oyster industry. The Cumberland Country Seat of Bridgeton served as the banking, transportation and administrative hub for the oyster producers. In addition to being a mainstay of the economy of this isolated rural area of the State, the oyster industry also created a demand for a vast array of auxiliary commercial activities.
Overfishing, pollution, increased water temperatures and species-specific diseases all led to a crisis that saw oysters decrease in both number and size. While the estuary, at the time of its efflorescence in the late nineteenth-century, was home to 1,400 boats with 2,300 men, there are now fewer than 50 boats and fewer men involved in cultivating and gathering oysters.
Recently, fisheries working in cooperation with Rutgers University have developed an oyster that is much more resistant to diseases and are breeding and cultivating the Cape May Oyster in the remote regions of the Delaware Bay. Here, in the clean waters of the Bay, the oysters can develop the famous salty flavor and superior taste of the Delaware Bay oyster with the added benefits of consistency of quality, appearance, and size. There is optimism that local oysters can once again flourish in their habitat.
The Cape May Oyster Slow Food Presidium supports selected producers and harvesters as they begin to use environmentally friendly methods of cultivation tried with great success in France. The state of the art "Rack and Bag" technique produces oyster sprats in hatcheries and then places them on nets hanging from racks stretching across the shallows exposed to the tide. The oysters, 'planted' in the sea, feed naturally by filtering ocean water and are not given any artificial feed or antibiotics. They grow in the clean waters of rural Cape May, where water quality is constantly monitored for highest quality by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration National Shellfish Sanitation Program. The oysters are individually grown (cultchless) with clean, thin shells that allow for easy shucking. Oysters are harvested individually by hand at about three inches and are presently available from May to January.
Slow Food promotes the work of the few remaining Cape May oyster fishermen by actively helping them to develop the local and international market for the Cape May Oysters. A first promotional initiative has been very successful at the Plaza Hotel in New York City which now regularly serves raw Cape May oysters in its Oyster Bar.
In 2004, the fishermen involved in the Presidium have drafted the production protocol, defining the area devoted to Cape May Oysters farming area and the fishing season, and providing information on the history of oyster farming in the area and on the morphological characteristics of the species. The next step consists in publishing the production protocol and circulating it among chefs, food distributors and discerning consumers who wish to learn more about the history and the method behind this special product.
Cape May, Delaware Bay, New Jersey
Slow Food Convivium Leader
tel. +1 6103288612
Slow Food Convivium Leader
tel. +1 609 452 1515