Pristine waters, a good back and a big heart produce award-winning oysters for Hyannis’ Naked Oyster restaurant
Chef Florence Lowell rolls up her sleeves to prepare memorable meals for diners at her Hyannis restaurant, Naked Oyster. But her process starts long before she puts on her chef’s coat and picks up a knife. Lowell is a farmer—a farmer of the unique mollusk for which her restaurant is named. Oysters, perhaps because they are simple and sophisticated at the same time, enjoy a global fascination rooted in the same vernacular reserved for fine wine. While wine often attributes its subtle distinctions to the ‘terroir,’ the soil in which the vines thrive and derive the characteristics found in wine varietals, oysters are also influenced by their environment, the ‘merroir,’ or the flowing waters and sands of the various harbors that give names to their varieties.
Growing up on the other side of our Atlantic waters, on the coast of France, Lowell sees similarities between her childhood home and the seaside inlets and coves of the Cape. In 2010, after stints in Texas restaurants, she moved to the Cape and started farming oysters in Barnstable Harbor. Her beds are located not far from Sandy Neck and being the hands-on chef/farmer she is, she can more often than not be found in waist-high waders, tending and harvesting her beds of sublime delicacies.
A warm, winsome June morning found Lowell motoring out to the flats, as the pristine shallows softly receded to expose the sandbar designated for oyster aquaculture. As the seagulls soared, floated and investigated any opportunity for a morning snack on the back side of Sandy Neck’s barrier dunes, Lowell set about her work of checking her agronomy.
There are many styles and schools of thought about how to farm oysters; all fairly consistent in that they utilize mesh bags, cages and racks to keep the oysters collected within each farmer’s ‘grant,’ the acreage assigned by the town where they can attach their gear and grow oysters from small seed stock to maturity. The process Lowell utilizes is slightly different from her neighboring farmers’ choices. She starts the miniscule seed in raised mesh tubes called Seapa Baskets. Lowell says the oysters that have become so popular at the Naked Oyster have a deeper, more defined ‘cup’ in the oyster shell instead of a flatter shell that might occur in other processes. “The baskets swing with the currents,” she explains, “and the young oysters bump against them chipping off the perimeter of the shell, like a fingernail.” That repeated motion concentrates the growth of the muscle toward the center resulting in a firm, plump oyster that floats in a sweet, briny puddle of ocean.
Known as “Flo” on the flats, perhaps because of the ebb and flow of the tides, Lowell has only one client for her produce: herself. “Since we only produce for the restaurant, we approach the harvest differently than if we were selling the stock,” she says. “We inspect each oyster and choose only what we expect to need for the next day or two. We take only the best. If it isn’t ready it goes back until it’s perfect.” Each year she buys 250 to 400,000 seeds and incorporates that new stock into the grant. Over a typical season, she harvests over 110,000 oysters for the Naked Oyster. She has been working her grant for almost a decade and like most farmers of any crop, it is not a fair weather hobby. Her efforts are always dictated by the tide schedule and it is a 12-month activity. She says January and February can be brutal, but focuses on the positive when she says there are always nice days even in those months.
A meal at Naked Oyster is always a feast for the soul, but understanding the commitment and effort Florence Lowell brings to the entire experience makes it that much more fulfilling.
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Check out this Strawberry & champagne mignonette recipe, courtesy of the Naked Oyster!