Southold Bay Oysters serving up a winter harvest

A “Shindig Shuck Box” from Southold Bay Oysters. (Credit: Northforker file photo)

Nothing compares to a North Fork oyster paired with a glass of dry white wine in the summertime, or so many people might say.

But Southold Bay Oysters co-owner Ben Gonzalez would beg to differ. 

Before cold temperatures freeze the top of Southold Bay, Mr. Gonzalez and co-owner Dave Daly are placing oysters in metal cages and lowering them 20 feet below sea level.

Southold Bay Oysters was founded in 2015 after the duo joined Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Suffolk Project in Aquaculture Training. Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Daly settled into Southold, completed an application and received land permits for the 10-acre aquaculture site at the base of Southold Bay. They harvested their first batch of about 150,000 oysters that summer.

This year, the duo will hold their first-ever winter harvest of their “Southold Shindigs” Jan. 16 and 17.

The off-season for harvesting depends on the year, Mr. Gonzalez said, but typically runs from November to May. Chilly temperatures make it harder for oysters to develop, as they cannot obtain proper nutrients. The winter harvest is a way to satisfy oyster-lovers who can’t get their fix during cold months, Mr. Gonzalez said.

“People go home in the winter, they want to have winter oysters, but they’re not around,” he said. “So we decided to do a winter harvest.”

Mr. Gonzalez said the caged oysters, which sit on the bay floor within the Noank Aquacultural Co-Op, know when it’s getting colder.

“They start accumulating energy and eventually go into hibernation mode,” he said.

Compounds of glucose, glycogen and other amino acids stored up from eating algae in the summer allow the oysters to use energy and stay alive.

The energy also contributes to the flavor of the oysters, Mr. Gonzalez said. Like slow-roasting meat, the oysters collect more flavor as they hibernate on the bay floor.

The oysters harvested in Southern states with warmer climates don’t have the same layers of flavor as winter oysters here, Mr. Gonzalez said. He said that while market-size oysters in the South are larger and ready for harvesting earlier, they can’t compare to a North Fork winter oyster.

“They don’t accumulate the same energy,” he said. “These oysters are a lot more rich and briny.”

Location, algae and temperature all contribute to the taste of an oyster, he added.

“You can separate oysters 50 feet apart and they will have a different taste based on the algae and area they’re in,” he said.

This season, Southold Bay Oysters will harvest larger, market-sized oysters. In summer months, Mr. Gonzalez said, baby oysters will be harvested.

“Oyster lovers will do anything to find a good oyster,” he laughed. “We want to provide for them.”

Locals are encouraged to order oysters online before Jan. 16. Two dozen unshucked oysters are priced at $30 and cost an additional $25 to ship throughout the tri-state area. They can be picked up on location at 10273 N Bayview Road in Southold.