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All About South Carolina Oysters

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 35 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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The world might be your oyster, but if your ambition is to just sit back and shuck a few of the finest, you need go no further than the South Carolina coast. The state's riverbanks, salt marshes and creeks are rich with Crassostrea virginica, or more simply, the Eastern Oyster. The flat coastline, vast tidal areas and natural oyster reefs, combined with a lengthy spawning season, make the perfect habitat for growing abundant clusters of meaty, briny oysters.

Oysters are not only tasty, but good for you, too. They are high in the things you want - protein, essential vitamins and minerals - and low in the stuff you don't want, namely calories and fat. Whether you order a bushel from an oyster farm or fresh seafood outlet, enjoy them in a restaurant, or set out to harvest your own, each locally sourced oyster also carries a mouthful of South Carolina flavor and history.

Innovators and Industry

Native Americans who once inhabited South Carolina's Sea Islands loved oysters, their ardor made apparent by the massive mounds of shucked shells they left behind. Early settlers made good use of the refuse, baking the shells to extract lime then mixing it with sand, oyster shells and water to create a type of concrete called "tabby." Able to withstand the elements, it was used in the building of houses and other structures, some of which are still standing. Examples can be seen at the Tabby Ruins, a former slave home on Daufuskie Island, St. Helena's Chapel of Ease, Hilton Head's Drayton Plantation and the Tabby Manse in Beaufort, home to the most tabby structures in the nation.

Oysters were a booming business in South Carolina from the 1800s until the start of World War II. Cheap and plentiful, they were enjoyed across the classes. Harvesting and processing operations provided jobs even during the Great Depression when jobs were scarce. Many harvesters today still hammer and chisel the clusters apart, taking only the largest and leaving the "little guys" behind until they're grown up enough to take center stage on the dinner table.

As restaurants became more prominent in the state, oysters were featured on many a menu, much to the delight of patrons. In the book, "South Carolina Oyster Industry: A History," author Victor G. Burrell Jr. describes raw bars that were in operation prior to the Civil War. The industry flourished even more after technology enabled ice to stay frozen longer, which made it possible to ship oysters outside the state. And the mighty mollusk even made the social scene. The South Carolina tradition of hosting oyster roasts was - and still is - a reason for family and friends to come together for feasting and fellowship.

Prime-time Oysters

Oyster season in South Carolina runs from September through April - if the month has an "R" in it, you'll find fresh harvests. It's also a time to celebrate the mollusk, so oyster festivals and oyster roasts explode on social calendars across the state. If you want to harvest your own, keep in mind that, on average, it takes South Carolina oysters three to four years to mature, at which time they'll measure about three inches in length. Don't forget a state saltwater fishing license - it's a requirement. And always consult a map of public access oyster beds as well as guidelines for harvesting, both available from the SC Department of Natural Resources. On occasion, beds might temporarily close because of unfavorable water conditions, so save yourself some trouble and check before you harvest.

If you're not inclined to muck around in the pluff mud but want to prepare your own oysters, check out one of the state's stellar farming operations. South Carolina oyster farmers take great pride in their product, each laying claim to raising and harvesting the tastiest oysters. And there's some fact behind all that brag. Word among oyster purveyors is that, thanks to aquaculture techniques and environmental conditions, the Southeast is on the fast track to becoming the "Napa Valley of Oysters." This trend is reflected by the high demand for South Carolina oysters, with some farms routinely selling out their entire harvest.

Tasting Time

Now that you're ready to discover what all the fuss is about, it's time to start sampling. The flavor profile, or "merrier," of South Carolina oysters varies according to where they are grown. Sweet, salty, earthy - identifying the salinity and complexity of the oyster is akin to tasting and rating wines. But you don't have to have special skills to find your preference - just follow your palate and you'll be just fine.

Some South Carolina favorites among oyster aficionados and chefs include:

* Caper's Blades oysters, grown by Clammer Dave on natural reefs north of Charleston, are said to have "clean, sweet meat with abundant tongue-curling salty liquor."

* Single Lady Oysters, grown by Lady's Island Oysters in Beaufort saltwater estuaries, described as "briny with a clean finish."

* Baritaria Blades, harvested from wild oyster beds by May River Oyster Co. in Bluffton, deliver a "burst of brine."

If you wish to experience an old-school oyster operation, plan a visit to Bluffton Oyster Company - the state's only oyster house - for freshly harvested, hand-shucked oysters. Or, simply snag a seat at one of the many South Carolina eateries offering fresh, local shellfish. Whether your idea of the perfect oyster comes fried on a platter, roasted in a bucket, or naked and raw on a half-shell, oyster nirvana awaits you in South Carolina.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 35 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.