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    Wednesday, June 19, 2024

    Hitting the trail for Connecticut oysters

    The Connecticut Office of Tourism recently released its “Oyster Trail” map as part of new marketing campaign designed to provide visitors with farming and dining information. (State of Connecticut)

    Inside Stonington’s Water Street Cafe on Saturday, Executive Chef David Stockford extolled the virtues of oysters as he prepped a bowl of mushrooms ahead of the day’s dinner service.

    “We serve them raw in the shell, on ice, with a red wine vinegar and black pepper dressing,” he said, noting the restaurant tries to have two or three varieties available for guests. “And we have house-made cocktail sauce and horseradish, too. I like mine with just a squeeze of lemon, but grew up in the South putting them on saltines with hot sauce.”

    State tourism officials are hoping a new marketing push that literally maps out the farms, stores and restaurants that harvest, carry and serve the briny bivalves will lead to a new appreciation for mollusks.

    The “Connecticut Oyster Trail” map is a splashy piece of cartography complete with slogans (“Connecticut is Your Oyster) and crossed knife-and-fork icons zeroing in on eateries offering the saltwater treats, including several southeastern locations from New London and Waterford to Stonington and Mystic.

    Alene Whipple, co-owner of Stonington’s Seawell Seafood wholesale business, said oystering isn’t for the faint of heart. She said farmers start with dime-sized “seeds” that only after years of care and patience are ready to be harvested and served.

    “It’s hard work, and no one is going to become a millionaire farming oysters, but you’ll never go hungry,” said Whipple, whose company delivers to restaurants across the region ― including to the Water Street Cafe ― and into Rhode Island.

    While the Mystic and Rhode Island Ninigret Nectars are her most popular oysters, Whipple said freshness and variety are key.

    “We want to carry as many types as possible; people don’t just want one kind when they order a platter,” she said. “And if you’re getting one of our oysters at a restaurant, chances are they were in the water yesterday or the day before.”

    She said oyster flavors range from creamy and sweet to sharp and salty depending on the harvest site and the filter-feeders’ diets.

    “Personally, I like mine with cocktail sauce and horseradish,” Whipple said, noting her husband and business partner, Ted Whipple, an oyster purist, eats them straight up.

    Other trail stops included the 13 shoreline businesses that cultivate, farm and package the briny hauls, including Stonington Farms Shellfish, a small Mystic-based family operation highlighted in a short documentary, “Rising Tide to Table,” created by the state Office of Tourism as part of the marketing initiative.

    “Connecticut is the Napa Valley of oysters,” Gov. Ned Lamont said in a statement announcing the trail launch. “Once hailed as the ‘Oyster Capital of the World,’ we are reclaiming our place at the forefront of this maritime and culinary tradition.”

    Connecticut harvests roughly 20 million oysters a year, culled from more than 70,000 acres of watery farm beds lining the state’s southern coast.

    The renewed emphasis on oyster consumption was lauded by Scott Dolch, president of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, who extended a “friendly call” to those restaurants who have not yet added oysters to their menus.

    “By supporting our local producers, restaurants not only enrich our culinary landscape, but also provides diners with an authentic taste of our coastal delicacies,” Dolch said in a news release. “It’s a win-win that fosters a culture of local pride and celebrates the unique flavors of our region.”

    Tony D'Angelo, owner of Tony D’s on Huntington Street, is, along with the Sellfish restaurant on Pequot Avenue, one of two New London businesses featured on the new oyster trail.

    D’Angelo said he serves Niantic Bay oysters that present with a “briny, sweet finish.” He called the trail a smart way to promote the local shellfish industry.

    “It adds another dimension for diners, showing them those different, local places to get the oysters while also educating them about the business,” he said. “And it’s done in a fun way.”

    j.penney@theday.com

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