Bruce Wood already had lured one noted Washington restaurateur to the waters of Nomini Creek, where he began to cultivate signature oysters for Jamie Leeds , chef and owner of the small Hank’s Oyster Bar chain. So why not land another big fish to feast on his Dragon Creeks?
Like Leeds, Jeff Black was intrigued by the prospect of having his own signature oyster, but only “if I could dictate the flavor profile,” says the Houston native who grew up with the bivalves of the Gulf Coast. Black’s preferred flavor profile, I think it’s safe to say, smacks of someone who has made a living in the restaurant business: “I like a lot of salt,” he says.
Salinity, however, is one quality that Wood has in relatively short supply at Nomini Creek. His leased waters boast a relatively low salinity level, at about 12-13 parts per thousand or ppt. For the sake of comparison, seawater usually hovers around 34-35 ppt. Black would prefer to slurp down something closer in flavor to Gulf water, not pasta water.
Wood had a solution: He is also a partner with Dan Grosse at Toby Island Bay Oysters, located on Chincoteague Bay on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where the waters are a virtual saltmine at 29-30 ppt. They would begin to farm Black’s signature oyster there.
Then, a funny thing happened: Cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton from Rappahannock River Oysters contacted Black and said they’d like to grow an oyster for the “Don’t Call Me an Empire Builder” restaurateur as well.
Black pondered the dilemma for a second. “That’s okay,” he said to himself. “I’ll do two.”
Thus was born the Old Black Salts, which, as the name implies, will be even brinier than the Black Pearls. This has to do with the Black Narrows straits — no, not named after Jeff and Barbara Black — in Chincoteague Bay where the Old Black Salts will be raised; apparently it’s a salt bomb there, though Travis Croxton could not be immediately reached for comment on the salinity of his waters.
When the Black Pearl makes its debut in September at Pearl Dive, as part of a fundraiser for Food & Friends, it may not be the exact signature oyster that Jeff Black ultimately helps to design. That's because the Blacks and the owners of Toby Island are still deciding exactly where to grow the Black Pearls, which will then take six to18 months to reach maturity. In the meantime, Toby Island will send some of its current stock to the Blacks’ restaurants.
If you ask Dan Grosse of Toby Island if the Black Pearl will ultimately taste different from his current shellstock, he hedges his response: It depends on where the oysters will be grown. If they’re next to his current oysters, the Black Pearl will likely have a similar flavor. But if it’s in another part of Toby Island’s leased waters, it could taste significantly different.
“I can take you to parts of Toby Bay, and you can taste a difference within 100 feet,” Grosse says.
However the Black Pearls and Old Black Salts eventually taste, Jeff Black doesn’t plan to keep them exclusive. He sees it as part of his own role in helping the Chesapeake Bay.
“I don’t want exclusivity,” Black says. “The more [they] sell, the cleaner the Bay.”