When Bruce Wood’s father was dying 30 years ago, he told his son: “You’re the smart one. I want you to do something about cleaning up this bay.” Two decades later, Wood began to fulfill the promise of restoring the Chesapeake’s waters. His mode of choice: oysters.
Wood uses discarded shells to create an ecosystem in which oysters can grow and thrive, a small-scale version of the Oyster Recovery Partnership in Maryland. But what started as a way to help clean the bay — one oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day — has become a business. Nine years after he seeded his first 500 larvae, Wood sells thousands of oysters under the Dragon Creek name every week to 16 Washington-area restaurants.
His biggest client by far is Jamie Leeds, chef-owner of Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle and Alexandria, for whom Wood last year started growing a signature oyster. During deliveries to Hank’s and other restaurants, he picks up spent shells, brings them back home and unloads them onto his one-acre reef.
On a mid-September morning hinting of fall, Leeds and three staff members decided to make the shell delivery themselves, so they loaded buckets of them (plus a few bottles of Sancerre) into the back of her SUV and set out for Wood’s Montross home on Virginia’s Northern Neck. I tagged along for the ride.
Wood farms oysters on 35 acres of leased bottom just off his back yard on the shore of Nomini Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River 15 miles west of the Chesapeake Bay. Sporting an end-of-summer tan, a powder-blue Polo shirt, wire-frame glasses and a boyish, white-blond haircut, Wood could easily have passed for Phil Donahue’s 60-year-old brother. He greeted us and seated us at a water-view lunch table piled high with steamed, just-caught crabs, crab dip, bratwurst and salads while he shucked the objects of our immediate interest: Hayden’s Reefs.
Last year, Wood built Hayden’s Reef, named after Leeds’s 8-year-old son, a few hundred feet off his dock as a breeding ground for the Hank’s oyster. Leeds introduced Hayden’s Reefs in August to promote and celebrate the expansion of her Dupont Circle location.
First, Wood explained why the spent shells are important enough for him to schlep them back to the creek.
“If you go out past where I dumped those thousands of shells, you’ll see mud,” he says. “These creeks got messed up during the colonial period, when they cut down all these trees for farms and all the silt ran into these creeks. When oysters start growing, they sink in the mud and suffocate. When you put down the shells, they have something to rest on.”
Then he served the Hayden’s Reefs. Leeds picked one up, raised it to eye level and rocked it slightly to and fro, admiring and inspecting it as if it were a gem catching the light.
“Wow,” she marveled. “These oysters are unbelievable. The cup on them is just amazing.” With that, she slurped one down and nodded. “They are all about the texture and the feel in the mouth. Creamy and meaty, with just a tiny bit of salt.”
As Leeds noted, the well (cup) of the 31 / 2-inch oyster’s bottom shell is ample, like a sake cup holding a plump oyster and its plentiful liquor. To call that liquid a brine would be inaccurate, because its saltiness is faint: Hayden’s Reef oysters are grown in a low-salinity environment. (See the accompanying sidebar.)
On a boat tour around Nomini Bay, Wood recounted how he’d wound up in the oyster business. He came from a family of watermen on his mother’s side and grew up on Cobb Island, Md., across the river from Nomini Creek, where he fished as a boy. After retiring from a 30-year career in the U.S. Air Force and then working as a college professor in Texas, Wood returned with his wife, Barb, to the area he loved, buying the Nomini Creek house in 2001. (They also own a house in Alexandria.)
He started growing oysters as a hobby, and with the health of the bay in mind. But within a few years of seeding his first 500 spat, or larvae, “there were a million oysters out there,” and Barb demanded he do something with them. Right after Leeds opened the first Hank’s in 2005, Wood approached her on the street, opened an oyster and asked her to taste it. “They were really good,” she said. “He explained that he was a small farmer, and I said, ‘Great! I’ll take 200 tomorrow!’ And we’ve had a great relationship ever since.”
The farming method is three-fold. First Wood lays a base of shells on the muddy bottom to create a place for wild oysters to attach. On top of that, he places rectangular wire cages holding 60,000 commercially produced spat, protected by mesh bags. Finally, in the spring, Wood transfers the spat, now grown into oysters about 11 / 2 inches long, into floating cages. It takes Wood’s oysters between 12 and 15 months to grow to full size, about 31 / 2 inches.
Now Wood has 50 wire cages and 50 floating cages that hold about 40,000 oysters (some are lost to attrition); he plans to expand the operation as soon as he gets a license to do so. Add in the oysters growing on the reef, either naturally or planted there, and there’s no telling how many are out there. With all the water his and the other farmers’ oysters filter, Wood knows he is making a difference.
However many oysters are growing in Nomini Creek, Leeds’s operation seems able to make them disappear. The two Hank’s locations combined serve and sell more than 1,200 of Wood’s oysters every week. They’re also available to retail customers of Hank’s for $2 each (order 24 hours in advance) and at BlackSalt Market in the Palisades for $1.50 each.
The Hayden’s Reefs are “meaty and mild, which makes them a really good starter oyster,” Leeds says. “They’re good for cooking. We use them for our barbecue oysters, good in stews, roasted oysters, grilled oysters.”
Bearing Leeds’s advice in mind, I envisioned roasting the deep-cupped beauties in a hot oven and using them as vessels for mini, on-the-half-shell portions of chowder. The first order of business was to taste one for salinity.
I reduced cream infused with thyme, bay leaf and garlic, then added bits of smoky bacon, shallots, carrots, potatoes and celery, all enhanced with a generous amount of chipotle-flavored hot sauce. I concentrated the seasoning of the chowder mix, taking into account that it would be commingling with a generous amount of oyster liquor.
The result was exactly what I’d hoped: a slurpy way to combine a soup and appetizer in one dish. These oysters are perfect for entertaining because the chowder mix can be made ahead of time and the oysters shucked, nestled on a foil-lined baking sheet and refrigerated, ready to pop into the oven for a last-minute roasting before being garnished with the warm topping.
The idea worked so well, I made another version with chopped Chinese watercress flavored with cream, lemon grass, ginger, Sriracha, scallion and cilantro. Serving the oysters on chargers filled with chunky rock salt crystals (they keep the oysters from tipping over) makes a simple, elegant presentation.
The Hayden’s Reefs meatiness inspired two other ideas: a quick, Korean-inspired kimchi broth with shiitake mushrooms, spinach and oysters; and cornmeal-battered oyster beignets with smoked oyster sauce. It’s difficult for me to resist getting my fry on when there are plenty of succulent, local oysters to be had. That they’re grown sustainably makes them all the sweeter.
Hagedorn will answer questions about oysters and more during the Free Range chat Wednesday at noon at live.washingtonpost.com.