To anyone who’s tried to wedge a sharp knife into the seam of a recalcitrant bivalve — and pierced human flesh instead — the founder of No Shuck Oysters can relate.
Several years ago, W. Tolar Nolley was attending a Christmas party, where he was trying to jimmy open an oyster. “I looked up, and there was a pretty lady, and I was talking to her, and that thing just went right in,” Nolley says. He means the stubby knife went right into his left hand, not the seafood. He has a jagged little scar as a permanent reminder that accidents can happen when shucker meets oyster.
Nolley’s product eliminates such risk, promising a clean, briny taste of the Chesapeake Bay without any of the bloodshed. It also all but eliminates the need to pry open oysters by hand. As such, No Shuck Oysters could be the final assault on a Chesapeake Bay shucking industry that once thrived but in recent decades has fallen on hard times, the victim of overharvesting, disease, a dining market that prizes oysters on the half shell, and now, possibly, Nolley’s company, HPP of Virginia.
“We have the technology to accelerate aquaculture oysters,” Nolley says of the expanding farmed-oyster industry along the Chesapeake. “But we really aren’t going to have the shuckers, the manpower. That’s kind of an old, dying tradition.”
A No Shuck Oyster, it’s important to note, is not the same thing as a shucked oyster, that juicy morsel without a shell. The former relies on a pricey piece of machinery — Nolley says his smaller unit cost about $650,000 — that processes 600 oysters in just a few minutes. The machine smothers the bivalves in cold, purified water pressurized to 65,000 pounds per square inch. As a point of comparison, the water pressure of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, which contains the deepest known points on Earth, is thought to be about 16,000 pounds per square inch, a force that can kill a human instantly.
This cold-pasteurization method is known as high-pressure processing, or HPP, and an oyster that emerges from an HPP unit has several perks: The process destroys potentially deadly pathogens without altering the bivalve’s texture or, for the most part, its taste. It also extends the shelf life of the oyster by a few precious days, or longer, compared with a non-HPP oyster.
Such processing also comes with a fringe benefit, one that Nolley has turned into a selling point: Under pressure, an oyster detaches from its shell, which must then be held together with a rubber band if Nolley still wants to sell the bivalves on the half-shell market.
With an HPP oyster, all you have to do is snip the band, and the shell slowly opens on its own, revealing the frilly delicacy inside. Goodbye, shucking knife. So long, puncture wounds.
Goodbye to shell breakage, too, a common problem with aquaculture oysters, which tend to have thinner and more brittle shells than those of their wild cousins. Not that many restaurant owners care much about this stuff, says Tyler Burgess, director of sales for HPP of Virginia.
“The owner, of course, is going to want to know, yes, they’re safe and, ‘I’m not going to have somebody coming after me because they got sick off an oyster,'” Burgess says.
Are there drawbacks to oysters processed under pressure? Yes. Even with a tight band around it, an oyster may open slightly during processing, allowing clean, pressurized water to enter its shell and dilute its natural briny liquor. The Washington Post Food staff recently sampled several No Shuck Oysters, which are available to distributors, restaurants and even those who prefer to slurp bivalves in their privacy of their own homes (or offices). No one thought the oysters tasted especially fresh, even though they all had their liquor still trapped within their shells.
“The liquor seems slimier than usual,” noted one taster.
Perhaps this is a function of another one of HPP’s side effects: The oyster dies under pressure, unlike a raw-bar oyster, which remains alive until you suck it down.
“It doesn’t kill them like you step on them or something,” says Steven Voisin, chief executive and owner of Louisiana-based Motivatit Seafoods, a pioneer in HPP oysters.
“They release from the shell, so they’re certainly not able to survive,” Voisin continues. “You’ve got to keep them iced down from that point and handle them as a fresh product, kind of like a fish. You take them out of water, he’s going to die, but once he dies, if he’s on ice properly, he’s still good for a long period of time.”
Motivatit first looked into high-pressure processing equipment in the late 1990s. The machinery was already in use for preserving and sterilizing foods, but Motivatit wanted to see whether it could reduce the risk of raw oysters during the warmer months, when the brackish waters along the Gulf Coast become the perfect host for naturally occurring vibrio bacteria, including a potentially lethal strain called Vibrio vulnificus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 80,000 people become ill and 100 die annually from Vibrio diseases, frequently after eating raw seafood such as oysters.
Motivatit founder Ernest Voisin shipped an overnight package of live oysters to a lab in Chicago to run through an HPP unit there, said Steven Voisin, his son. The oysters had to be infected with vibrio so Motivatit could determine whether the processing had any effect on the bacteria. Ernest Voisin and his twin sons, Mike and Steven, had to wait a week for the test results.
“It was even more positive than we had hoped, with that release of the muscle” from the shell, Steven Voisin says. “Because shucking oysters is not so easily accomplished, and when they shuck themselves, it’s a real blessing.”
Since Motivatit’s discovery, other processors have turned to HPP equipment to treat their oysters. The companies are all, by and large, along the Gulf Coast. Processors that also sell HPP oysters include Prestige Oysters in Texas (the “Treasure Band” oyster) and R&A Oyster in Alabama (its HPP oysters come “wrapped in our Capt. Fox brand green rubber bands”).
Nolley’s decision to launch an HPP company on the Chesapeake breaks from the Gulf Coast tradition. HPP of Virginia opened for business in the fall, and its presence in the Mid-Atlantic is causing some to wonder how it will fare in a region that typically doesn’t have to fret about vibrio bacteria six months out of the year (though the area has had its nasty encounters with Vibrio vulnificus over the years).
“It’s a new technology for us in the Chesapeake region,” says Chris Moore, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “It will be interesting to see if it takes off.”
But Laura McKay with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality says Nolley and No Shuck Oysters may just be ahead of the bacterial curve in the Chesapeake.
“I think one thing Virginia has to watch for is climate change,” says McKay, program manager for the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program Office. “While we’re in pretty good shape now, that’s one thing we have to watch for as temperatures rise.”
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