With more than 50 oyster farms located throughout Rhode Island, these bivalves are beginning to represent big growth for our small state. In 2013, more than 6.4 million Rhode Island oysters were sold for consumption, with local growers culling more than $4.3 million. Dozens of restaurants across Aquidneck Island serve oysters to crowds with an increasing appetite for knowledge about where they are farmed, their taste profiles, and the nuances that make each different.
Just as the craft beer and local-food phenomenons created a new breed of drinker-diner, the pond-to-plate crowd is ready for premium oysters – and Newport’s ready to deliver. Ready to initiate your palate to this delicious and sustainable delicacy? Look no further than the first annual Newport Oyster Festival at Bowen’s Wharf, which begins the evening of Friday, May 20 and runs throughout the weekend. Intrigued? Here are 10 reasons to get out there and start slurping.
1. Taste the merroir
Here’s the thing about oysters: They take on the flavor of the place where they are grown, and Rhode Island’s diverse coastal geography means we’ve got amazing variation in taste. Much like how wine enthusiasts talk about terroir, the emerging idea of “merroir” – flavor and texture imparted into oysters based on the water and place where they are grown – has come to be a talking point among oyster farmers and lovers.
2. Oysters are our future
Unlike colder regions – such as Maine, for instance – Rhode Island oyster farmers can harvest year-round. Farmers in warmer areas south of us can, too, but not with the same reliable flavor as our local oysters. In other words, Rhode Island’s waters are perfectly situated for an oyster revolution. The bi-valves – which have a long local history – are an integral part of our state’s shellfish economy, what the RI Department of Environmental Management has referred to as “the next wave of food-based economic growth.” Plus, oyster farming is a sustainable industry that helps filter coastal waters and keep marine environments healthy.
3. Meet the growers
The festival, which begins on Friday evening with the Opening Night Party, is designed to celebrate Rhode Island’s aquaculture along with the growers that are making it happen. Your $125 ticket gives you access to mingle with growers under the lights and festival tents. If you’re the kind of diner that nerds out about where your oysters are from and exactly how they taste and why, then this event is for you. You’ll be slurping all-you-can-eat Aquidnecks, Breachways, Chessawanocks, Salt Ponds, Matunucks, and Watch Hills as you sway to live Caribbean music and tipple from the open bar (including wine and oyster pairings). You’ll also be first to get details on the new Rhode Island Oyster Trail, a network of restauran ts and growers that the public can visit for local eats. Added bonus: Proceeds from your ticket benefit the Ocean State Aquaculture Association and SSV Oliver Hazard Perry.
Read more: The Art of Loving Oysters
4. Get your slurp on
On Saturday, May 21 and Sunday, May 22, you can taste your way around the tent as you sample oysters from 13-plus Rhode Island growers, such as Walrus and Carpenter, Salt Pond Oysters, and Venus Oyster Co. Need more to nosh? Restaurants – including Fluke Wine Bar & Kitchen, Diego’s, Matunuck Oyster Bar, and more – will be on hand serving up specialty fare. Advance tickets ($27, includes four oysters and a beverage) for Saturday are already sold-out – an early indication of how popular the event will be – but you can still buy tickets in person ($35) at the Pilot House (at the top of Bowen’s Wharf, on the corner of America’s Cup Avenue and Market Square) for either day. Advance tickets are currently still available online for Sunday. Also good to know: You’ll need pick a time slot (either 11 a.m.–2 p.m. or 2 p.m.–5 p.m.) and children 12 and under are free.
5. Oysters are good for you
According to the Ocean State Shellfish Cooperative, “the average oyster contains close to 2 grams of protein. A serving of 12 oysters contains 21.96 grams of protein, with only about 4 grams of fat. Oysters are low in cholesterol and rich in zinc, iron, calcium, and vitamin A.” Well, there you go.
6. No shell (or cup or fork) shall be left behind
Bowen’s Wharf is no stranger to bringing seafood celebrations to the waterfront. Since 1990, they’ve hosted the Bowen’s Wharf Seafood Festival, which connects shell fishermen, lobstermen, and fishermen with the local restaurants and with the public. The Oyster Festival, however, adds a new twist. In the spirit of sustainable farming, the event will incorporate compostable plates, utensils, and cups (plus loads of recycling, of course). And you know that waste is going to the right place, too, when The Compost Plant is taking care of business at the event. To date, the young business – Rhode Island’s first commercial food-scrap collection service – has diverted 1,217 tons of organic waste from our one landfill, and plans to develop the state’s first industrial compost facility soon. Plus, The Nature Conservancy will collect used oyster shells from the festival to be reused in building a reef in a South County salt pond.
Read more: Have Raw Bar, Will Travel
7. There will be cocktails
Newport loves a good excuse for day drinking. Need we say more? Probably not, but we’ll add this, fyi: The bar will offer libations from event sponsors including Santa Margherita, Stella Artois, Bully Boy, and more.
8. Let the music play
Oysters may be the main event, but musicians will take to the stage throughout the entire festival. Local faves including Chelley, Bill & Dyl; The Copacetics; and Abbey Rhode are all on the lineup.
9. Shuck it up
On Sunday at 3 p.m., join the crowd in chanting “Shuck, shuck, shuck!” as competitors race to see who can open the most shells fastest. Really, it’s amazing how fast these people can put a shucking knife to a shell.
Read More: The Dish: Stuffies (a.k.a Stuffed Quahogs)
10. Done slurping? Try some shopping.
Many of the shops on Bowen’s Wharf are getting into the spirit, too, with paintings, kitchen tools and supplies, and tabletop items that celebrate these precious mollusks. It’s hard to take home a raw oyster and put it on a shelf, but a less perishable souvenir will always remind you of all you’ve learned and eaten.
Which oyster will be your favorite? Head to the festival, then let us know in the comments.
All images courtesy of Bowen’s Wharf Co.