Discerning shellfish eaters love Walrus and Carpenters’ oysters for their briny, buttery taste – they’re a must-order from any menu. Eating them on site, however – and I didn’t think this was possible – makes them even better. The farm offers small group tours, but when owner Jules Opton-Himmel’s mom suggested adding a dinner in the field – or pond, as it were – in 2013, a magical experience was born. Today, the Charlestown, Rhode Island–based operation hosts a handful of multi-course, pond-to-plate dinners each summer, each hosted by a different regional chef with wine and beer pairings by Bottles Fine Wine.
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. More than 50 oyster farms have popped up throughout the state; each with its own “merroir.” Walrus & Carpenter Oysters secured its prime location in Charlestown’s Ninigret Pond – the largest of nine saltwater ponds in the state – in 2009. With fresh water from natural springs and salt water flushing in from a breach way, the pristine location, which backs up to a national wildlife refuge, offers a shallow, sandy spot that’s the perfect environment for oysters to thrive.
I was lucky enough to get tickets via lottery last spring, and when I arrived with a group of friends for our dinner in July, the sky was heavy sky but our sprits were bright. A school bus transported us from a church parking lot to a beach, then down a bumpy dirt road. Disembarking, we were invited to grab a local beer (some was even brewed with Walrus and Carpenter–grown kelp) before hopping aboard the small boats that would ferry us across the pond on our tour of the oyster farm. A little nervous about rain, passengers were giddy with excitement, big smiles across our faces as we introduced ourselves to new friends who would soon be our dining companions.
A short trip brought us to the 6-acre farm, where oysters are grown using a rack and bag system that allows farmers to tend to each oyster, ensuring quality and consistency. The boats were beached on a sand bar, and the curious crowd of a few dozen gathered among the marsh grass. We listened to our guide explain the inner workings on the farm, then barraged him with a slew of questions, from where they got their name (Alice in Wonderland) to how long the shellfish takes to mature (up to three years) to the environmental effects of growing oysters (it’s not just low-impact; it’s beneficial to the ecosystem).
When time was up, we simply turned 180 degrees and were greeted with cups of prosecco; a few more steps and we were at a makeshift, in-water raw bar filled with the very oysters we had just learned all about, plus a bucket of tender littleneck clams on ice, which the farm grows but doesn’t yet sell. As a palate cleanser, we waded further across the pond and down a path to beautiful East Beach, a remote, unspoiled 3-mile stretch facing the open Atlantic.
Back at the pond, Chef James Mark, owner of North and North Bakery in Providence, was preparing our alfresco dinner over a wood-fired grill made of nothing more than cinderblocks and a grate. (Every item for the dinner had to be carted in and out by boat; that included the portable restroom, which floated atop a small barge.) A table set up on a sandbar was dressed with white linens and made all the more charming with small vases of wildflowers. A passing rain shower left our glasses and plates dewey, but no one seemed to mind; in fact, it felt sort of refreshing and right. Plus, this was a group that came dressed in boat shoes and board shorts (or, in my friend Laura’s case, quick-drying tennis clothes) with the expectation of getting wet. We sat atop benches built from orange plastic oyster bins and long gray wooden boards.
As the wine started flowing, the first course was served – tender Point Judith fluke sashimi, served with a mild vinaigrette. Juicy heirloom tomato salad followed, along with fire-roasted corn. Vibrant herbs elevated the freshness of each dish. Of course, the setting didn’t hurt either.
When we learned that bluefish would be the main course, a few of us were surprised and, admittedly, trepidatious. Bluefish can taste oily and deep. But when cooked within just a few hours of capture, it yields flaky, mild, succulent meat. Chef Mark served his deboned but with heads in tact (eyes, too) and baring their sharp little teeth.
Stomachs stuffed, we crowded around a bonfire, sipping more wine, grinning till it hurt, and somehow making room for a dessert of cookies and berries. Shortly before we boarded our boats for the return trip and just before the sun set, the clouds parted and the sky lit up. It was a magical exclamation point at the end of an extraordinary feast.
Photography by Jonathan Clancy / Clancy Creative.
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