Food

Apalachicola Oysters

Shore Leave

By
Victoria
Allman

It was time to get off the boat. Sometimes, the small confining space gets to me. It was time for wide-open sky, endless miles of land and long white beaches. It was time to go camping.

Leaving the constricting space of the boat behind, Patrick and I loaded up the Jeep and headed west to a secluded campsite at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park on the beach of the Gulf of Mexico.

"You're sure we packed the dishes?" I asked for the 10th time.

Even though Patrick was hiking 10 feet in front of me on the sandy two-mile path toward the campsite, I could feel his roll of the eyes and hear the exasperation in his voice through his gritted teeth. "You're being neurotic, wife."

But, we were packing everything in, and the last thing I wanted was to have to hike out in the dark, back to the vehicle, to retrieve an AWOL coffee cup. We had already passed signs of bear crossing and alligator warnings, after all, so I wasn't to keen on forgetting anything.

The strap from the firewood bundle dug into my shoulder as the sloshing sound of our weekend's worth of water from my pack filled the air. I had to concentrate on the path ahead for fear of tripping over the sprawling razor-sharp fans of saw palmetto trees so I almost missed the deer frozen in its tracks on the path ahead. For a fleeting second, we stood, staring into the deep dark pools of its eyes before it bounded away into the scruff. Ten minutes into our foray into the wilderness and we'd already left the busy glamour of yachting ports behind us.

That night, nestled between the sea oats and dunes of the beach, we watched the night sky explode with stars and listened to the sounds of the fire crackling, amazed how quickly we could settle into our new surroundings.

"What's the plan for tomorrow?" I picked up a stick and poked at the dying embers of the fire in hopes of prolonging the peaceful paradise.

"Oysters?" Patrick hardly had to ask. My first thought was always about tasting the food of the area.

"And kayaking," I added in hopes of working up an appetite for the dozens of shells I planned to consume.

Oysters are what brought us to this part of Florida. They thrive in the backwaters of the local rivers and tidal creeks. Between the fresh water of the rivers and the salt of the Gulf, the oysters from the area grow into some of the tastiest in the South. In fact, the region supplies 90 percent of all Florida's oysters and 10 percent of worldwide consumption.

The next day, we hiked out from our campsite and drove down the coast to Apalachicola to launch our kayaks into the muddy-brown water and glided through the dry golden maze of the grasses of the estuary toward the protected brackish water of the bay. Out of a stand of grass to my right, a freat blue heron stalked the invisible fish of the area, while ahead in the bay a brown pelican shattered the quietness of the morning by crashing into the water to capture the same invisible breakfast. Farther into the bay, we encountered the small skiff of a local oystermen raking the oyster reefs just under the surface with long wooden tongs.

Unlike other oyster areas, where oystermen harvest the beds with use of dredges or farm the oysters in bags, traditional Apalachicola oystermen use long-handled tongs to pluck dozens of wild oysters from their secured spot by hand. We watched while a gruff-looking man with a weeks worth of stubble on his face, blue jean overalls, and a Buccaneers hat pulled down low over his long gray hair gathered rake after rake of the shells from the shallow waters.

Between watching the harvest, breathing in the briny air, the hike in and out from the campsite and paddling the calm waters, it wasn't long before our mouths were watering, and we headed back to shore to Boss Oyster to start tasting the world-famous buttery bivalves surrounding us.

Sitting on the wooden porch overlooking the river, we couldn't help but devour platter after platter of the meaty, clean-tasting day's catch: a dozen chilled with horseradish, a dozen topped with caviar and wasabi, a dozen char-grilled with Key lime, garlic and Parmesan, and another dozen simmered in a thick and creamy oyster stew. They were plump and delicious the perfect respite before tackling another hike in to watch the sun set over the Gulf from our campsite home.

Did I mention how good it is to sometimes leave the boat behind?

Roasted Florida Citrus & Parmesan Oysters

Serves 6

  • ½ pound butter, softened
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 orange, segmented and juiced
  • 1 grapefruit, segmented and juiced
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 1 lime, juiced
  • ½ bunch Italian parsley, chopped fine
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt
  • 2 drops Tabasco
  • 4 cups rock salt
  • 24 oysters, shucked and half of each
  • shell reserved and washed
  • 1 ½ cups shredded Parmesan
  1. In a saucepot, melt two tablespoons of butter and sauté the shallot and garlic over medium-high heat for 5 minutes until soft. Add the citrus juices and simmer for 10 minutes to reduce until thick and liquid coats the onions and garlic like jam. Remove from heat and cool.
  2. Stir the reduced juice into the remaining butter with all but 1 tablespoon of the parsley, sea salt, and Tabasco. Set aside.
  3. Chop the citrus segments to a small rough cut and mix with leftover parsley. Set aside.
  4. Pour the rock salt onto a cookie sheet in a thick layer to make a bed for the oyster shells.
  5. Preheat the broiler in the oven to high.
  6. Place the shucked oysters back in the shells and top with 1 teaspoon of the citrus butter. Place 1 tablespoon shredded Parmesan on top. Nestle into the salt to hold the shell in place on the cookie sheet.
  7. Broil for 4-6 minutes until the cheese has browned, the butter is bubbling underneath and the oysters are just cooked through.
  8. Top with 1 teaspoon of the chopped citrus and serve on a bed of fresh salt.
  9. Serve immediately.
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