When it comes to oysters, green is now a good thing.
Tres Hundertmark, who manages the Shuckin’ Shack in Durham, is on the cutting edge of bringing green-gilled oysters to seafood lovers in the Bull City. His restaurant was the first in the area to offer the Atlantic Emerald™ oyster in January but others have since hopped on the half shell, including Saint James Seafood, the rooftop of The Durham Hotel and Saltbox Seafood Joint, among others.
Hundertmark said green-gilled oysters are misunderstood. In high-end restaurants in European and Asia, green-gilled oysters are considered a delicacy. Not so much in the oyster bars and fish shacks that dot the Tar Heel state. Hundertmark, who has worked as a chef for more than 30 years in restaurants from New England to New Orleans, said it’s all a matter of perception.
“We have several growers that have oysters that turn green and nobody’s really tried to market them,” Hundertmark said “On the coast they have a bad reputation. It depends on what side of the fence you’re on. You have some folks who will eat green ones and some folks who won’t.”
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During a recent happy hour at the Shuckin’ Shack, the Atlantic Emerald™ got rave reviews. It’s an oyster that is distinctively salty, patrons said.
“That’s a good oyster,” said Allison Barnett. “My mama’s from Calabash and I know what a good oyster is.”
These oysters are special because of the coloring their gills take on during the early part of winter when the waters where they grow is coldest. The green comes from diatoms, or algae, in the water consumed by the oyster. When the water temperature rises, the algae diminish and the oysters return to their more recognized creamy-white hue. These oysters come from a few areas along the North River in Carteret County near Beaufort where the diatoms thrive during winter. The oysters are only available for a limited time.
Hundertmark said he recognizes the challenges of offering these oysters in places where they’re underappreciated.
“As a rule from a chef’s standpoint, things that are blue or things that are green, or that shade of green don’t necessarily present well in food,” Hundertmark said. “But these oysters are different. In France, green-gilled oysters fetch a premium.”
They cost a little more here than other local oysters because of their limited availability. They’re about $3 apiece at the Shuckin’ Shack, Hundertmark said.
“What’s great about these is that they’re a North Carolina product,” Hundertmark said. “Serving local is very popular in the food industry today. It’s a unique oyster and not everybody has them.”
Hundertmark said he sees a wider market for these oysters. NCOyster365, which is Hundertmark’s company, and Locals Seafood in Raleigh are taking these oysters to new markets outside the state.
“We get the oysters up here from the coast but they’re for this market,” Hundertmark said. “What this industry needs in this state is somebody to broker these things. We’ve got these great oysters here and we need to try and take them to different places and get them into different markets.”
One place that Hundertmark is taking the oysters to is the Boston Seafood Expo in March. He said it is one of the largest seafood conventions on the east coast and a perfect opportunity to show off what we’ve got going on with North Carolina oysters.
“North Carolina, because of the amount of estuaries we have, really has a wide spectrum of flavor profiles,” Hundertmark said.
Getting a chance to taste these oysters won’t last forever. The season for green-gilled oysters will be winding down in late March or early April Hundertmark said.