The Story of Mystic Oysters
As you drive up the coast of New England, you'll fall in love with its sleepy seaport towns. They’re all a little bit different, and they all seem to have movies made about them. Think about it. There are so many New England town movies. If you don’t know which one is set in Mystic, you aren’t paying attention.
But enough about Hollywood, because there is so much more to this harbor town that interests you and me. I am thrilled to share the story of Mystic Oysters; most importantly, the inspiring lives of those behind them.
In this story, I feature Charlie “Farmer/Shucker Extraordinaire” Larkin, who introduces us to Jim Markow, Steve Plant, Marc Harrel, and of course, Charlie Larkin himself.
Let’s start with Jim. What’s his story?
Charlie: Jim has been working in the industry for most of his life. He grew up on the Great South Bay on Long Island, spending time on the water, boating and fishing. His one of his first jobs was working for Larry Malloy in the Thames River and off of Ram Island (located at the mouth of the Mystic River.) He has worked grounds from the Connecticut/Rhode Island border to the southern tip of New Jersey. He was one of the last employees of the iconic Blue Point Oyster Company. At this point (1994) Jim moved to south eastern Connecticut and found grounds to try his hand at oyster farming (up until this point, all the oysters and clams he harvested were wild set.) Jim would grow-out the seed on grounds in Mystic.
Steve’s background is pretty different, right?
Charlie: Yes. Steve grew up in Fairfield County, fishing and playing hockey. His father was a science teacher but young Steve was lured by the bright lights of New York and the allure of the financial world. He worked in the fast paced and mentally draining world of finance until he finally had it and decided the simple life was best for him. He worked at a fish farm in upstate New York until he found his true calling as a oyster farmer and moved to Stonington. Steve met Jim and traded labor for oyster seed.
And Marc is your newest team member.
Charlie: Yes, Captain Marc Harrel. He is a US Coast Guard vet who just happened to move next to Jim. He grew up in Augusta, Georgia and joined the USCG after high school. He worked all over the eastern seaboard. His first assignment was as a bouy tender in Portland, Maine. It was his first taste of New England and what winter can be. Marc finished his active duty in June of this year and has come on board full time. With his nautical experience, knowledge and ambition, Marc has hit the ground running, and is an asset to our company.
At last, Charlie. Tell us about yourself!
Charlie: I grew up in Stonington (as an aside, the Mystic River is the dividing line between Groton and Stonington, with Mystic actually technically being part of both towns). I was the son of a fisherman-turned-zoning enforcement officer. His stories of commercial fishing were often my bedtime stories. You couldn't be on the water more than I was as a kid. I worked as a bus boy and as a dish washer in my early years until the restaurant I worked at (the Water St. Cafe) decided to put in a raw bar. The chef/owner asked if I had any interest and I didn't know any better than to say yes. I started shucking oysters and cooking shellfish in steam kettles and was admittedly bad at the former at the start. One ER visit and dozens of smaller cuts didn't stop me from shucking. I was hooked. I tried different knives and techniques. I've been shucking for 12 years and now compete any chance I get. I won the Milford Oyster Festival's title in 2015 and have been to Nationals the last three years.
Let’s rewind for a second. In 2012, Jim had a shucking gig lined up at a vineyard and he needed a shucker. Through the grapevine (no pun intended) he got my number. We did the event and I told him I'd love to do more events whenever he needed help. A week later he called me and asked if I could help out at the farm a day or two a week. That went from one day a week to full time. I was blown away with learning on the other end of the oyster world and found my passion. Serendipitously, I found my calling. I don't think I would have ever been as happy doing anything else.
Now that we know the people behind the product, let's hear about your farm and your oysters!
Charlie: Our facility is located in Noank, a small village on the outskirts of Mystic. The facility is an old University of Connecticut marine science building. Our grounds are predominantly in the Mystic River, where the freshwater of upstream tributaries meet saltwater directly from the Atlantic. This directly contributes to the briny punch at the beginning and the sweet finish when eating our oysters. The shells are fairly firm because we bottom plant our seed, leading to the seed being tumbled naturally by the environment (normal tidal activity, storms, boat traffic). The biodiversity in the river gives the oysters a lot of algae to eat and it contributes to the dark green hues our shells tend to have. The influx of cold Atlantic water tends to keep the meat in the shell firm.
If one were to take a weekend to Mystic, give us a tip on where to find your oysters.
Charlie: Our oysters can be found all around the area, but I would say our biggest client is Oyster Club in Mystic. They go through an obscene amount of oysters a year. They were voted a top 10 raw bar in the country by Travel & Leisure Magazine, with their chef James Waymen winning CT 'Chef of the Year' honors and owner Dan Meiser winning CT 'Restaurateur of the year.' They have had the honor of cooking at the James Beard House (three times I believe, but don't quote me on that), as well as annually hosting a dinner with Jaques Pepin at the restaurant. Sorry if I'm gushing, but they hosted a benefit this summer that blew my mind... Here’s a link so you can read on it. Sufficed to say, I'm thrilled that our oysters are one of their main oysters!