Blue Island Oyster Company owner Chris Quartuccio first began digging for clams when he was 12. In 1995, he began scuba diving for natural oysters in the Long Island Sound and delivering them fresh every day to restaurants in New York City. Two decades later, the Blue Island Oyster Company is widely regarded as the number one shellfish distributor in the New York area after having become world-renowned for their famous Naked Cowboy oyster. Read more about our trip after the jump.
“A lot of restaurants told me that they couldn’t sell an oyster called the Naked Cowboy,” says Blue Island Oyster Company owner and founder Chris Quartuccio as he leads a team of FreshDirect employees on a tour of his oyster farm. “Six months later those same restaurants were placing weekly orders.”
Evidently Quartuccio is a man who knows his shellfish (he began digging for clams when he was 12), and a trip to the Blue Island Oyster Company is as educational as it is entertaining.
Our tour starts in the nursery, where baby oysters the size of a quinoa grain begin their 18-month journey to maturity. They’re incubated in barrels of nutrient-rich water and are moved along to bigger barrels as they grow. After three months in the nursery, the oysters are large enough to be transferred to the shallows of the Great South Bay, a 45-mile long lagoon sandwiched between Long Island’s South Shore and Fire Island.
On the boat out to the floating dock, Quartuccio gives the FD team a brief history lesson on the oyster industry in the area. A native of Sayville, Long Island, Quartuccio tells us of the golden age of clam digging back in the ‘70s when a prosperous digger could make a very good living. “Some of the more successful ones lived in the same neighborhood as doctors and lawyers,” he says.
The area of Sayville has been at the heart of the New York oyster industry for more than a century—the streets are even paved with oyster shells (which are often referred to by the locals as “sea gold”). But things here have not always been smooth sailing; periods of great abundance have been superseded by times of drastic decline. The Blue Point oyster itself (after which the company is named) was discovered in the early 1800s, but New Yorkers’ insatiable appetite for the delicious oyster drove the Blue Point to the verge of extinction. More eventually grew back, of course, but then the great 1938 hurricane destroyed the oyster beds. And most recently, in 1999, MSX disease wiped out 90% of the oyster population.
So revered is the Blue Point oyster that in 1909 the state of New York passed a law that decreed that in order to be sold as a Blue Point, an oyster must have spent at least three months in the Great South Bay. However, that hasn’t prevented generations of oyster farmers producing knock offs and marketing them as Blue Points. “The problem with the law,” Quartuccio tells us as he shucks an oyster, “is that it’s rarely enforced.”
And Quartuccio certainly has a smart marketing head. Indeed, naming his prized asset the Naked Cowboy has proved something of a masterstroke as the popularity of the oyster has soared and it can now be found in restaurants all over the country. But how did he come up with the name? “I was driving through Times Square one day when I saw the Naked Cowboy doing his thing. And it suddenly hit me!”