A platter of fresh oysters and clams near the oyster...

A platter of fresh oysters and clams near the oyster farming plot of Blue Island Oysters in the shallow waters of the Great South Bay near Captree State Park in Babylon. Credit: Daniel Brennan

The setting is bucolic enough: Picnic tables arranged alongside the Peconic Bay, each shaded by a turquoise umbrella. Beneath each is a slightly more unnerving still life — pairs of bulky rubber gloves and sharp, squat knives.

 “I’m going to walk you through the life of an oyster,” says Little Ram Oysters' Stefanie Bassett, a tanned, spring-loaded figure squinting into the sun, clad in shorts, a navy T-shirt and ankle muck boots. Then, she adds, we’ll learn to shuck them.

Co-owner Stef Bassett takes a group on a tour of...

Co-owner Stef Bassett takes a group on a tour of Little Ram Oyster Co. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Life and death are inextricably linked when it comes to food, especially when it comes to oysters, hundreds of thousands of which lurk on a floating dock near where we stand. Bassett and her wife-partner, Elizabeth Peeples, lovingly call this a fluffery (short for “floating upweller system"), and it's here their oysters grow slowly from a sheltered childhood into adolescence, a process Bassett narrates during an hourlong tour of their operation.

Bassett and Peeples founded Little Ram Oysters five years ago after a pivotal shucking class, followed by research into aquaculture, led to their decamping from New York City in a faith-driven leap from careers in advertising and interior design (respectively) to full-time oyster farming. “We had never driven a boat,” says Bassett, nor saved much money.

But they were lured in by a 10-acre underwater oyster farm in Gardiners Bay just off Little Ram Island, a part of Shelter Island. After landing it, they found a surprise: overgrown oysters the size of dinner plates, which needed to be cleared out. The oyster bar in Grand Central Station took them all, says Bassett, who pulled them in carts down the terminal’s steep ramps, at one point running the cart into a wall. 

In the five years since, oyster farming on the East End has accelerated its renaissance, and one part of that resurgence is educating locals and tourists, eaters and curiosity seekers, all about oysters: How they are born (in a hatchery as the spawn of broodstock, tiny dots munching on plankton), how fast they grow, how they benefit the bays, coves and rivers where they live (filtering dozens of gallons of water through their bodies each day). 

This education has taken the form of a growing number of tours on Long Island’s niche oyster farms, where an oyster’s life story might be bookended by a shucking lesson and tasting.

During Little Ram's tour, Bassett pulls an open-topped box from the floating nursery and hoists it, dripping seawater, onto the dock. “Can you guess how many oysters are in here?” she asks our group.

We peer in. What appear to be thousands of miniature oysters glisten in the sun. It was about 250,000, as it turns out, and once they reach proper size, Bassett will take the 15-minute boat ride to their oyster farm to place their shells in cages, then lower them 17 feet deep into the water, to reach market size, which can take a year or more.

Last September, Peeples and Bassett moved their oyster production into an old scallop shack next to The Shoals, a new boutique hotel on the shores of the bay. Inside, Peeples dons beige waders and sorts oysters on a wet counter next to a sign that read “Women at work.” Behind her is a steel contraption where each Little Ram oyster is tumbled a few times during their life cycle, which blunts and strengthens their shells and deepens their cups (“It forces the oyster to tuck into itself,” says Bassett), making them easier to open later on. After tumbling, they take the 15-minute boat ride back to Little Ram Island to be returned to the water.

Standing together, Bassett and Peeples show off the shell differences between oysters that were born at two different hatcheries, and explain all the threats they face while growing — including murderous crabs and a gastropod called, aptly, an oyster drill.

Soon enough, it's our turn to take a blade to the survivors. Back outside, Bassett demonstrates the two ways to bust into an oyster — through the hinge, or through the side — and our group puts on gloves, wields knives and falls into concentrated silence as we twist and turn blades to pry open the Little Rams.

Little Ram Oyster Co. co-owner Stef Bassett demonstrates how to crack...

Little Ram Oyster Co. co-owner Stef Bassett demonstrates how to crack open an oyster. Credit: Morgan Campbell

My first two shells crumble a bit. Soon enough, I'm rewarded with the pristine looks and robust flavor of Little Ram oysters: Brine, minerals, with a crisp, savory edge. Dabbed with bang-bang sauce — a bright-green slurry of cilantro, lime, fish sauce and chiles — they become almost electric.

Also knocking back his own freshly shucked oysters was Branden Pachter of Massapequa, 38, who had taken the tour with a friend. “We eat oysters all the time in restaurants, and said ‘let’s take a tour and learn to shuck,’” he says, adding he had learned more about the oyster’s life cycle and benefit to the water than on other tours.

“It was informative and engaging,” adds Barbara Zucker, who took the tour during a visit from Florida. “I didn’t know about growing them from seed. She really broke it down. You understand how they can be so expensive.”

Her husband, Mark, strikes a pragmatic tone. “I’m happy she took the course so she will be able to shuck forever.”

Besides Little Ram, here are other places to take oyster farm tours around Long Island — at least one by kayak.

LONG ISLAND OYSTER TOURS

Little Ram Oyster Co. (The Shoals, 61600 Main Rd., Southold): Farm tours run most Thursday and Fridays, last about an hour and end with a shucking class; attendees are welcome to bring their own beverages (water is provided) or buy food from the on-site food truck. You’ll get a dozen oysters to shuck and eat, and leave with a shucking knife and gloves. $100 a person. Book online. More info: littleramoysters.com

Oysters that were shucked by a tour group at Little...

Oysters that were shucked by a tour group at Little Ram Oyster Co. in Southold. Credit: Morgan Campbell

Widow’s Hole Oyster Farm (307 Flint St., Greenport): Co-owner Mike Osinski leads a tour overlooking the Greenport Harbor oyster farm in front of the home he shares with his wife and partner, Isabel Osinski. You’ll learn about Greenport's history as an oystering capital in late 19th and early 20th centuries; see the cages oysters grow in; and sample Widow's Hole oysters (in winter, that might be around a fire pit). $45 a person. More info: 631-477-3443, widowsholeoysters.com

Blue Island Oysters (Captree Boat Basin, 3500 E. Ocean Pkwy., Babylon): These Saturday morning farm visits are conducted by kayak. With only 18 spots, they fill up well in advance. The tour covers the biology and growth cycle of oysters, as well as oystering history, and lasts three hours. It costs $110 a person and ends with a picnic lunch of lobster rolls and dessert. More info: 631-750-5986, blueislandoysters.com 

Pam Varacek and John Sainola of Blue Island Oysters paddle a kayak...

Pam Varacek and John Sainola of Blue Island Oysters paddle a kayak in front of the dock where visitors can take a kayak tour to see the farm's oyster beds and explore the surrounding waters of the Great South Bay in Babylon. Credit: Daniel Brennan

Founders Oyster Farm (140 Founders Path, Southold (farm stand) or 2700 Hobart Rd., Southold (boat)): This tour, led by owner Steven Schnee, takes place on his 1936 yacht, The Half Shell. Schnee chats about the history of oysters, the farming process, which segues to a shucking lesson and tasting complemented by local bubbles. A two-hour tour costs $875, with a maximum of six people. More info: 201-960-2005, foundersoysterfarm.com

Peeko Oysters (900 1st St., New Suffolk): During this 90-minute-or-so farm tour, you'll learn about oyster processing and learn to shuck, followed by a tasting. Bookings are taken for private groups of four or more only, and cost $100 per person. To book, email owner (and your guide) Peter Stein at peter.stein@steinseafoods.com. More info: peekooysters.com

Peter Stein, oyster farmer and owner of Peeko Oysters in...

Peter Stein, oyster farmer and owner of Peeko Oysters in New Suffolk shows his guests a plastic mesh bag of freshly harvested oysters during a private tour at the oyster farm. Credit: Randee Daddona

Southold Bay Oyster Farm (Southold): Owners Ben Gonzales and Dave Daly lead this tour and shucking class, which segues from insights into the oyster spawning process to a shucking class and tasting. The tour lasts about two hours, takes place at Shellfisher Preserve and costs $75 a person. The next tour is Sept. 14. More info: 914-602-3339, southoldbayoysters.com

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