“There’s a famous quote that eating an oyster is like kissing the sea, and our oysters tend to be very salty,” said Hampton Oyster Company’s Joe Finora of his lewdly christened Peconic Bay mollusks. “We thought it was important to have a name that popped on the page.”
It does indeed pop, and whether for that reason or some other, Finora’s bivalves have developed a cultlike following locally and beyond. Hardly a day goes by, it seems, when he doesn’t hear of some unsuspecting slurper, having fallen hopelessly under their spell, recklessly making out with an entire platter of Mermaids.
Count me among these many fools for love. I love Mermaids for their sublime salinity, for their meatiness despite the small size, for their smooth, symmetrically cupped shells and utter lack of grit, for the way they spring to life with a few drops of acid. Mermaid Makeouts are the reason mignonette sauces exist, and maybe squeezes of lemons, too. The thrill that comes in swallowing them is as hard to describe as it is to understand. All great loves are ultimately unexplainable.
But that still leaves the question of how these fetching creatures came to be, one I set out to answer on a pleasant if cloudy morning with Finora and fellow Hampton oystermen Rob Moore and Riley Behrens. Over the course of the day, I discovered, to my surprise and alarm, that a Mermaid’s existence depended on many things and that if even one of them was absent, ours would be an impossible love.
For me, then, this was not just another oyster story.
“It’s very similar to winemaking with a merlot grape,” Finora said, launching his boat into an inlet on the bay’s north shore. “All the oysters are the same species from Maine down through the Gulf.” The fact that they often look and taste very different is a function of merroir, apparently, which is like terroir for mollusks. The idea that environment is everything where merlot and oysters are concerned is not without its detractors, and some believe that terroir is as much a myth as, well, mermaids. But even the most hardened skeptic would admit that an oyster is only as good as the estuarial waters in which it is harvested, and the waters of the bay are very good indeed these days. Thanks in part to the efforts of the Peconic Land Trust, they’re not currently polluted, or overfished, or preyed upon by the wrong kinds of algae, allowing fishermen to once more leverage the bay’s unique placement.
“We’re only maybe 70 miles from New York City, but the bay only opens to the ocean from the furthest extent of Long Island,” said Finora as we motored toward Hampton’s farm. There, his mollusks are fed directly by the Atlantic — hence their brininess — and grown in a spot “allowing crisp ocean water to meld with the distinct glacial minerals of the bay,” as the Hampton website puts it. Minerality and water chemistry can vary widely within a body of water, which is why, Finora maintained, Hampton’s Mermaids taste different from oysters grown just a few miles away.
As we inched closer, I asked him to give me the skinny on the location of Hampton’s beds. “See that land that’s like in a haze or a fog? That’s Shelter Island,” Finora pointed. “Straight across is Southampton, and over there” — he pointed the opposite way — “on the other side of Jessup Neck, just on the other side of Nassau Point moving west is Robins Island.” I nodded confidently, saying I knew exactly where he meant, at which point Finora, correctly guessing I was lying, added that Mermaids are farmed in Hog Neck Bay, further confusing me and sidestepping the question of how it is possible to have a bay within another bay.
The complexities were piling up. Mermaid Makeouts owed their life and merroir not just to Peconic Bay but a particular spot in the middle of it which Hampton has leased since 2016 — because apparently you can lease water — and not just any spot but one that measures 660 feet square and 20 to 25 feet deep.
From a distance they looked like hundreds of black fire extinguishers floating sideways in the bay, but as we approached it emerged that they were pontoons, and that Hampton was growing oysters in a completely different way from anyone else in the Peconic. “We’re very proud of this,” Finora said, as Moore and Behrens lifted the pontoons, revealing cages filled with hundreds of oysters. “Nobody had been using floating equipment in this deep-water, high-energy environment.”
Most oysters are farmed on the bay’s sandy bottom, a very different habitat where there is less motion to the water and mollusks feed on microalgae that thrive near the ocean floor. Hampton’s system, which was developed by a Canadian company, grows them just inches below the surface, where they consume different algal species and are put in constant motion by shifting tides and currents. As a result, Hampton’s oysters are continually bumping into each other and the sides of cages, which chips off their shells’ edges, functioning as a kind of pruning. “It encourages the oyster to grow in a deep cup shape and have a relatively smooth shell,” said Finora, holding up some harvest-size mollusks he plucked from a cage. “There’s no jagged depressions or bumps, and that’s because the oyster is constantly being cleaned by the movement.”
Not surprisingly, farming with the flotation method means less sand in the final product, and the oysters also grow quickly, up to an inch a month in summer. “We probably have somewhere in the vicinity of 1.8 to 2.5 million pieces growing down there.” Finora said. He typically starts with a batch of baby oysters the size of fingernails, enough to fill maybe a shoe box, knowing that in two years or so, that same box will yield a harvest so large it won’t fit in a dump truck. At present, he and his small team are stretched to the limit, bringing 100,000 to 200,000 oysters to market a year. “If Rob and Riley got hit by a bus we’d be in big trouble.”
If merroir is determined by everything in an oyster’s environment, we can’t ignore its fishermen, and in that Hampton's Mermaids are especially lucky. “I’m an engineer by trade,” said Finora, who grew up in Laurel. “Riley’s a hydrogeologist, Rob’s got salt in his veins.” All three have had other jobs, cubicle jobs, desk jobs, jobs whose days didn’t require them to work anywhere near as long or hard, so hard you can’t help wondering if the Mermaids haven’t cast a spell on them too.
“They’re a high-quality protein that takes no inputs. We don’t water them, we don’t feed them, we don’t fertilize them, we don’t run electricity out here. We don’t do anything except take care of them, keep them clean, and move them around so that they can grow,” Finora said. In return, Mermaids offer the men a steady income, plus the chance to give back to their community, which needs more year-round jobs like Hampton’s.
“We are looking for farm help!” screamed a recent ad. “Early mornings, heavy lifting, dirty work with a beautiful view.” And there are other benefits, according to Finora, namely the satisfaction, rare among farming jobs these days, that comes in knowing you’re doing lots of good while causing almost no harm to the planet. It’s hard not to fall in love with a Mermaid like that.
Finora loaded 500 Mermaid Makeouts into bags and the boat headed east toward Greenport, docking at Little Creek Oyster Farm & Market. There, they were immediately greeted by smiling, perpetually Hawaiian-shirted owner Ian Wile, who was eager to get them shucked, iced, plattered and served to Little Creek’s patrons, whom he knew would chuckle at the name but fall in love with them anyway, blissfully unaware of how much love and industry it took to get them there.
“It’s one of the ones that I would put up against oysters anywhere I’ve had them, including some of the famed oyster grounds,” said Wile, who includes Mermaids on his constantly-changing menu whenever they’re available, and has himself been an oyster farmer in the past.
“It’s an incredibly unforgiving product and industry,” he added, marveling at Hampton’s ability to consistently produce a “highly presentable, spectacular tasting oyster.” For this, Wile credited Finora and his team’s smarts, attention to detail and unique growing technique — but also how much they care.
“Their oysters are a product of who they are and what they are,” said Wile. “It’s not by luck.”