I spent this past weekend visiting the Chesapeake Bay with family. We stayed at a charming little Airbnb in Cambridge, Maryland, ate delicious food — I highly recommend The High Spot GastroPub if you’re ever in the area — and finished the weekend off with an Orioles game. The whole weekend was a blast, but without a doubt the best part of our weekend was our visit to Barren Island Oysters, an oyster farm in Hoopers Island, Maryland owned by Tim Devine. I have to give a shout out to my cousin Amy who is a friend of Tim’s and arranged the visit for our family!
We really lucked out with perfect weather — a day filled with sunny skies and a warm breeze — and spent all of Saturday at the farm getting a tour, learning about the oyster growing process and eating our weight in oysters and freshly-caught crabs.
Devine was nice enough to sit down with me to tell me more about how he went from being a successful photographer in New York City to an oyster farmer on a small island in Maryland.
Barren Island Oysters
Devine started the oyster farm in 2011 with the idea of creating sustainable food. Having grown up in the Chesapeake Bay town of Easton, Maryland, he loved the idea of being a part of something that would improve the Bay. He was inspired after coming across an article discussing how the Chesapeake Bay can be leased for oyster harvesting, something that was legalized in Maryland in 2009.
“Oyster farms are these magical little gems that actually improve the environment they are in,” said Devine. “They make the water better and more thriving with life because they give structure to otherwise barren seascapes. It just seemed too cool not to do.”
Devine admits he didn’t know much about growing oysters when he started. However, he learned quickly, growing 500,000 oysters by himself in his first year. It turned out, Devine knew how to grow a really good oyster. In 2014, Barren Island Oysters won the Mermaid Kiss Oyster Festival’s people’s choice award for “Best Oyster” and in 2015, Baltimore City Paper named Barren Island Oysters the best oyster varietal.
Today, the oyster farm produces about a million oysters per year for the market, which makes Barren Island a small to medium size oyster farm. Outside of quantity, Devine says the care they put into the oysters and how they shape the oysters is what makes Barren Island oysters different from what you might find elsewhere.
“We make sure we send out oysters that have deep solid cups so they have a lot of meat in them,” says Devine. “We don’t salt the product, we don’t alter the product — the product is truly from the bay.”
So, how do Barren Island oysters taste? Devine says while the oysters are salty enough, they aren’t so salty that the oyster doesn’t come through, leaving a clean, mild and buttery product. Because of that, oysters from Devine’s farm do well being grilled or cooked in a number of ways, and they can be made a little sweeter or saltier with different add-ons.
In addition to Barren Island’s standard brand of oysters, they also sell a non-tumbled oyster variety that they call “Ugly Oysters”, which reminded me of the unattractive but still tasty produce section of the grocery store. They even have their own Facebook page, and a funny tagline to boot — “They have great personalities!” We ate a lot of ugly oysters on our visit, and they were delicious and MUCH easier to shuck than your typical oyster.
What’s next for Barren Island Oysters?
In the next few years, Devine hopes to double his volume and get a tasting room up and running. He says it’s too cool a space to not have a tasting room on site, and I would have to agree.
For now, he’s happy to play his part in improving the Bay. “I have about six million oysters out there, and my oysters filter between 100 and 300 million gallons of water a day,” he says. “That doesn’t include all the barnacles and other things that filter water, which are possible because of where my oysters are.”
You can find Barren Island Oysters at a number of different restaurants, and you can also send an email to email@example.com about arranging your very own private tour.
I can attest, you don’t want to miss these oysters – or the view.