On a recent sojourn to the Halifax Farmers' Market, I discovered "the oyster guy."
For many of us faithful Saturday morning marketeers, Philip Docker is a familiar face. On the day of discovery, my eye caught a bottle of Tabasco sauce and a freshly cut lemon and I was suddenly in the mood for a bivalve.
My friend Roy and I took our places at the oyster bar and ordered up six smalls. As Docker expertly began shucking, he gave us a briefing on his problems with current trends in the fishing industry, and the inadequacies of factory-produced oysters. He invited me to visit his oyster farm on Big Island, to experience firsthand what sets ShanDaph oysters apart.
The commercial fishing industry is looking pretty dismal these days with the depletion of countless fish species and compromised marine environments due to overfishing, climate change and lack of government control over certain aspects of the industry. When asked how he feels about all the negative press, Docker laughs bitterly. "Don't get me started...this is one topic I'm not allowed to discuss at dinner parties because I could go on all night."
Docker is a huge advocate for keeping the fishing business at a local level, independently owned and environmentally sustainable.
I arrive at ShanDaph on a snowy December day to find Docker already hard at work. ShanDaph is a one-man, environmentally sustainable, organic operation. Oysters, scallops and quahogs are grown from seed, harvested in a natural setting and packaged on site in a solar-powered facility.
Docker declares it a perfect day to go out on the water, so we hop onto his handcrafted boat—made from 100-percent recycled materials—to take a closer look at the operation. The water is perfectly calm, which isn't always the case. Docker points to his floating wharf—also self-made from recycled wood and hard plastic taken from old fish bins—and tells me that after Hurricane Noel pummelled the eastern shore, the wharf was jutting out of the water at a perpendicular angle. The units where the oysters and scallops are housed during their growth period were left in a tangled mess.
One of the biggest challenges for small-scale production is trying to stay ahead of latent disasters. Docker's back-up plan is to cultivate bay scallops. "They're resistant to disease because the muscle isn't affected, and that's the part that you eat." Docker pulls one up and shows me its blue eyes, which are eerily peeking out at us. He cracks it open for me and reveals its creamy white flesh and bright orange coral. His lunch box is standing by—a kit containing accoutrements for the bivalves.
With the squeeze of a lime, I'm downing the freshest scallop I have ever eaten, coral and all.
As we carry on with our gentle ride around the waters, where Docker's grandparents set the oyster seed 45 years ago, he continues to unleash a wealth of knowledge. He points to the black floaters, bobbing on top of the dark water, and explains that he uses the suspension method of aquaculture. This basically means that the oysters are held in suspension between two lines—one on the water's surface, and one along the bottom. "It allows for more control over the growth of an oyster...which means higher quality," he tells me. The oysters take from five to seven years to become market-ready and during this time, Docker carries out husbandry practices that remove misshapen or dead ones.
We stop and pluck a couple dozen oysters from the holding area under the wharf and then head back to shore. At this point, I'm a little in awe. His custom-made boat and wharf, the lantern nets and growth units that house his oysters and scallops, Docker's own house and organic garden—all is made from 100-percent recycled materials, and he does it all alone.
On our way back to Docker's house, we stop at a small building containing both a pristine processing room where the bivalves are cleaned and packed, and a power room. It turns out that Docker is the only producer in Atlantic Canada who operates independently of the Nova Scotia power grid. His operation is solar powered, with a generator that kicks in on those days when the sun just isn't available.
His family largely influenced his decision to go solar—they live off the power grid, on Pictou Island. It also made economical sense. "The cost of getting solar up and running is high," Docker explains, "but that initial investment pays off when you don't have the hydro bills to deal with."
He sets our basket of oysters onto a stainless steel cleaning trough and we begin to talk freshness.
He waits until the last possible moment to remove them from the cold, salty waters and the storage tanks under his wharf allow for quick and easy access in the wee hours of market day. Apparently, the oysters resting on chipped ice that are sold by your local grocer may very well have been hauled out of the water and sentenced to cold storage for up to a month before you finally get your hands on them. By then, they have lost their plump succulence and their liquor has become concentrated and briny, which is not a good thing, says Docker. "What you want," he tells me, as we greedily slurp back oysters in his warm kitchen, "is a fairly small oyster that has a hard shell with a deep cup. This makes it easier to shuck, enables it to hold more liquor and it ensures that a plump, tasty oyster resides inside." As I continue to inhale them, I'm revelling in the success of his quest to produce the perfect oyster.
Docker pulls out one of his coveted oyster books (he has 35) and shows me a cover photo of a few oysters displayed on the half shell. I study it with my foodstylist-trained eye and think it's not a bad photo, but he interrupts this thought by saying, "See how translucent the flesh is?
"Translucent oysters are the worst...it means they are not at their peak." ShanDaph oysters have a creamy white layer of fat around the meat. Docker is loath to call it fat because he feels fat has a bad rap, but in the world of flavour, fat rules and in this case, he tells me, "provides the oysters with an optimum creamy, buttery essence that gives an incredible mouth feel."
Three hours have flown by and as I'm about to head out the door, Docker generously loads me up with a supply of oysters and scallops. Now that I'm hooked, I hope it's enough to feed my addiction until next Saturday.