Elizabeth Dougherty, Food Nation Radio Network
Oyster lovers know what it’s like. A platter of ice-cold bivalves is placed in front of you with a tangy mignonette, some horseradish and cocktail sauce. Your mouth starts to water.
I’ve felt that moment of anticipation nearly one hundred times in my life. My first oyster was at a place called Calico Jack’s in Central Florida. I ate it on a dare. I wasn’t prepared for the chilled, salty, oceanic taste. The soft texture made it seem so rich and decadent, while the sheer rawness of it made me feel just a little naughty and adventurous.
The next time I had a truly knee-knocking oyster was at Julia Child’s 90th birthday party. In the Northwest, farmers had begun raising Kumamoto oysters from Japanese seed stock. They are truly beautiful, delicate oysters with a sweet flavor that are rather small in size, but worth the effort.
In the years since, I’ve placated my oyster cravings with those flown in from high up in the Northeast near Connecticut and Maine and Prince Edward Island.
You may be shocked to find out Florida is now farming its own oysters as a much bigger industry venture. When I heard this, I was rather skeptical, maybe even a little afraid. Is there enough fresh water input for them to grow? Is the temperature cold enough?
Alligator Harbor’s chilly freshwater springs combine with the salty waters off the Gulf to make a perfect habitat for raising Florida oysters. Made from the stock of coastal oysters, they seem to thrive in the local waters.
Wondering what they taste like? We were too, so we stopped by Spring Creek Restaurant owned by Leo Lovel. The same gentleman who came up with the idea of farming oysters in his backyard.
Lovel purchased the restaurant in 1977 and it doesn’t look like he changed a thing. I don’t think the previous owners changed much either. It’s your typical Old Florida fish shack, right next to the coast and about 30 miles outside of Tallahassee.
After they brought out the oysters on ice with lemon wedges, horseradish and the like, I felt I’d be pretty rude to ask about getting a mignonette. I drizzled the beauties with a little lemon juice and dug right in to my first Florida oyster. What a shock! They are very briny, but not overly so, and the lemon juice combined with the brine to perfection. Adding anything else would have ruined the flavor party in my mouth. The oysters were creamy and fresh and easily rivaled any of my favorites like Blue Point and Kumamoto.
As an aside, I also tried one of their crab cakes. With the rustic décor, I wasn’t expecting much. The adage applied, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The crab cake was full of moist chunks of crab and incredibly filling. It was better than any I’ve had in a Florida restaurant.
In fact, everything at this unassuming place was made with care, from the homemade ranch dressing, to the ridiculously outstanding, tangy-sweet key lime pie with real whipped cream.
Everything was so good, I was a little upset I couldn’t make another 30 mile trip to go back the next day. I’ll just have to be content with my afternoon love encounter with the Florida oyster. For now.
I miss you, already.
Correction: Oysters have been raised in certain parts of Florida, but this is an expansion of that industry.