Briar Blue oyster was star at this year’s Oyster Fest
There was a change in the oyster lineup at this year’s Annual Milford Oyster Festival on Saturday, but most people seemed to slurp down the slippery shellfish without noticing.
The 30,000 oysters at this year’s event all came from Long Island Sound off Milford’s shoreline, unlike past years, where the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association brought oysters, about 20 varieties, from eight eastern states.
But this year the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association bowed out of the event, amicably and with plenty of notice, festival organizers said, explaining that the festival meant a lot of work for the association.
“It was a loss because we didn’t have oysters from all over,” said festival President Jay Pinto. But he said there were benefits too. All of this year’s oysters came from Milford’s own Briarpatch Enterprises, which got them in local waters. And since the association wasn’t involved in providing the oysters, more proceeds will go to the festival itself, which means more will go to the non-profit groups that the festival supports.
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The Oyster Festival committee was ready for the split, Pinto said, but there was at least one event that went by the wayside due to the association’s absence, the annual oyster shucking contest.
The shucking contest “requires a lot of volunteers,” explained Trisha Kozloski, who was overseeing the oyster tent at the festival Saturday.
The popular oyster eating contest was almost canceled, too, but in the end the committee decided it could be managed.
Rinie Bellamy, from Shallotte, N.C., a last-minute entry, won the contest, downing her oysters faster than the other contestants, including Milford Mayor Ben Blake and Dan German, who will challenge Blake in November for the mayoral seat.
Bellamy, who comes from a long line of oyster shuckers, was working with her mother at the festival shucking oysters when she heard talk about an oyster eating contest. She always wanted to enter one.
“I love oysters,” Bellamy said. “When I heard, I said, ‘Can I enter?’”
The star of the day, however, in addition to the crowd-drawing bands, was the Briar Blue, which is Briarpatch’s ‘Blue Point-esque’ oyster, “wild born but cultivated on a private lease,” explained Ben Goetsch, sales manager for Briarpatch.
The company spent 2.5 days gathering the 30,000 Briar Blue oysters for the event.
Brian Yarmosh, director of marine operations for Briarpatch, said all the oysters for the festival came from the company’s “cage program,” cages in which the oysters grow and are then hauled to an awaiting boat. These particular cages were in the waters off Charles Island.
Oyster eaters didn’t seem to care that their selection was limited to one type of oyster.
Guy Raymond, from Brookfield, said he had no qualms about the limited variety.
“These are really good,” he said as he worked on a plate of oysters Saturday.
Pete Ward from Newtown said the oysters were “very sweet,” and because they were all different sizes, he didn’t know they were all the same kind anyway.
“They all had a really nice flavor,” Ward said.
Tom and Cindy Makara from Bristol agreed. The oysters were good, and that’s all that mattered.
It says a lot about the popularity of the oyster festival that the committee members were able to smoothly transition from getting a lot of help from the shellfish association to handling the oysters themselves, said Paula Smith, a former Oyster Festival Committee president. The shuckers from past years wanted to come back, and key volunteers returned too, Smith said, making the transition easier.
In addition to oysters and clams, there was the classic car show, music, with this year’s headliner Extreme, which drew a huge crowd, a children’s stage and many arts and craft vendors and non-profit organizations.
Police Chief Keith Mello estimated the crowd at about 40,000, and as of late afternoon, as the festival rolled toward a close, Mello said all had gone well and no incidents had been reported.