The Oyster Is His World; Catch in Demand
Cochran's Seafood hides well off Florida A1A, tucked in Crescent Beach south of St. Augustine. If you look for it, the small sign at the head of the sandy road is easy to miss. You'll never see an advertisement for the shop. The business is open only a half-day on Fridays and all day Saturday. And, if you look for it in the telephone book, you're wasting your time. "We sell 95 percent of our oysters by word of mouth," says Michael Cochran, who runs the place. And that's just fine with him. He sells a select product of Crescent Beach oysters, to a select clientele. It's the truest form of supply and demand. Cochran supplies oysters grown only within a couple of miles of his shop. And discriminating customers demand these oysters. Many of them will eat no other kind.
There have been fistfights over the geographic origin of the world's best oysters. Appalachicola has the marketing, but Crescent Beach has the flavor. These oysters are generally smaller, with more delicate flavor than others sold across the country. They grow in twisted clusters in an area within walking distance of the Matanzas Inlet. Here, tides of 6 feet sweep over the mounds, feeding the oysters a clean meal of seawater twice a day.
These are not the heavy-bodied singles you'll buy in restaurants. Unlocking a cluster of Crescent Beach oysters is like solving a 3-D puzzle. When you open one, another might be just underneath. But when you do unlock it, you'll find the most delicate, salty oyster anywhere. Eleanor Clark must have been talking about Cochran's oysters when she wrote: "If you don't love life, you can't enjoy an oyster. There is a shock of freshness to it and intimations of the ages of man, some piercing intuition of the sea and all its weeds and breezes. [They] shiver you for a split second."
History tells us that Roman emperors paid for oysters with their weight in gold. While they're not quite that expensive today, prices do continue to go up as habitat shrinks and fewer men find sufficient profit in the considerable work. At Cochran's this year, a bushel of oysters will set you back $37. If you think that's high, you can get them yourself off public mounds. That should cure you of sticker shock.
OFF TO WORK
Cochran doesn't punch a clock. His work day revolves around the tide. Last Thursday, it was 2 p.m. when he launched the 16-foot Stumpknocker boat from the sand ramp at the oyster house. We ran less than a mile, came off plane and eased the little skiff up a small creek. He threw the anchor, grabbed a 5-gallon bucket and went to work.
That day, this uncommonly kind winter allowed him to work in a T- shirt, jeans and hip boots. Temperatures were pushing 70 degrees. A south breeze was easing in. There aren't a lot of days like that. Oystering is winter sport. On Florida's East Coast the legal season opens in October and closes the end of March.
Imagine bending over an oyster bar for eight hours with a 20- knot Northeaster blowing and temperatures in the 40s. Cochran's hands and lower arms stay wet most of the day, so jackets are out. He layers clothing and wears a quilted vest and a ski mask. At the other end of the spectrum, warm weather and still winds conjure up clouds of sand gnats, or no-seeums. Cochran wears mosquito netting over his upper body and head.
But either way, picking oysters is no picnic. Cochran's tools are a bucket, a culling iron and his back. He works in a maze of oysters that will slice you like a paper shredder if you fall. Between the oysters is a slick, black mud that tries to make you do just that.
Bent at the waist, he picks through the oysters, splits the cluster into manageable pieces and drops them in the bucket. Every 20 minutes or so, he heads back to the boat. A shrimp basket goes into the water and his oysters are poured into it. And for whatever time the tide allows, that task plays out over and over again. "It'll make you stretch in places you never knew you had," he says.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Michael's father, Phil Cochran, started oystering in the late 1950s as a way to make some extra money. He worked full-time as a diver and announcer at Marineland. It turned out that tending oysters paid better than tending porpoises. He quit his day job and opened the oyster house in the early 1960s.
It was a family business. Michael and his brother Phil Jr. worked after school and on weekends during the season when they were kids. Michael went into law enforcement in 1974 and is retired from the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office. He took over the business in 2002 and works it with his mother, Mary.
In its heyday, Cochran's employed six to eight full-time employees and harvested as many as 60 bushels a day from the Intracoastal waters. Today, it may take 30 bushels a week.
BACK TO WORK
When the sun began to squat on the horizon to the west, Cochran filled his final bucket of oysters for the day and made his way back to the boat. "People think picking oysters is tough, but the washing is tougher," he says. Eight shrimp baskets full of oysters are lined up alongside the boat. He dumps one in a wire basket, wades out to his knees in the creek and begins shaking the basket. It weighs about 40 pounds. The oysters knock against one another, dislodging mud that swirls away with the falling tide.
The cleaned oysters are returned to the plastic mesh basket. Then the next basket is washed until they're all done.
The sun was setting, but before Cochran could take the oysters back to the shop, he had to tag each basket with the harvest date, area, time and quantity. By law, his catch could be confiscated in open water without the tags.
We ran back to the shop under a pink sky. The boat was loaded on the trailer, then backed up to the door of the walk-in cooler. Each bushel basket was dumped into a waiting bag, the tag was transferred to the bag and the bag was stacked in the cooler.
Cochran is quick to tell you that oystering is a tough way to make a living. Fortunately, he does not solely rely on it for his livelihood. Others aren't as fortunate. Red Tide closed local waters in 2007 during October and November.
At one time the Cochran family worked 30 acres of leases. Today it's more like seven.
State regulators do what they do best -- make regulations. Condos and businesses bring pollution. And the work never gets easier. In Florida, it's unlawful to use any mechanical means to harvest oysters.
There isn't a new generation of Cochran kids clamoring to spend their days on the river, but Cochran figures to keep oystering until he can't. "I've been doing it all my life," he says. "I enjoy being out on the water."
For William Shakespeare, "then the world's mine oyster. ..." For Michael Cochran, maybe it's the other way around.To reserve some of Cochran's oysters, call (904) 471-1316.
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