On a Sunday afternoon in the middle of January, The Durham Hotel posted on Instagram that the rooftop bar would be featuring green-gilled Core Sound oysters for one dollar each "until seven p.m. or until they run out." By the time I arrived at four, the bar had sold out. When I asked the server what the deal was, she simply shrugged.
In the last few years, the North Carolina coast has become known for producing some of the best wild and cultivated oysters in the United States. National media often throw around the phrase "Napa Valley of oysters" when talking about our region.
The Triangle's appetite for seafood has certainly expanded to accommodate the growth of oyster bars and seafood-centric spots. Saint James Seafood in Durham, The Cortez in Raleigh, the rooftop of The Durham Hotel, and the second outpost of Saltbox Seafood, to name a few, consistently serve North Carolina oysters. More interest in oyster varieties from chefs and consumers means that the fishers on the coast have an audience eager to learn more about local seafood—and to buy it.
David "Clammerhead" Cessna (a nickname from his clam-farming days) is the first North Carolina oysterman to specifically market green gills. His company, Sandbar Oyster Company, has trademarked them under the name Atlantic Emeralds, which Cessna cultivates in the winter near Beaufort, North Carolina.
The green gill is caused by a natural algae that grows on the bottom of the ocean in the winter, when the water is clear enough to let the sunlight through, Cessna explains.
To determine where they cultivate oysters, farmers and fishers lease square miles of shallow water from the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries.
"We have a lease where the algae grows strong during the winter, so we're able to cultivate them consistently," Cessna says. He farms east of Beaufort on the North River.
The oysters eat the blue algae and are stained an olive shade of green. When Cessna first began selling the green oysters, nobody wanted them—raw green meat isn't very appetizing. But as consumers learn more about the intricacies and history of the oyster business, green gill's popularity grows. In the famous French oyster region of Marennes-Oléron, for example, green gills are among the most prized cultivated oysters, which gives their American counterpart a boost of good French appreciation.
"It has been a lot of education," Cessna says. "They are different from what people are used to, but I think when they know the oysters are safe, people are excited to try something that seems new and different."
But do they taste new and different?
"People never believe me when I say this, but they taste fluffy," he says. "It's just something about the texture and the aftertaste. They're fluffy. People laugh but then when they taste them, they see what I mean."
Matt Kelly, owner of Saint James Seafood, describes green gills as a product within a product. "We get Core Sounders, for example, all the time," he says "But sometimes, in the winter, they come in and they're green-gilled, and that's cool. People like them. I'm more interested in salinity levels—I like super salty oysters. But you do get a bit of that vegetal flavor, which is different."
When I finally got to taste them, I found Atlantic Emeralds pretty salty, but with a smoother finish than most. They're meatier than many North Carolina oysters, but less dense, which might be what Cessna means by "fluffy."
According to Locals Seafood, a Raleigh-based seafood distributor that works directly with oyster farmers on the North Carolina coast, Atlantic Emeralds are currently available at Shucking Shack Durham, The Durham Hotel, and Coastal Provisions. Core Sound green gills are available at The Cortez, St. Roch, 42nd St. Oyster Bar, Coastal Provisions, The Durham, Saint James, Lantern, and 18 Seaboard.
Cessna recommends that you get to these oysters as soon as possible.
"A fresh oyster is like a kiss, but a green gilled oyster is like a kiss when you're in love," he explains. "And they can be gone just as fast."