*Since the original publication of this articles in 2015, Massachusetts has amended their regulations. Petites are now available in Massachusetts. Petites are also now called “cocktail” oysters.
What Are "Petites"?
Oysters are measured from the hinge to the edge of the shell's fan. "Petite" refers to oysters measuring 2.5 to 3 inches while "Selects" refer to those that stretch out 3 to 5 inches. While petite oysters are savored throughout the U.S., by state law, a petite cannot be sold in Massachusetts, only selects.
The small petites are ideal for those who have a difficult time keeping their shirt clean while throwing back a dozen halfshells. Additionally, petites could be healthier than the more robust selects.
"It hasn't had time to catch contaminants or cyclical diseases that are naturally occurring," says Andrew Cummings of Wash-A-Shore Oyster Ranch in Wellfleet, "When I'm eating that, I'm eating the oyster. They're lighter, crisper and sweeter."
"We really need to be able to sell petites. This past winter I got six calls from friends that were in Boston restaurants and said 'Jeez, we're here, and they have Wellfleet oysters, and they look horrible.' and that's because no one is harvesting, so you have stuff coming out of pits."
Did You Say Pits?
At the end of the year when water temperatures plummet toward freezing oysters become dormant- they do not feed and they do not perspire. During dormancy, some growers take their oysters out of the water and place them in pits dug below the frostline in the ground or place them in commercial size refrigerators. These are safer alternative for these pricey products since they are exposed to ice drifts and rough winter waters if left in their cages in the sea.
Growers can sell their selects directly from the pits; however, the quality of that oyster can be compromised.
"They'll be all banged up," Cummings said as he held up a beautiful glistening fanned oyster, "That is a good looking oyster," he exclaims. Then he start hammering at the oyster with another oyster the chips from the fan shoot off into the tide, "Now it looks like it came out of a pit.” he states matter of factly.
“And when oysters are in the pit, they end up looking worse than this. You can just tell they've been out of the water. You're not doing the industry any good by moving that product because people see it and that's what they associate."
What is a better alternative for selling oysters in the winter?
Instead of selling selects from the pit, perhaps being allowed to sell petites that have been stored in the deep water? Supposedly, petites have a lower mortality rate than selects when stored in the deep water during winter,
"It would be worth the risk to have trays out there in the winter loaded with market orders ready to go. There's still a risk of losing it. But if you're paying attention to the weather, you know when ice is coming, you can get everything out quick."
It's For The Consumer
Wash-A-Shore sells their petites to other states; however, Andrew explains that "If we were able to sell a petite in the Massachusetts market, the consumer would have the option of getting a really nice oyster, it may be smaller, but it's a really nice oyster. But they can't." All in all, "Massachusetts consumers should have the choice, just as they do in every other state".