An Oyster with any other name would taste as sweet…

Scientists will insist that the common oyster found in Prince Edward Island bays and inlets is of the same species as other oysters found all up and down the Eastern Seaboard north of the Carolinas. In fact, Prince Edward Island is pretty near the northernmost part of the range of Crossostrea virginica. Today we call it the Malpeque oyster. Or rather, on Prince Edward Island we call it the Malpeque oyster. It carries different names in different places   Even here it was not always thus, and in fact naming it as the “Malpeque” is a comparatively recent act.

That is not to say that the naming has ceased and in fact, in an attempt to distinguish, and more importantly, to market, the Malpeque oyster a plethora of allegedly unique varieties have appeared on the market. Most are named for the areas, such as Raspberry Point, Colville Bay and Salutation Cove. A Boston oyster website  names twenty different PEI oysters – all purporting to have a different combination of taste, texture, and finish. The are perhaps as many again that aren’t on that list.

What creates this diversity has been neatly captured in the invented concept of “meroir,” mirroring the “terroir” of grapes and other terrestrial treats. The meroir reflects the differences in salinity, depth and temperature which vary from place to place across the Island. It’s clever marketing and any oyster lover will tell you the differences are real – there are very striking taste distinguishing the Crossostrea virginica from different places.

A bit (actually quite a bit) of history

Oysters have been a seasonal staple on Prince Edward Island for centuries, if not millennia. Shell middens mark thousands of years of indigenous occupation and early European settlers were quick to realize that Island waters had resources free for the taking. Early visitors noted the great quantities of oysters. In 1806 John Stewart, the first to comment on the Island’s historical geography, described oyster beds acres in extent and noted “They are preferred to any other American oysters by all Europeans who have eaten them.”  Two decades later John McGregor considered them the finest in North America and “equally as delicious as those taken on English shores.” But oysters had, by this time proven to be too popular, not only were they eaten and shipped in great quantities but the shells were burnt for lime to make mortar and enrich the soil. In 1825 export and burning were banned for seven years, after which exports – mostly to Quebec were resumed. Owing to food shortages the ban was reenacted in 1840 and the ban stayed in place for another seven years. At the time Joseph Pope claimed that the measure was needed as without it the oysters would shortly be extirpated from Island waters. [For a posting related to the smuggling of oysters at this time click here]

Consumption was, however, permitted for Islanders and Abraham Gesner, in his commentary on the Island’s geology (and much else besides), wrote of harvesting by simply driving carts into the water at low tide and loading them with oysters.  Scarcity soon became an issue across the region.  A report on the New Brunswick fishery called for regulations to prevent fishing through the ice and during the spawning season to prevent the destruction of the best quality oysters.

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Quebec Morning Chronicle and Commercial Shipping Gazette 30 November 1860 p.2

It was widely accepted during the 1850s that the best oysters were Bedeque oysters. In fact the Malpeque oyster, at least as a named variety, seems to have barely existed. The Bedeque oysters were canned experimentally in 1857 and by the 1860’s Quebec newspapers were noting the arrival of Bedeque oysters – superior in quality to any yet seen in Quebec. During this period the main competitors in the Quebec market for Prince Edward Island exporters were the Caraquette and Buctouche oysters from New Brunswick. Reference to Malpeque or Malpek  oysters began to appear in Quebec publications only in the 1850s.

Regulation of the fishery began in 1864 with a season closed to fishing during the summer months and a ban on shipping for a similar period.  Later amendments to this legislation made provision for areas on the seabed to be leased to private individuals for breeding and fishing of oysters. By this time the oyster beds of nearby Shediac had all but been destroyed through lack of management of the fishery and there was concern that same thing could happen on the Island.

What’s in a name – Finest Pope’s Narrows Oysters

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Quebec Morning Chronicle 31 October 1888 p.2

It appears that there was very limited uptake on the offer to lease oyster bottoms but in 1872 Judge William Henry Pope secured a fifty-acre plot and began a program of planting seed oysters on what had previously been a barren bottom at Lennox Passage between Squirrel Creek and Lennox Island, an area known as “The Narrows.” However it appears that the venture soon came under the ownership of his brother, James College Pope. At this time the focus of the oyster industry had shifted away from Bedeque Bay but oysters found elsewhere were often identified as Bedeque Oysters. That soon changed. In 1874 a Montreal newspaper was advertising “hand-picked oysters from the celebrated beds of the Hon James Pope, Prince Edward Island.” Through the late 1870s the identity of the oysters became more specific.

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Location of Pope’s oyster operation near the Narrows. Capt. Bayfield in his 1845 chart of Richmond Bay notes that the channel was completely blocked by oyster beds. Detail from Bayfield 1845 chart.

With the completion of the Intercolonial Railway in 1876 Pope’s oysters began to arrive in the Quebec markets by rail. An American writer noted in 1878 the “Bedeque oysters from Richmond Bay are already famous and are shipped in large quantities to Great Britain and other parts of the Dominion.”  In 1878 the Montreal Herald noted the arrival of “Celebrated Narrows Oysters, from the beds of the Hon. James Pope.”  It was not until the 1880s when the term Malpeque began to commonly appear in oyster advertisements “Oysters- Pope’s, Narrows and Malpeques.”  A report in 1881 stated that Bedeque Bay was now oysterless but the industry was thriving in Richmond Bay. However by the mid 1880s a decline in quality and quantity was noted in Richmond Bay with one saving grace “there is at the Narrows a preserve secured from the provincial government by the late Hon. Judge Pope and now in possession of Mr. John Richards   . . . The result is that notwithstanding the increasing demand there is for the famous “Narrows oysters” the supply continues to increase.”  A later Montreal report stated that owing to the quality of the farmed oysters  “. .  . all the oysters that came from Malpeque are now, “Pope’s oysters,” no matter who exports them.”   This is borne out by an advertisement in 1888 from Quebec’s Belvidere Club offering “Finest Pope’s Narrows Oysters constantly on hand.” By the mid-1890s however, the references to oysters became more generic.

The term Malpeque Oyster does not appear in P.E.I. advertisements until the 1890s when it began to crowd out references to Richmond Bay and Bedeque oysters. Within the Island there were occasional  advertisements that noted Pownal Oysters or North River Oysters  or Curtain Island Oysters but these identifiers did not travel well and by the early 1900s the Malpeque Oyster had come to be the dominant name for the product.  Almost disappearing because of oyster disease in the 1920s the fishery rebuilt slowly and after the Second World War became one of the Island’s hallmark industries. In the end, the name may not matter that much. After all an oyster is an oyster is an oyster, and the Prince Island Island oyster is still among the best in the world.


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