You can miss it. Just to the side of Highway 17 near McClellanville sits Clammer Dave’s Sustainable Gourmet operation, a business that uses centuries-old techniques to produce, arguably, some of the best oysters and clams in the world.
Owner Dave Belanger’s oysters, called Caper’s Blades, appear on the plates of the best fine-dining restaurants from Charleston (Fig, Husk) to New York (Locanda Verde) and have been featured in Southern Living, Bon Appetit, Wine Spectator, Vogue and Garden & Gun.
Not bad for someone who grew up raising cattle on a farm in Virginia. As it turns out, that agricultural upbringing, with its focus on accounting, production, equipment, payroll and managing costs, was the essential element missing in many local maricultural (that’s agriculture in salt water) ventures run by marine biologists who had no background in business. Belanger’s consulting work—he specialized in showing distressed companies how to work their way to profitability—led him to South Carolina when he agreed to help manage struggling operations in the Lowcountry.
An avid sea kayaker, Belanger fell in love with our coast, and when he decided to take a break from the corporate world, he took some clam seeds (baby clams) and randomly placed them in the waters around Charleston. In the process, he set about learning as much as he could about mariculture.
He soon added oysters to the roster, and after a couple years of intense experimentation and research, he perfected a method of harvesting native adult oysters, then separating them from the cluster using a chisel and stone. Called sculpting, it’s an old, African-American technique dating back hundreds of years that Belanger read about in a book on the history of oysters.
After sculpting the oysters, Belanger then does what others don’t. Rather than sell them immediately, he puts them back in the water (but held by netting above the mud) for another six weeks. During that time, the bruised oysters heal, fatten up and are thoroughly cleansed by clear ocean currents. The result is a flavor that is clean, spectacular and, by all accounts (including mine), like no other.
When I look around the state at our co-ops and our communities, I see the same commitment to quality that produces Caper’s Blades. I see people with a strong sense of place, whether it’s the mountains, the Midlands, the piedmont or the coast. On back roads across South Carolina, people like Belanger, whether from here or not, connect with the special resources we have, treasure them, protect them and turn them into products as good as any in the world.
Our cooperative employees take the same pride in their service to our members. As South Carolinians, too—whether by birth or by choice—they cherish the quality of life and natural resources our state has to offer.
Like Caper’s Blades (“blade” is an old, African-American term for an oyster), South Carolina is home to many world-class products and people. To find them, all you have to do is turn down a back road every once in a while.