Sweet Home, Alabama Oyster
Over the last year, there's been a lot of buzz around the rise of the Alabama oyster industry. It's become the darling of the food media world, and for good reasons too.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to witness first hand some of the exciting things that have been happening down south. Here's a recount of some of my discoveries...
Meeting the #OysterPowerCouple
After completing a solo* two-hour drive from New Orleans to somewhere just south of Mobile, I dropped off my rental keys and greeted Beth Walton in the parking lot. She was all smiles and positive energy, which accurately mirrored her bubbly social media personality. We hopped into Beth's car and proceeded towards Dauphin Island, chatting about oysters and Instagram along the way. Before this point, we had never met in person. I only knew Beth (aka @GulfSeafoodGirl) and her partner in crime Bill Walton (aka @Doctor_Oyster) as the #OysterPowerCouple on Twitter. As soon as I learned that I would be visiting New Orleans to speak at the inaugural Sustainable Seafood Blog Conference, we started to plan our meetup.
Beth and Bill, along with their three hyperactive boys, are transplants from Cape Cod. They used to farm oysters on the Cape, but in 2009, an opportunity to pioneer a new oyster industry lured them down to the Gulf shore. Since then, they have made Alabama their new home sweet home — one that they graciously let me crash in for a night. After crossing over a rather intimidating camel hump-shaped bridge (see above), we arrived on Dauphin Island.
*Driving solo doesn't sound like that big of a deal, but it's actually quite nerve wracking for someone who hasn't owned a car for 15 years! Anything for oysters though...
Touring Auburn Shellfish Lab
The Auburn Shellfish Lab plays host to one of the most exciting "oyster incubators" in the country, but the front of the steely blue-paneled building gives no hint to the wondrous al fresco workshop out back. I stumbled across the AU Shellfish Lab Facebook Page ages ago, and have wondered about what could've happened if I had gone to school for aquaculture instead of for marketing and communication design... anyway, I was excited to get a glimpse into this alternative "School of Rock."
While I associate Bill with the "Doctor Oyster" persona more than anything else, his official title is Associate Professor in the School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences at Auburn University. Bill's work focuses on applied science, and he enjoys digging into questions posed by the public through controlled field experiments and ample tinkering. You see, the majority of Gulf oysters are still harvested the old school way today. Meanwhile, the rest of the industry has shifted focus from extensive aquaculture to intensive aquaculture — a process that produces more of the beautiful, "boutique" oysters that can often go for top dollar. One of Bill's first challenges was to determine whether or not this form of aquaculture could be successfully replicated in this region. He collaborated with Dr. John Supan from LSU, Steve Crockett, and many others to tackle this puzzle head on.
Bill and I walked around the different hatchery stations and he took time to explain the role of each one. We started at the spawning bins, where individual broodstock oysters are kept in isolated compartments. Bill said that the intent of this hatchery is to encourage genetic diversity, rather than to create genetic lines (survival of the fittest, I suppose?). The first spawn typically occurs in May, which is triggered by sacrificing a male and then releasing its "spermescence" into the ladies' chambers. But after that nudge, no one really knows who will go first, or when. "They always wait until 5:30PM — it never happens during the work day." To make the most of the ambiguity, Bill and his crew engage in a little game known as "Spawning Table Bingo." And yes, money is on the line.
One of the most obvious differences between Bill's hatchery and others that I've seen is the absence of large algae tanks. I asked him about what his oysters are eating and discovered that they are fed a diluted mix of pre-made phytoplankton concentrate that's produced by Reed Mariculture. Being able to cut the phytoplankton culture component from the hatchery saves a lot of labor and resources.
Up above, Bill explained that in each blue tank, 12 million oyster larvae are fed the equivalent of a Thanksgiving feast twice a day for about 10-14 days to help fatten them up...real fast. Once the free-swimming oyster larvae become eyed larvae, they are given about three days to settle down on the cultch — oyster shell that's ground up to approx 250-300 microns — and about half of them will do so. It's kind of like a massive game of cutthroat musical chairs. If you don't settle after a certain period of time, then you're just kind of SOL.
Another way to set oyster larvae is by using the "spat on shell" or SOS method. Mesh bags of clean oyster shell clusters are put into tanks with free-swimming larvae. Once the eyed larvae emerge, several hundred will piggyback onto each shell. They'll permanently affix themselves to the shell or grain of sand, and continue to grow from that spot. I believe that this setting method is also done for oyster restoration initiatives such as the one at the New York Urban Assembly Harbor School for the Billion Oyster Project.
Once the oyster spat grow large enough, they're moved out of the hatchery... in theory. I say in theory because this is where reality gets a bit more interest. Bill explained that a bottleneck occurs during this intermediary stage, where the baby oysters are doubling in size every few days, but they're still too small to be put out into open ocean. The ones that DO make it out, and survive, tend to be the hardiest oysters. I suppose that's a good thing if you're trying to make the most out of your investment.
Another key question that Bill and his team are trying to answer is, "which oyster grow out method works the best for this environment?" Through my many oyster farm adventures, I've learned that to know which type of gear to use depends on several characteristics of your location (tide, current, predators, bottom make up), and what you want your oyster to grow up to look like. Some farms stick to one or two types, while others are all over the board... Auburn University has experimented with several different options, but the two frontrunners here are the Canadian floating cage system and Australian longline system (seen below).
I've seen the floating cage system being used quite a bit in the Northeast, but this was the first time that I had seen the longline system up close. The cool thing about the Australian longline system is that the wires are adjustable in height. The oyster baskets can be hoisted out of the water for a while to kill off biofouling, and the rocking of the cages also help to harden the oyster shells. Oyster farmers also look like badasses hoisting the lines up and down while chest deep in the water. The downside is that the gear can be quite expensive for an individual purchase. Fortunately, Auburn offers a "start up" kit to folks who are seriously committed to making oyster farming work as a business.
Thanks to the groundwork of Professor Walton and his collaborators, a handful of new oyster farms now occupy the area around Dauphin Island. The future is looking bright! If you want to get a closer look of the grow out gear, check out my post on Murder Point Oyster Farm.
Bon Secour Fisheries
Beth and I left the Auburn Shellfish Lab and drove up to the Bon Secour Fisheries processing and distribution facility for a quick look around. Few companies in Alabama have withstood the test of time like this 120 year-old family-owned and operated oyster (and shrimp) business. It was established in 1896 by Danish immigrant Frank Nelson, and now, his great grandson and great-great grandsons manage the company.
Family businesses are fascinating entities, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to spend time with different oyster dynasties from around the world (read my post about the 430-year old oyster farm in Hiroshima, Japan). Coincidentally, Adam and Lissa James from Hama Hama Oyster Company, a fifth-generation family-run shellfish farm in Washington, were also in town and decided to join us on this tour. This was my first time meeting them in person, but it felt like we had known each other for years. I suppose via emails and social media, that's true. Lissa provided me with some great insights about oysters when I was but just a newb, as well as some wonderful Hama Hama oysters for my 30th birthday.
As we walked into Bon Secour, a whoosh of chilly, salt-marshy air greeted us. I thought I'd find crates of oysters piled high, but none were to be seen. In fact, the warehouse was immaculate. Spotless. Had I been taken here blindfolded, I would've never guessed that I was standing in a massive oyster terminal. Since we arrived late in the afternoon, we missed all of the action. The day's work had already been completed.
Nonetheless, we still managed to find some oysters to taste. Chris Nelson, the great-great grandson of the founder and Vice President of the company made sure of that. Two kind gentlemen at Bon Secour presented us with three varieties: farm-raised Alabama oysters, traditional "Gulf" (Louisiana, I presume) oysters, and a special Live Band oyster. All were shucked in the signature southern fashion — meats on the top shell.
The farm-raised Alabama oysters were slightly brighter and sweeter than the wild-harvested oysters. The meats weren't as large, but perfectly plump in their own rite. They felt a little more precious and put together, and probably better suited for the raw bar. I'd still opt to use the large, wild oysters in an oyster stew or fried oyster po'boy over the itty bitty ones any day.
But you're probably wondering about the Live Band oyster. First of all, they're not to be confused with "Gold Band" oysters, which are pre-shucked, frozen oysters in the half shell that have been "pasteurized" by a patented high pressure processing technology. Live Band oysters are delivered un-shucked and very much alive, but they're still safe to eat raw without the worry of vibrio—a boon to Gulf oyster lovers everywhere. So, they're safe (awesome), but are they tasty?
To be honest, they lacked that pleasant, familiar oystery essence that the others had. The Live Band oyster is like a clean slate— it makes for a very versatile raw, meaty ingredient. But would I be excited to eat it solo on the half shell? I even tried two to be sure... I concluded that it was just too safe, in every which way describable. Doesn't that take some of the thrill out of it all?
Anyway, I still very much appreciated the opportunity to try something new and would like to say thanks to the folks at Bon Secour for giving us a tour and taste of their wonderful goods.
#3Oysters3Coasts Tasting at Fisher's
The last leg of my Alabama adventure was celebrated with the full cast of characters (and then some) at Fisher's at Orange Beach Marina. Fisher's is a chic, nautically-inspired two-level restaurant that offers modern elegance upstairs and laid-back chill pad downstairs. Leggy, lush palm trees lined the perimeter, creating an oasis-like cocoon, while the interior decor popped with cheeky detail. The whole place is insanely charismatic, and it's hard not to be smitten at first sight.
When Beth first asked me about doing an oyster tasting at Fisher's, I imagined that we would sit down with some oyster friends, relax, and enjoy a private dinner together. I enthusiastically agreed. It didn't dawn upon me that she was actually putting me to work until much later. The tasting wasn't for us—it would be a ticketed event for the paying public. I didn't mind the plot twist though. In fact, I was quite excited to speak alongside Bill, Lissa and Adam James, and Lane Zirlott from Murder Point Oyster Farm about our favorite bivalve and how to appreciate them. With this group, it was only appropriate to make the theme: #3Oysters3Coasts.
We were greeted inside by Johnny Fisher, the owner of Fisher's and OysterSouth member. Johnny opened his namesake restaurant in the spring of 2013 with Bill Briand, the Executive Chef of Fisher's and recent James Beard Award Nominee. Together, they've created a reputation for Fisher's as one of the best restaurants of the Alabama Gulf Coast.
Each person received a platter of four oysters on a bed of rock salt. As each set of oysters arrived to the table, the respective grower or representative talked about its environment, history, and taste. Meanwhile, I contributed my "Six S's of Oyster Tasting" and encouraged everyone to try at least one naked! ;)
Shucking all of the oysters for the tasting fell into the capable hands of Bill Walton and Brent Zirlott.
From the Atlantic Coast, Bill and Beth presented a briny, mineral-forward Virginica from East Dennis, on Cape Cod.
From the West Coast, Adam and Lissa presented some of their farm's meaty, oceanic, melon rind-hinted Hama Hama's from Washington.
From the Gulf Coast, Lane preached the gospel of the mighty southern Murder Point Oyster from nearby Portersville Bay, Alabama. Despite the menacing-sounding name, it was all #butterlove.
After the official shindig was over, we all stayed out for a special oyster-themed dinner prepared by Chef Briand. Being able to hang out with this eclectic, passionate group of oyster folks was a rare treat. I couldn't have done it without the hospitality and support of Beth and Bill Walton. Many, many thanks to you both!
On the Note of Alabama Oyster Love
Do you know about Oyster Obsession yet? It started out as a passion project (gone viral) for Jason Burnett, founding editor of MyRecipes.com and long-time oyster fan. Jason is based in Birmingham, AL and has guest judged the Hangout Oyster Cookoff for several years. Today, the Facebook Fan Group has over 16k members and they just started creating snazzy "shucktail" videos. Below is a new one that I simply must try...