Oysters marketed like fine wine? That may be this industry’s future
By Benjamin Alexander-Bloch, nola.com
Many wines are classified not by the country where they are produced, but by the specific region where the grapes are harvested – think Napa, Calif., or Bordeaux, France. Now apply that same concept to oysters and you get a sense of a nascent movement here that could change how this beloved Louisiana seafood is harvested and marketed in the future.
Some Louisiana oysters are already being described by the bay in which they are grown, rather than under the all-encompassing "Gulf oyster" moniker. These oysters – Beauregard Island, Caminada and Champagne Bay, to name a few – are just hitting the local market this year and they are tastier and juicier in summer months than traditional oysters, experts and growers say.
Nearly 10 years after Hurricane Katrina hit the industry hard, these new oyster varieties are also more resilient – representing, some say, a possible future for this vital part of South Louisiana's economy and culture.
For these innovations, thank the special oyster seeds grown in a publicly-funded local laboratory, along with new breeding techniques that harvest the hardier mollusks in floating cages or mesh bags, often bobbing right beneath the water's surface. A new breed of oyster farmer is beginning to emerge through this aquaculture, rearing the bivalves for a more boutique market.
"It's a more hands-on approach, man-made, farming as opposed to wild," said fourth-generation oysterman Jules Melancon, 57. He can grow a 2-1/2 inch marketable oyster in less than a year. In the wild, that could take two years.
Marcos Guerrero, 58, who also is growing these oysters along with his wife and sons, said he previously was a sugarcane farmer, but "I related to this, as this is farming as well."
Oyster scientist John Supan has spearheaded the development of the new seed – a three-chromosome oyster as opposed to the more traditional two-chromosome variety. He has educated the early adopters about off-bottom harvesting methods from his Louisiana Sea Grant laboratory and teaching center on Grand Isle.
"This is Louisiana's test site -- applying industrial park concepts to the bayou," Supan said, pointing across the bay to the Grand Isle Oyster Farming Zone administered by the Grand Isle Port Commission.
Designed in a grid with eight, two-acre oyster farms for lease, the Grand Islefarming area began construction after the state legislature approved a new "marine enterprise zone" designation in 2012.
East and West Coast oyster farmers, and others across the globe, have long engaged in similar practices, but Louisiana has been a holdout, instead sticking to the more traditional bottom-farmed oyster and with restaurants hardly differentiating between the areas where they are harvested.
Everyone acknowledges that the main obstacle for Louisiana oyster farmers is the cost of entry -- the investment required in terms of the equipment needed to get the operation off the ground. But for those able to lay down those initial bucks, the world may be their oyster.
Differentiating Louisiana oysters
Supan said with wine marketing, you discuss its terroir – the soil, topography and climate that contributes to its taste. With oysters it's "merroir," referring to similar principles in water ("mer" is sea in French).
While Supan doesn't expect the new off-bottom techniques will replace traditional oyster reefs altogether, he thinks there is room in the market for both types of products as some people are willing to pay more for a better product.
"But that market still is being developed," said Melancon, who currently only is selling his oysters locally to the high-end New Orleans seafood restaurant Peche, one of the first New Orleans restaurants to introduce locals to off-bottom cultured oysters from Alabama and Louisiana.
The Guerrero family had their first crop come to harvest this summer. They met with metro New Orleans chefs, including Dickie Brennan Jr., providing them with tastings of their Grand Isle crop in an attempt to find local buyers.
And then more recently, they did a 5-day sale run in New Orleans at the Crescent City Farmers Market, where they also provided tastings to area chefs.
As a result, in the last month the Guerrero family has started selling their Caminada oysters to the Curious Oyster Company at St. Roch Market andMariza restaurant in the Bywater. And this week, Commander's Palace also will begin selling them, Maros Guerrero said.
Still, Guerrero noted that they must mainly rely on consumers outside of Louisiana who often are willing to pay more. He currently is selling the majority of his crop to markets in Texas while he builds his New Orleans distribution network.
Supan said years ago Louisiana oysters used to be named after the region where they were grown – "you'd see the names on the chalk board" at seafood markets. But over time, less oyster farmers brought their own products to the market because wholesaler dealers grew, and so the varieties of oysters began to mingle on dealers' trucks, eventually losing that differentiation.
Also, historic bays known for oysters have disappeared over time, often becoming too salty as wetlands vanished that used to keep the bays fresher.
New off-bottom harvesting techniques are helping to bring appellations back. Melancon is calling his varieties Beauregard, Caminada, and Champagne oysters, after the bays that they are grown in. And the Guerrero family is producing Caminada oysters, where he and his family grow them in floating cages in the Grand Isle Oyster Farming Zone.
Creating new shapes, tastes
The new techniques make it possible to grow oyster in areas that otherwise would be too salty. Those higher salinity zones bring predators that kill the oysters. But by floating the oysters in cages or bags, it helps keep them safe. The mix of salt and sweetness in the oyster's flavor is also a prize to the palate that garners higher prices, producers and chefs say.
In addition to allowing farmers to more easily choose where to harvest, based on where oysters might grow best and produce the greatest flavor, floating cages or bags also influence the shape of the shell and thus the meat itself. That's because the meat often will form to the shell.
Farmers can manipulate how the water flows over the oysters based on where they are placed in the current, pruning the shells so that they are a more symmetrical and appetizing shape for the half-shell market. Also the process of shaking the oysters in the cages as they grow -- in part to prevent them from forming clusters -- often break the lip off the shell, and since oysters grow from the hinge to the lip, that forces the oyster to grow a deeper cup.
In turn, that dipped, scooped bottom makes the meat a little plumper – as it grows into that dip. And that reservoir holds more of that oyster liquor that consumers can relish as they slurp back the decadent mollusks at oyster bars across the state.
Traditional oysters also grow more slowly, in part because the water bottoms that they live on are uneven, which can slow the water flow over the oysters and lead to less food for the oysters. Raising oysters off the bottom allows them to get more food and grow faster and more uniform, Supan and the growers explained.
Protecting the crop from storms
The various off-bottom techniques also can better protect oysters from hurricane storm surge.
For example, by filling plastic floats on the bottom of the cages with water and then flipping those cages over, the floats protect the oysters from the surface, guarding against the worst of the surge as they wait out the storm, Supan said.
"We are 10 years behind schedule because of Katrina," he said, as he walked around the new Grand Isle hatchery, rebuilt after Katrina wiped out of the previous facility.
The new oyster hatchery building in part has been funded with money from a Natural Resource Damage Assessment grant for projects identified as helping speed recovery of public oyster grounds following the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It is elevated 15 feet and designed to withstand 140 mph winds.
The triploid oyster seed also could help oyster farmers become less dependent on the state for seed. Especially since the BP oil spill, the state has seen its public seed grounds dip in production, perhaps because the freshwater diversions intended to push oil away from the shore also dropped salinity to levels that kill oysters.
The triploid seed, paired with new harvesting techniques, grows oysters faster and thus also reduces the recovery times after hurricanes and other disasters.
And because the triploid oysters can't reproduce, they don't waste the same energy to spawn from June to November, as do other oysters, meaning they remain meaty and sweet in those "non-R months" by retaining their glycogen, allowing them to focus on growth instead of reproduction.
As a result, triploid oysters reach market size faster than diploids, are larger in size than diploids of a similar age, and retain their flavor and consistency even in the summer. All told, it's creating a more abundant summer crop to aid oyster harvesters searching for new income opportunities.
The key question is whether Louisianians, and consumers elsewhere, will adopt these new varieties.
"The response to Guerrero's Caminada oysters was outstanding," said Rusty Gaude, an Louisiana Sea Grant and LSU AgCenter coastal advisor who spearheaded Guerrero's stint at the Crescent market and sales on the SouthShore Direct Seafood site. "His next hurdle will really be distribution. Getting it out to the people who are screaming for it."
He predicted that as consumers get used to a reliable source of these oysters, they will tap into it.
Peche chef and co-owner Ryan Prewitt said the 40-to-50-percent higher sticker prices on cage-raised oysters can shock some locals, most of whom buy the cheaper bottom-raised oysters on his menu. But the higher price of farmed oysters means the two varieties are important to his bottom line.
"We still sell more bottom-farmed oysters by shear volume, but by dollars, I think it's now about the same," Prewitt said. "As these oysters get better and better and the farmers get better at handling them and as the industry grows up a little bit, I think you will see people in New Orleans really seeking out oysters from a particular location and willing to pay the price."