In Alabama, It's Half-Shell Oyster Season!
Hitting the Gulf for responsible aquaculture
In 2012, Chris Hastings won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South for his work at the Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama. We have asked him write in from time to time to tell us what is on his mind, and on his stove.
This time of the year is one of my favorites. We are in the sweet spot of the "half shell" oyster season. While oysters are available year-round, the water temperatures now are ideal (55°F or under) for producing the finest oysters available, making it the perfect time to truly taste and understand both the "merroir" — a term akin to terrior for the sea — and "provence" of these succulent bi-valves. The crew at Point Aux Pins Oyster Farm on Grand Bay in Alabama's Mississippi Sound seems to have an intuitive understanding of this. In case you didn’t know, more than 70% of all oysters consumed in the U.S. are harvested in the Gulf of Mexico, and the state of Alabama leads the nation in oyster production.
Harvesters in the Gulf of Mexico over the last 200 years mainly use the hand-tonging method, as opposed to the more common dredging technique. This method avoids the unnecessary destruction of natural oyster beds in the Gulf, and although some dredging on private leases is practiced in Louisiana and Texas, wild-occurring reefs make up the bulk of the resource. The Gulf States are the last region where you can get wild oysters from natural reefs in any real quantity, but until recently they did little to no oyster aqua-farming.
At Auburn University's Shellfish Laboratory on Dauphin Island, under the supervision of Professor Bill Walton, the state of Alabama leads the way in developing cutting edge aqua-farming technology. Through this research and technology development, they are working to re-establish these reefs that have been negatively affected by harvesting and natural factors, like hurricanes and low oxygen levels. They are developing "cluster" programs in an effort to sustain naturally occurring reefs and nurture the "oyster garden" project, which allows volunteers to grow oysters off of their docks in baskets that will later be relocated to reefs. The aqua-culturing, along with a number of other initiatives, creates opportunities for an entirely new industry to develop in Mobile Bay and thrive here in Alabama, all while preserving a valuable natural resource. I am so proud of those boys from Auburn.
Enter Steve Crockett: a biostatistician by trade. His desire for a quiet spit of land where he could catch some crabs, a few redfish, enough shrimp for supper (that's lunch down South), or an occasional flounder brought him to Grand Bay in Alabama’s Mississippi Sound. It’s a beautiful, peaceful place on pristine waters that teem with life. Steve never imagined he would become the first man to farm-raise oysters in Alabama, much less of the world-class quality he is producing. But, being the good, community-minded person he is, Steve volunteered to assist Auburn's oyster research program, where he discovered his water grew oysters at a faster rate than any other trial waters and, before he knew it, 50,000 oysters were under production and set to go to market in 12 months.
And so it was that the Point Aux Pins oyster farm was born. The water quality there is excellent; no commercial agriculture activity (animal or plant) exists on the uplands draining into the bay, residential density is sparse with no contamination from human waste, upland drainage is filtered through lowland swamps before entering the bay and the salinity is customarily in the mid to upper 20s (parts per thousand), which is stunningly clear when eating the briny, clean, meaty and delicious oysters nurtured in the impeccable, natural nutrient–rich waters of Grand Bay, Alabama.
Wave actions on the bay flip the baskets, which breaks the lips of the oyster and stunts their growth lengthwise and creates uniquely deep cups. Sweet, briny, meaty oysters that will freak you out they are so good. They are grown to my standards and in my hands within 24-hours of harvest. At The Hot and Hot Fish Club, we like to present these to our guests alongside wild reef oysters raised on the bay floor for our guests to taste and compare these two very different and delicious oysters, raised in the same waters.
Since starting this enterprise, Steve began selling his oysters to top restaurants around the South, like Bryan Caswell's Reef in Houston, Highlands Bar and Grill, of course the Hot and Hot, and most recently were picked up by Whole Foods. From what I understand, this demand has Steve hoping to expand his lease in order to increase production.
On a recent trip down to Bon Secour, AL with the Alabama Seafood Commission team, a group of us took half a day to visit with Steve and Bill Walton at Point Aux Pins. The ride took us down a long, sandy road surrounded by mature long leaf pine trees and spit us out almost to the end of a stunning point. As we arrived, I made a comment to Steve about the beautiful ride in and he said, “Now you know why we named them Point Aux Pins.” We all took in the unreal wildlife that existed everywhere, in particularly in the beautiful bay. Life was teeming everywhere. The last time I saw that much wildlife must have been the late '60s and '70s on the salt marshes of Pawleys Island, South Carolina, when I was a creek boy for our family. Only pristine water and undisturbed habitat sustains life like this. I was in awe.
We then made our way onto the dock where Steve's cages are suspended. Bill and I slipped into wet suits for a full, in-water tour of the operation. As we waded in waist-deep water, Bill explained how this suspended system allows the oysters to spend several hours above the water during low tides, killing off algae and barnacles that damage the shell. The suspension also protects the oysters from mud worms that would otherwise bore into the shell and destroy the oyster on the bay floor.
They start the process with spawn of Cedar Point, Alabama oysters in the Shellfish Lab. When the spat are large enough (2-4 mm), they are moved to oyster nets in the Grand Bay waters until they grow large enough to be cage-sized. These cages were not on guide wires, but instead were attached to buoys that could be flipped for deeper cup development—as I mentioned earlier.
In the company of new friends, we shucked and savored the Point Aux Pins straight out of the shell while soaking in the compelling beauty and stunning biodiversity of Grand Bay, Alabama. I was once again reminded of how lucky I am and who the real heroes of our industry are. They are not the chefs so often fawned over, but those who devote their time and lives harvesting amazing, healthful, delicious foods for our community. I am privileged to know a passionate group of these people and admire the dedication it takes to see each project through, from vision to my kitchen, as well as yours. I hope only to be respectful and skillful enough so that my guests taste the true merroir of Grand Bay, Alabama and the Point Aux Pins oyster. I will continue to seek these people out throughout my life and do everything I can to support them. I believe they are the crucial links in bringing back a complete healthy food supply; one we do not have now and future generations deserve.
Our community thanks you all.
For more on Point Aux Pins oysters check out Alabama Seafood Commission's site.