Raw oysters, washed down with iced coffee, made for an offbeat breakfast this weekend, even more so in the middle of summer when oysters aren’t supposed to be in their prime.
But that was precisely why I was so excited to try these particular oysters, and why I made an early trip to the Crescent City Farmers Market to sample some first thing on Saturday morning.
For an oyster lover in Louisiana, trying something new usually means a different kind of garnish or an oyster shipped in from distant waters. But this week, the farmers market is showcasing a homegrown Louisiana oyster bred and nurtured to be different.
Alternately pitched as premium or “handmade” Louisiana oysters, they’re the result of off-bottom cultivation, a type of oyster farming that’s more closely guided and labor intensive than traditional methods. It’s an approach that’s common in other oyster growing areas but is only now gaining a foothold along the Gulf through the cooperation of state fisheries experts and private oyster farms in Grand Isle.
Grown from a hybrid seed stock, these oysters also don’t spawn, thus foregoing the process that depletes their fertile counterparts in summertime.
One company, Caminada Bay Oyster Farm, has been selling primarily to restaurants, while a newer company, Grand Isle Sea Farms, this week began selling its branded Caminada Bay Premium Oysters direct to consumers at the farmers market.
Enclosed in floating cages, they’re suspended in the nutrient-rich current and protected from predators. They grow fast, have thinner shells and the oysters inside give a different flavor profile.
The examples I dispatched over the weekend were full and rich, subtly floral, a little creamy and most of all robustly salty.
They gushed flavor and defied the seasonal expectation of Louisiana oysters in the throes of summertime.
Another difference is cost, as the premium tag portends. The price per box at the market this week works out to $1 per oyster, several times more than you’d pay retail for sack oysters.
People were lined up to get these on Saturday morning, though I heard some skepticism around the market, too. That’s understandable. Oysters are the pride of Louisiana, and an eminent embodiment of natural goodness when slurped up all on their own. Why mess with that, and why pay so much more for Louisiana oysters?
Building new market
State fisheries experts have promoted off-bottom cultivation as a way to diversify the Louisiana oyster industry. Once productive oyster growing areas that are now too salty — and thus too friendly to an oyster’s predators — can be prime spots for off-bottom cultivation, said John Supan, oyster specialist with Louisiana Sea Grant program who has been instrumental in fostering the approach.
In this way, it can reclaim the oyster producing potential of coastal areas changed by the state’s coastal erosion crisis.
And while the process is too labor intensive to replace traditional reef-grown, bottom-harvested oysters, Supan said it has the potential to add a high value product to the local seafood portfolio.
While Louisiana leads the nation in oyster production, historically accounting for a third of the U.S. harvest, most of this vast haul is sold as commodity product. This, he said, is a premium alternative.
“I compare it to beef,” said Supan. “You can get an $8 hamburger steak or a $30 rib eye. People understand they’re different. You are starting to see an appreciation for this with oysters.”
These are the rationales that first led Jules Melancon to adopt the approach at his Caminada Bay Oyster Farm.
Melancon is a fourth generation Louisiana oysterman with 46 years of experience (he started in the family business at age 11).
He grew oysters the old fashioned way, but in 2011, a year after the BP oil spill decimated the industry, he started working on off-bottom cultivation with help from Supan and Jim Gossen, the pioneering seafood dealer — and ceaseless seafood advocate — behind the brand Louisiana Foods. Melancon now operates a hatchery on Grand Isle to produce its own the hybrid seed, which he cultivates in off-bottom enclosures.
While these oysters once went to Gossen’s restaurant clients in Texas, Melancon now trucks them up to Pêche Seafood Grill, the Donald Link restaurant a block away from the downtown farmers market.
“To me, this is the future of Louisiana oysters,” Melancon said. “It’s a hand-made oyster. We’re small, we don’t have the volume to distribute on a really big scale. But right now, it’s about building up the volume, and building up the market.”
Melancon’s Caminada Bay Oyster Farm produces about 500,000 oysters a year. The new Grand Isle Sea Farms, formed earlier this year, expects to harvest 100,000 in its first season.
These Caminada Bay Premium Oysters are available at Crescent City Farmers Market locations July 21, 22, 23 and 25.
(see details at crescentcityfarmersmarket.org). After that, Grand Isle Sea Farms will sell them on SouthShoreDirectSeafood.com, which is run by Sea Grant and LSU AgCenter to connect local consumers directly with local seafood.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.