A Whitehead Reef Oyster
by Andrew Chalk
Eaten a gulf oyster recently? Where, in the thousands of square miles that constitute the Gulf of Mexico, did it come from? You probably were not told. The person who sold it to you probably did not know. I never considered it mattered before.
It turns out it does. Where in the gulf an oyster grew up affects its size and taste. If we know where oysters come from, we can choose between them based on quality, or size, or flavor profile. If we choose oysters from particular locations then oystermen will know what types to harvest.
Jim Gossen is a man who wants to make this choice in oysters a reality. As Chairman of Sysco Louisiana Seafood he has a big interest in the health of the Gulf oyster fields and that means an understanding of where oysters come from and how they differ by location. He sent me the map below (the work of the Texas Coastal Watershed Program of Texas A&M University) that shows the oyster beds in Galveston Bay. Although the map is specialised to its marine purpose you can clearly pick out Galveston Island, Texas City on the west coast, and San Leon (where I ate Gulf oysters at Gilhooly’s a few weeks ago). The main feature of the map is the named oyster beds, starting with “Old Yellow Reef” in the north and going over to “Pepper Grove Reef” in the east.
Under Gossen’s program there is no legal enforcement and he doesn’t expect any. The oystermen keep different appellations separate on the boat. If prices of some appellations rose markedly, relative to the others, some kind of tagging would be necessary. Gossen talks about his nascent effort “We did our first Gulf Appellation tasting at the first Foodways Texas Symposium at Gaido’s in Galveston. We had 12 different appellations from across the five Gulf States.”
Gossen sees a day when the consumer will be able to order from a selection of these whenever ordering oysters in a seafood shop or a restaurant. He thinks that the result would be more choice for the consumer who would develop a taste for oysters from a particular bed. With greater consistency of flavor and quality, the consumer would eat more oysters, helping the oystermen who are the heart of the industry.
Oysters Appellations Are Like Wine Appellations
The idea of named places of origin for oysters is analogous to the same thing for wine, where the French word for a designated area ‘appellation’ has come into the lexicon. Consider how appellations apply with wine by considering how you might go about buying a bottle of wine made from the popular grape, Pinot Noir. You could specify a French appellation, such as Burgundy. Or you could specify an American one such as Oregon’s Willamette Valley or California’s Russian River Valley. In each case, you will get a wine that is Pinot Noir, but each will taste very different because of where it came from. Burgundy is much cooler than the Russian River Valley and Oregon is (usually) somewhere in between. If you like your Pinot Noir’s to be fruity, you will look for Russian River appellated Pinot Noir in the future. However, if I exercised my divine right to ban all appellation information on wine bottles, you would not be able to choose where your Pinot Noir came from. You would end up with the style you liked only some of the time and would likely buy less Pinot Noir as a result.
Jim Gossen sees our ignorance about the origins of the oysters we eat as due to natural factors and is bringing modern technology and industry cooperation to bear to remove it.
Is There Really a Difference In Taste?
Ladies Pass Oysters
To see whether this was all hype I headed down to Stampede 66 in Dallas where Chef Jon Thompson is a leader in serving appellated oysters in Dallas. On the day of my visit he had Whitehead Reef and Ladies Pass appellations. He prepared a tasting of half a dozen of each on separate iced platters. Visually, the Ladies Pass appeared slightly smaller. However, as I bit in to them a found that they were compensatingly thicker, presumably from a deeper shell. They were noticeably brinier than the Whitehead Reef oysters and the umami oyster flavors lasted longer. Is this difference consistent? Time will tell. It has to be for the idea of appellation to mean anything.
To taste these oysters I had to turn my back on condiments such as lemon juice, chipotle cocktail sauce or Thompson’s excellent serrano mignonette (I downed them later).
Jon Thompson Shucks The Oysters
The precise appellations available vary on a daily basis, depending on the catch. With this trend in its infancy, you may want to check before you go that they have appellated oysters available that day.
Buying Appellated Oysters To Take Home
I contacted Jon Alexis, proprietor of T.J.’s Seafood Market to get the retail view. He reported “I’ve carried Resignation and Pepper Grove. Also Champagne Bay from Louisiana. HOWEVER…
I stopped carrying them because people just didn’t “get” the idea behind appellation-based premium oysters. Anyone I could convince to try them was wow’ed but it was such an uphill battle.I am hoping increased media attention will give me the opportunity to bring them in and show people how good these oysters are.” That result tells me that the appellated oyster movement has a mountain to climb ahead of it in Dallas. Ironically, Jim Gossen’s Gulf coast initiative could become instituted on menus in New York or San Francisco before coming back to Dallas.
In the meantime these guys could move the process along by devising a common mark for appellated oysters with space for the name of the appellation in the middle (so that consumers know what to look for). They could also do with a good web site that sets all this out and shows the maps.
For my part, I am always going to start asking at restaurants “where do your oysters come from”?