Part trade show, part tasting and part educational event, the Southeast Oyster Symposium on Sunday at Kimball House was another sign that Atlanta is officially crazy for oysters right now.
In fact, if Dr. Bill Walton is right, Atlanta is perfectly positioned to be the geographic and culinary oyster capital of the Southeast.
Walton, who is an assistant professor and marine fisheries extension specialist at Auburn University, has been working with oyster farmers around the Atlantic and Gulf coasts using off-bottom farming practices to produce premium oysters for places like Kimball House and chef Donald Link’s Peche Seafood Grill in New Orleans.
Seven of the farmers were at the symposium, explaining the techniques they use and shucking samples of their products for local media, chefs and oyster aficionados, including food blogger Ted Golden and Kimball House’s resident oyster expert Bryan Rackley, who hosted and helped organize the event.
Rackley, who has developed a passion for oysters in general and a zeal for farmed Gulf oysters in particular, did some preaching and teaching.
“What we have here are people who have dedicated their lives to doing the extra work and putting in the extra time and spending the extra money to bring you something that’s farmed and more sustainable, and to be completely honest with you, it’s a better product,” Rackley told the group. Adding that the farmers were “making Atlanta a better dining community and the South a better place to live.
Walton, a New Jersey native, who independently farmed oysters in Cape Cod before moving south for the job at Auburn, told the story of his first encounters with Gulf oysters as a way of illustrating the problem and the potential in the region.
“The summer I came to Auburn to interview for the job, I went to a raw bar in Mobile and ordered oysters. My wife thought I was crazy, ordering oysters in the summer in Alabama. And I’ll be honest, they were some of the worst oysters I’ve ever had. They were bland, they were small and large, the sizes were all over the place, and they were muddy.
“I was lucky enough to get the job and in January that next year we went to the same raw bar and I ordered oysters. I’m not making this up, they were some of the best oysters I’ve ever had. That is the issue. When you sell oysters that could be perceived as some the worst or some of the best, it doesn’t work.”
Walton’s answer, of course, is farming and branding, which creates a quality, consistent product. It’s also sustainable, creates habitat for fish and crabs, and helps clean up the environment.
The aquaculture farms represented ranged from Dauphin Island in Alabama to the Ace Basin in South Carolina. Happily, the oysters we tasted were high quality with a surprising range of flavors from briny to sweet to earthy and, well, essentially oystery.
A particular favorite, Murder Point oysters from Alabama’s Sandy Bay Oyster Company were super salty but mild. Grown with a long-line system developed in Australia, we were told that Murder Point oysters “are worth killing for!”
While I wouldn’t go that far, I’m pretty certain that eating oysters from the Southeast is going to get a lot more exciting in the near future.
With more farms and more unique oyster appellations available, will we soon be talking about the taste of the sea “terroir” of Southeast oysters like we talk about wine or cheese?
— Bob Townsend, AJC Food and More blog