Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Murder Point Oysters, Uprooted

by Sydney Blanchard

Each month, our Uprooted series will highlight local chefs, restaurants, organizations, and farmers who are spearheading the farm-to-table and local foodways movements in South Louisiana.

Murder Point Oysters, right out of the water

Alabama's waters have had a rough go of it in the last decade or so. Hurricanes and an oil spill ravaged the Gulf coast and its economy, and according to Rosa Zirlott, Alabama streams had not produced oysters for many years.

That was before she and her family, former shrimpers, became oyster farmers. 

The Zirlott family will soon begin their third year as Alabama oyster farmers, and Rosa and her son Lane are enthusiastic about their latest family endeavor, Murder Point Oysters.

Rosa Zirlott, co-owner of Murder Point Oysters and Zirlott family matriarch

"They're oysters worth killing for!" Rosa said. 

Out in Porterville Bay near Gulf Shores, Alabama, lies Murder Point. According to legend, it used to be called Myrtle Point until 1927 when the man who held the oyster lease was murdered in a dispute over the lease. 

"You have to talk to the old timers to find out what really happened," Rosa said. 

Rosa and her family are one of only 12 oyster farmers in Alabama, and they've learned a lot about raising oysters in the last two years. It's safe to say they take their new venture pretty seriously. 

“This is very, very new for Alabama," Rosa said. “I talked my husband into doing it. I said, 'Let’s do it. If it works, we can say it works, and maybe more people will want to get involved.'"

Lane, in particular, has found his calling.

"Lane talks to them every day to give them the butter love," according to Rosa. "He feels like these oysters are his babies."

The care for their craft and stewardship to the environment is obvious in touring their oyster beds. 

Out on their boat in the middle of the oyster beds, college-age guys in wet suits and rubber fishing overalls tumble the oysters.

Murder Point Oysters are graded by size and tumbled every two weeks
Tumbling the oysters, or running them through a metal grading machine, causes the oyster to clamp town and makes the muscle stronger. Tumbling ensures that the oysters remain organized in the beds by size, and it also knocks the end of the shell off. This makes the oyster shells shorter, tougher, and easier to open up without the shell breaking. 

Every two weeks, the oysters are graded and moved to beds with oysters of the same size. According to Rosa, this is necessary to ensure Murder Point Oysters are up to restaurant standards.

"We try to create a quality product," Rosa said. "We’re trying to send the perfect oyster."

Murder Point Oysters cleaned off and ready for eating
But they don't stop at tumbling the oysters to ensure quality. Rosa said Murder Points oysters will taste different from the oysters growing in the waters next to them. Instead of keeping their oysters on top of the water while they're developing, the Zirlotts move their oyster babies up and down in the water column, allowing them to be flavored by different pressures, temperatures, and food sources. 

When the oysters are ready to be harvested, they're taken from the water directly to a processing facility owned by the Zirlotts, where they're then sent off to restaurants across the country where they are in high demand.

"It really is farm-to-table," Rosa said.

Prepared and garnished Murder Point Oysters served at Fisher's in Orange Beach, Ala.

The Murder Point Oyster business is maintaining consistent growth. In August they places 800,000 baby oysters into the water who will be ready to be eaten by 2016.

The Zirlotts take pride not only in their rich, buttery oyster crop, but in the work they do in sustaining and maintaining an ecosystem friendly not only to oysters but to the wildlife that share the waters with their oysters.

“We want to do right by the environment," Rosa said.

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