By Christy Simo
Here in Georgia, you can find a local version of pretty much anything – peaches, tomatoes, pork, you name it. But one thing you likely won’t find on the menu is Georgia-grown oysters.
That could be changing very soon thanks to the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service. Using a new method to set the oyster larvae – called spat – researchers have developed a way to grow oysters individually rather than the way wild oysters typically grow along Georgia’s coast now, in clumps.
What does that mean for restaurants?
The first batch of locally grown Georgia oysters could be available to put on the menu by this winter. And while Georgia’s wild oyster clumps vary in size, are difficult to separate and have shells that are hard and brittle, this new crop of single oysters are ideal to serve raw on the half-shell.
“There’s a lot of interest in being able to eat something that’s local, being able to support that,” says Tom Bliss, director of the extension service’s shellfish research lab. “We definitely are seeing that with the interest in oysters, and we get calls from restaurants and other people wanting to know where they can find Georgia oysters.”
Just as wine picks up qualities from the earth its vines grow in, the flavor of an oyster is due in part to the water they live in. Georgia’s oysters tend to be salty with a hint of lemongrass.
“They’re pretty mellow,” says Dave Snyder, owner and executive chef of Halyards and Tramici on St. Simons Island, about Georgia oysters. “They’re not as briny as a West Coast or North oyster, but they have a great salinity to them. They’re good.”
Some 300,000 to 600,000 spat were initially provided by the extension service’s hatchery to local oystermen to grow the first batch for harvest. By 2018, the hatchery anticipates it will be producing between 5 million and 6 million spat annually – about $1.6 million worth.
The single oysters are expected to sell anywhere from 35 cents to $1 per oyster.
“I could sell that all day long,” Snyder says. “If I get Kumamotos or something like that, that’s the going rate. If I get a Belon from France, you’re paying $2 apiece. There’s nothing comparable when you have something coming out of the ocean that’s only one or two days old. … That’s worth paying for.”
Photograph by Dylan Wilson