According to those who know it best, Louisiana’s famed oyster industry is in a precarious state. By Heather Miller

Monday, June 17, 2013

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Take just one bite of Ruffino’s mouth-watering wood oven-roasted oysters, and you’ll likely never take for granted that South Louisiana is home to the finest oysters in the world.

As passionate as Louisianans are about oysters and the endless list of dishes they enhance, how many truly understand the labor of love that’s been feeding Louisiana’s oyster industry for more than 150 years?

According to Sal Sunseri, manager of the revered P&J Oyster Company in New Orleans, not enough.

That’s why the fourth-generation oyster aficionado has for the past 15 years been busing chefs, restaurant owners, PR professionals, food writers and anyone else lucky enough to get an invite down to the Gulf Coast for a once-yearly oyster educational tour, a first-hand look at all the work that goes into each and every oyster Louisiana produces.

Ruffino’s owner and chef Peter Sclafani, who’s been in business in Baton Rouge for almost 15 years and just recently opened his second Ruffino’s location in River Ranch, says he has relied on P&J oysters for his restaurant “forever.” But before boarding an oyster boat in Empire for Sunseri’s May 28 annual tour, he had never been schooled on the ways of the oyster world.

The tour kicked off at daybreak, when 30-plus people gathered on the edge of the French Quarter and hopped a bus headed for Empire.
About an hour later, we arrived on the dock of Mitch Jurisich, an Empire-based oyster farmer whose family has been in the oyster business since 1904.

RMay_130607_5947
Photo by Robin May
Ruffino's co-founder and chef, Peter Sclafani, with his charbroiled oysters
(yes, we have the recipe!)

Jurisich was quick to inform his guests that the oysters they’d be tasting aboard his oyster boat were almost too fresh for many an oyster lovers’ taste buds. When the Mississippi River rises every year, the oyster beds in Adams Bay and other areas along the southeastern coast experience low salinity levels, Jurisich explains.

“That’s a good thing because we need the high river in the spring to create the spawn for the summer,” Jurisich says. “All the things are lining up for a really great spawn.”

Once an oyster bed spawns and the oysters start to grow, the rate of growth for one oyster is surprisingly slow. Jurisich says oysters grow at an average of one inch per year. They have to reach three inches in size before they’re ready for market, which equals a journey of more than three years for each oyster that lands on your plate.

Guests who boarded Jurisich’s boat were able to watch as oyster farmers spread hundreds of pounds of recycled limestone into the bay. The limestone will eventually serve as an oyster reef, the base on which more than a dozen oysters will attach themselves and grow on each small chunk of rock.

For Sunseri and Jurisich, the limestone reefs created by oyster farmers not only produce a culinary delicacy and a way of life, they also form the backbone of the Gulf’s complex ecosystem and help to keep other famed Louisiana seafood alive and well.

“To me, they are the ecosystem,” Jurisich says with pride. “They filter the waters, crustaceans live in the reefs, and the fishing around reefs is second to none. We’ve had to evolve with the land loss, but things change slow enough for us to keep in business and keep going forward.”

A key component to Sunseri’s oyster tours is taking the time to explain to the people on board the significance of coastal land loss in Louisiana, how it happened and its threat to oyster farming and the local food culture we so often celebrate.

“As a farming entity, we put back into these waters. We strive to replenish, and we’re truly stewards of the sea,” Sunseri says. “That needs to be recognized by locals and by Americans throughout the country. That’s why we’re the number one producer of oysters in America.”

The master plan being drafted for coastal Louisiana to cope with damage created by the oil and gas industry is supposed to serve as a long-term fix for the state’s rapid coastal erosion. But parts of the plan that call for large-scale freshwater diversions and other drastic measures could have a devastating impact on the oysters his family has been harvesting since his grandfather emigrated from Croatia in 1904, Jurisich warns.

“Coastal restoration is key to each and every one of us here,” Sunseri says. “We don’t want waterfront properties in New Orleans. Each year it gets worse and worse. One of the focuses is recognizing that as we get monies in and as we develop our coastal master plan, we’ve got to recognize the oyster as being a critical part. Once you save the oyster, you’ll save the other species.”

While guests on board slurped raw oysters straight from the bay — “boat to throat” — Sunseri detailed the regulatory burdens the oyster industry has fought for more than 20 years and the safety standards the industry itself is trying to improve on.

Because oysters are harvested in warm estuary waters with naturally occurring bacteria and so many people prefer to eat them raw, Sunseri says oysters are among the most regulated foods in the world.

“People with severe immuno compromise issues should not be eating raw anything, much less oysters. We want to educate those at risk,” Sunseri says. “But we don’t want to take away the opportunity for 99.99 percent of Americans to consume oysters, to enjoy that healthy, zinc-filled, calcium, magnesium, all the right nutritional value that you would expect in a perfect food source.”

Sclafani, who serves with Sunseri on the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, says the most interesting thing he learned on the oyster tour was the importance of the Mississippi River and why his P&J oysters are coming from western Louisiana Gulf waters right now (if you have not had Ruffino’s charbroiled oysters, you don’t know what you’re missing).

“I always knew the importance of the Mississippi River to the ecosystem, but realizing that the oysters aren’t as salty because the river is up, I didn’t know how that affects the flavor depending on the time of year,” Sclafani says. “That was very interesting.”

Ruffino’s Charbroiled Oysters


2 dozen fresh Gulf oysters
16 ounces butter or margarine
1/4 cup diced tasso
3 T diced garlic
2 t shallots, diced
1 T black pepper
1 T white pepper
1 T garlic powder
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup Italian parsley, chopped

Preheat an outdoor grill to medium high heat. Make the garlic butter sauce by combining the butter or margarine, tasso, garlic, shallots, black pepper, white pepper, garlic powder and set aside.

In a small bowl mix the cheeses. Shuck the oysters and place a tablespoon of garlic butter sauce on each oyster. Place on the grill and allow to cook until the oyster plumps, about seven minutes.  Sprinkle with cheese and cook one more minute. As the oysters cook, the butter will spill onto the grill and flare up. This is what gives the oysters their smoky character. Sprinkle oysters with parsley and serve. Serves 4

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