Think Gulf Coast flavor in an East Coast package. These “butter babies,” as Lane Zirlott, co-owner of Murder Point Oyster Company is known to call them, are turning heads in the Southeast and thanks to Bobby Matos of State of Grace restaurant, Houston has them too.
Murder Point Oyster Company, the frontrunner in a new wave of Alabama farmed oysters, have refined the image of the gulf coast oyster by the finesse in which they farm. The combination of off-bottom farming, the tumbling technique and the Gulf of Mexico’s nutrient rich waters is shaping a whole new genre of oysters.
Recently at State of Grace, I tasted Murder Points, Massacre Island and Mon Louis (all Alabama oysters) next to six different east coast oysters. I was surprised at how refined and flavorful the Alabama oysters were. Of the selection, the Murder Points were, by far, the perfect mouthful of plump creaminess and salinity.
“Oysters worth killing for,” Murder Point Oyster Company’s slogan, touches on the seriousness of rights to oyster farming locations, meanwhile in Texas, private oyster leaseholders are disputing in court against the company Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management (STORM) over who has rightful ownership of a massive tract of oyster reef in Galveston Bay.
Times have changed. Ninety years ago, a dispute over an oyster lease was cause enough to pull out your shotgun. Which is exactly what happened and why Myrtle point is now known as Murder point in Portersville Bay, Alabama. In 2012, the Zirlott family adopted the name for their new oyster venture and shortly thereafter, the Murder Point Oyster Company began changing the way people perceived gulf oysters.
While in recent generations the Zirlott family has been known for the quality of their product as shrimpers, they still hold on to the families’ original 1892 oyster lease. It wasn’t until Rosa Zirlott became interested in an aquaculture class hosted by Auburn University that the idea of harvesting oysters was back on the table.
“We knew that in order to make this work, we had to do the opposite of what everyone else in the gulf was doing; it had to look like something coming off the east coast,” Zirlott explains. “We wanted people to be surprised when they ate our oysters.” While Murder Point Oyster Company was the first to start farming gulf oysters in this way, it did not take long for others in Alabama to follow suit.
Oysters are a lot like wine, the terroir, or merroir, as it’s called for ocean space have a lot to do with how they taste. Zirlott explains, “their [Murder Point Oysters] flavor reflect our surroundings; the combination of brackish water, fresh water and salt water from the gulf all contribute to the unique taste.” He also noted that the flavor of an Alabama oyster located twenty miles to the east would taste completely different.
The unique shape and exceptional flavor of Murder Point oysters can be attributed to the Australian longline method of off-bottom farming. Zirlott raises his oysters in cages that are suspended off the muddy ocean floor and held just below and sometimes above the ocean surface. At that height they can ingest the clean gulf nutrients as well as get conditioned by the waves. The more contact oysters have with the air, the more they flex their muscle to stay closed, thus creating a plump oyster with a longer shelf life.
The Zirlotts also use the tumbling technique, which knocks the oysters against each other frequently. This rough interaction helps strengthen the oyster shell and shape it into a small, smooth, deep cup. It takes 14-16 months to grow a Murder Point Oyster. It’s possible for oysters to be made much faster, but in order for Lane Zirlott to get his Murder Points just right, it takes time and supervision.
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Murder Point Oyster Company sells the majority of their oysters throughout the southeast with plans to expand to the northeast and west coast. Matos originally sought them out a year and a half ago and with the help of Blue Horizon distributing company, now they are easy for Houston chefs to access.
Due to popular demand, Blue Horizon Distributing Company has expanded their oyster business to bring in a variety of gulf and east coast oysters. Daniel Peters, buyer for Blue Horizon, remarks on the new style of gulf oysters, Alabama in particular, “it’s amazing how popular they are.” Matos also affirms, “Guests love them because of the shape, you get all the flavors of the gulf oyster in the same size and style of the east coast oyster.”
Currently, Blue Horizon delivers fresh Murder Points to State of Grace, One Fifth: Romance Languages, Riel, Local Foods and they can occasionally be found on A’bouzy’s rotating oyster menu.