"We had a vastly more sophisticated oyster culture 100 years ago than we do now," said Robb Walsh over a plate of six Gulf oysters yesterday afternoon. Walsh was speaking on a panel of winemakers on pairing white wines with oysters, but the lost history of Texas oysters was proving far more fascinating.
Much as grass-finished beef has a different flavor to it, so do oysters that are grown in one reef and moved to another to be "finished." It's a method that French oystermen have employed for ages, and one that Texas oystermen once did a century ago.
Those same Texas oystermen also knew which reefs, bays and estuaries were best for brinier oysters, fatter oysters or creamier oysters. At the turn of the last century, Walsh said, the Galveston Daily News was in the habit of publishing 3,000-word articles on the differences between Pepper Grove oysters and Resignation Reef oysters.
And you thought food-wanking was a recent phenomenon.
It was far from food wankery, however, to appreciate local and seasonal foods 100 years ago; it was simply normal. That appreciation -- and our oyster industry -- was changed forever when commercially minded Texas oystermen realized that they could ship their giant Gulf oysters all over the country to places like Maryland shucking houses where our fat, sweet oysters replaced the smaller, brinier oysters from more northern waters.
The result today, said Walsh, is that "three-quarters of Texas oysters are exported." People don't pay much for them, because there's nothing that special about a standard Gulf oyster. Except that there is.
"These are some of the last wild oysters in the world," said Walsh. While most oysters in other regions are farmed, ours still come straight from the same reefs they always have. "Pepper Grove oysters were prized during the Civil War," Walsh said. And they're beginning to be once more, as more diners rediscover the pleasures of eating local foods and more oyster fans discover the "merroir" that comes from our own waters.
A typical Malpeque oyster takes five years to reach a length of three inches due to the chilly waters off Prince Edward Island. An oyster from Apalachicola Bay -- in warm waters off the Gulf coast of Florida, where 90 percent of the state's oysters are harvested -- takes only 18 months. The result is an oyster that's large enough to eat but is still young and tender. The Malpeque is briny and chewy; the Apalachicola is buttery and soft.
It's the same in Texas waters, where oysters grow to the legal limit -- three inches -- in an equally short time. And depending on their reef, the oysters look and taste quite different from each other: Those from Trinity Bay, where there is a steady supply of nutrient-rich fresh water from the Trinity River, are sweet and fat with far less brine.
Those from Pepper Grove, however, are salty and slightly chewy due to the reef's location close to saltwater inflow from the Gulf of Mexico. Their shells are ruffled and delicate, the ripples mirroring the strong tides that washed over them as they grew.
Tasting -- and seeing -- those differences has led to a minor revolution as Texas oysters are regaining their former appellations. Oystermen can sell Pepper Grove or Ladies' Pass oysters for twice as much money, bringing much-needed cash to a strapped industry, and diners can once again appreciate the bounty in their own backyards.
Restaurants like The Oceanaire -- where the panel was held -- and Goode Co. Seafood have been serving Texas appellation oysters for two seasons now, and Walsh said that "customers are overwhelmingly going for the named oysters" where available.
That doesn't surprise Walsh, who noted in his new book Texas Eats that man's defense of and pride in his native foods is present in all of humanity and has been for years, because that food comes from their land and their hard work. Even in the north and south estuaries of the Thames River, its oystermen have fought for decades in a fierce rivalry over whose oysters are better.
Simply put, Walsh said: "Oysters are the most provincial food there is," because there's so much pride at stake.
And if there's something that Texans are particularly good at, it's pride -- even if we have to pay twice as much for our oysters.