Food by VICE

This Baja Oyster Expert is Revolutionizing Oyster Farming

"Oysters are magic."

by Memo Bautista; translated by Julie Schwietert Collazo
Aug 18 2017, 6:00pm

Photo by Juan Manuel Gómez

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Mexico.

Vicente Guerrero Herrera uses a lot of similes to talk about oysters. Oysters are like swallows, because mollusks use the calcium in their environment to build their shells, just like swallows build nests from mud. Mollusks are like French fries, because they have a crunchy part and a creamy part. He's like a rancher, because just like a cattleman, he also has studs—his just live in the sea.

"We're going to dissect one so you can understand and try all of its parts and try it. The oyster will then taste different to you," the clear-voiced 64-year-old man tells me. He looks more like Mr. Miyagi than the national hero with whom he shares a name: He's no taller than 5'7", with salt-and-pepper hair and a close-clipped beard. But there are also differences between the two. The former speaks in metaphors; this native of Baja California, Mexico, uses similes. Mr. Miyagi has shy teenage students; Herrera has mollusks. He trains them in plastic baskets made for them to swing, to get sun, and to exercise in a rhythm that mimics the wind and the waves.

"We want the oyster to be raised well, to have a good character," he explains, moving his hands. "That they're muscular, with reproductive character, strong, a perfect shell, that they're not scratchy, that they're uniform, that they have a big muscle, big gonad, and a good mix of the parts that lend it a good flavor."

Vicente Guerrero Herrera illustrates the basic characteristics of a good oyster. Photo by the author.

For Herrera, oysters aren't just a product or a food. Forty-two years as an oyster farmer have proven to him that they're magic. They become anything: Wine, friends, strawberries, cucumbers. The man arrives somewhere—a meeting of producers, a meeting with other businessmen from the city of Ensenada, a culinary event—with one or two boxes of oysters, and starts to open them. In exchange, he returns home with a crate of wine, greens, or berries. "Oysters are magic," he says, smiling.

Nautilius is the name of his farm. It's located in southern Ensenada, in the Bahía Falsa of the San Quintín Valley, on the western coast of Baja California. Before 1998, his label read "Pacific Baja Oyster" so that consumers in the United States—where practically his entire market is—wouldn't confuse his oysters with those from Tabasco, Veracruz, Campeche, and the Gulf of Mexico generally. And it's in Baja California that oysters don't occur naturally.

45 years ago, scientists from the University of Baja California introduced the Japanese oyster named Crassostrea gigas Kumamoto, known as Kumamoto, for cultivation here. The method didn't affect the native species, and it launched an industry that today produces more than 3,000 tons annually, 50 percent of which is cultivated in Bahía Falsa.

Herrera raises oysters in plastic cages called Nautilinas. Photo by Juan Manuel Gómez.

For many years, Herrera worked the same way as other aquaculturists did: He acquired larvae in the United States, then placed them in tied-off clam shells, and later put them in a mesh bag to let them grow fat over the course of 14 months. But one day he felt stuck. He'd been doing the same thing for 35 years, and wanted to look beyond that, at what the world was doing. He saw what was being done in Spain, Italy, Australia, and the US, and adapted the technique to Mexico.

Instead of putting larvae into shells, he decided to leave them loose, and let nature do its part: The eggs and sperm of the oysters would fertilize on their own. Then, he'd introduce microalgae for the larvae to eat. Once the larva reached a size of 400 micras, a little bit bigger than the size of a dot drawn with a fine point pen, he'd attach them to a substrate: Wood, rock, or shell. From there, each one would build its own shell of calcium, sourced from its natural surroundings. As the shell grew, so would the mollusk. To pre-fatten it, they used a plastic cage, based on a French technique, called Nautilina. And for the fattening stage, they created another that they called Bicentina—because they designed it in 2010, the year of the bicentennial of Mexican independence—which allows greater movement on the part of the oyster and, for that reason, improves growth.

Choosing the shells for fattening. Photo by Juan Manuel Gómez.

Oyster farming is almost artisanal: Women choose the small shells that will be used for fattening. Young men haul the plastic containers, which look like pots, filled with the oysters that have just been pulled from the sea and have finished growing; other employees, with knives and gloves to protect their hands, clean the shells of algae and other external agents that are stuck to the exterior of the mollusk. Everyone is wearing white plastic aprons stained with the muck of algae, sand, and debris from the sea and water.

"That's the magic of aquaculture methods, one could say: 'I'm going to make an oyster that's 14 months, with this form, that's this size, and this weight," Herrera says. "A small oyster weighs 900 grams per dozen; a medium one is between 200-300 kilos a dozen. We can establish the parameters. The mesh bags define the form, the growth, and the thickness of the shell."

Almost all of Herrera's production is exported to the United States. Only a couple spots in the area of Guadalupe carry his oysters, because they have an exchange with the local Barón Balche and Decantos wineries. Or you can eat them at his farm, which offers guided tours.

Young men collect plastic containers with recently harvested oysters. Photo by Juan Manuel Gómez.

Before we start dissecting the oyster, Herrera prepares a tray with a variety of oysters presented with different dressings: One is slightly cooked and you're supposed to add lemon; another with a little butter; one more with cheese and vinaigrette; and the last one with salsas. "Oysters aren't capsules," he offers as a bit of advice to the person who asks if they should just swallow it without chewing. "We're going to chew and we're going to see," he says.

The oyster eating class begins. "There's the muscle, there's the gonad, there's the mantle, and there's the fat. Very little lemon." But nobody distinguishes anything. The inexpert eye only sees the white, gelatinous meat in its shell.

The oyster-eating class begins. Photo by the author.

Herrera instructs us in the art of eating oysters. The first directive is to add just a little lemon to prevent the taste buds from seizing up. "If you add a lot of acid, all of the background flavors pass you by. If the oyster is very cold, like 41°F, we'll feel freshness and nothing beyond that. It's like wine: If it's too cold, it has no flavor because your tastebuds are put to sleep and you can't feel anything. We grab the oyster with a fork, we start to chew it, and then we drink whatever juice is left in the shell when the meat is already chewed."

It's like being at a wine tasting. The texture of the mollusk is firm, with a flavor that oscillates between salty, creamy, and the taste of the sea. It's not necessary to add any dressing. It's very likely that I've eaten a female oyster, because the males are sweeter. "Salt is the most prominent flavor oysters have," he clarifies.

Photo by the author.

Between one oyster and the next, a question comes up regarding the mythology surrounding shellfish: Are they aphrodisiacs? Herrera's answer is full of logic and analogy: "How do we humans reproduce? We respond to temperature, as is natural. Summer comes and we groom ourselves and everything else. These are signs that we want to mate. That's why they say 'he walks like a burro in spring.' Later, there's the show: I approach and try to be with her. All of this is hormonal. Oysters do exactly the same thing. We eat the hormone of the oyster, that which penetrates the other and initiates fertilization."

Herrera takes me to the kitchen in his tasting room. He takes one of the oysters and hits it with the handle of a small knife designed to open shells. The sound is clean, bright. "The shell is firm, like porcelain," he notes. "A fresh oyster puts up a fight. We grab it, it doesn't give at all. If we turn it and it starts to drop, the muscle is no longer strong," he explains, using the tip of the knife to make his point.

An important lesson: A fresh oyster should put up a fight. Photo by Juan Manuel Gómez.

First, he shows us the shells, then the hinge, where the shells join. This is the back of the animal. "The softest part of the oyster is in the front, where it grows. If we're going to open it, we just penetrate the first shell, turn it, and then look for the muscle. If we separate the muscle, it's already opened," he explains while illustrating this with the knife. The knife functions like a handle. The shell opens and reveals the gift contained inside: Meat and water. "We throw out this sip of water because it's seawater, it's salty. Sometimes, people who don't have an understanding of salinity say that you shouldn't throw out this juice. That's wrong. If we eat six oysters and we keep that water, it does a number on our stomach. We start to feel a gurgle in the stomach and then we say, 'Ay, those oysters aren't sitting well with me.' But that's not right. It's the salt. That's why it's important to get rid of it."

Herrera separates the shell. The oyster appears complete and he points out its parts: The mantle, the muscle, the gonad, and the fat. He separates the muscle from the shell and the oyster is released, complete. With the help of two knives, like an expert oyster surgeon, the Mexican Miyagi begins to make quick cuts. He separates the muscle from the mantle. Then, from the gonad, which looks like a little sac, he removes a black bit: The fat. "When we don't know what that dark color is, we feel uncertain. We see this a lot in clams," he explains.

Dissecting oysters. Photo by the author.

He offers me a firm piece with the point of the knife. It's the muscle. I try it. It tastes like salt, like the smell of the sea. The texture reminds me of scallops.

He offers me another piece of the animal. "Now, try the other part, the mantle, the crunchy part. "I chew and taste a fresh flavor, of ocean. A few moments later, the taste of algae is what's left behind. "The fat part is the richest," he says enthusiastically. But the one I'm eating has almost no fat because it's skinny. There's just a little black bit. Its texture is buttery. It has a light taste of salt and algae. It's difficult to describe but it takes me to the sea, to that moment when one stands at the water's edge and breathes in. Yes, that's what it tastes like, the sea breeze. "Now, the gonad," the oyster farmer tells me. The structure as it touches my tongue reminds me of a cooked mushroom. Its flavor is different. It tastes fresher, like a light bit of algae.

It tastes of salt, the flavor of the sea. Photo by the author.

The man opens another oyster. He doesn't want me to lose sight of the sensations that my palate has just discovered. He asks me to eat the whole mollusk. I chew, try to dissect it in my mouth, try to identify the textures with my tongue. My head is spinning. The taste of salt, then algae, and then, finally, the taste of butter. Then, everything together. It's like trying wine. The oyster tells its story in every bite.

Oysters are the best pretext for visiting Bahía Falsa in San Quintín. Photo by the author.

I've never found oysters like that again. I've become fussy about oysters. The ones that can be found in Mexico City don't have that fresh flavor of the sea; that's why you have to cover them with a salsa or some other dressing. Vicente Guerrero Herrera, the Mr. Miyagi of Baja California, messed with a bit of my life in the capital. It doesn't make sense to eat oysters here. They'll never have the same flavor. Oysters will always be a good reason to return to the Bahía Falsa de San Quintín.


Follow Memo Bautista on Twitter or on Chronicles of Asphalt. You can also follow Juan Manuel Gómez on Twitter.