Oyster Boat Bycatch

Bigorneaux, Whelks or Oyster Drills

The oyster predator tastes a lot like escargot.

By Robb Walsh October 25, 2013

At Tommy's Restaurant and Oyster Bar in Clear Lake, oyster drills are boiled in a pressure cooker until they are tender and then sauteed in butter and garlic. Finally, they are wrapped in greens, sprinkled with parmesan and broiled in escargot dishes—then they are served with some toast on the side to sop up the garlic butter.

They are a little chewy, but they taste wonderful. Granted "oyster drills" is not a catchy menu moniker. It would probably be easier to sell them as "whelks" (their English name) or "bigorneaux" (their Cajun name).

In France, and French-speaking Louisiana, seafood in small shells like oyster drills are often served with a curved pin that is used to coax them out of their shells. That's sort of the way Underbelly chef Chris Shepherd served the first oyster drills I ever ate. Only he substituted finishing nails for the curved pins, which are awfully hard to find around here.

These drills were served at lunch on the opening day of the first Foodways Texas symposium at Texas A&M Galveston after a spirited panel discussion about utilizing Gulf bycatch. Reef chef Bryan Caswell, fishmonger PJ Stoops and others had described all the wonderful ways you could cook the stuff that most fishermen were throwing overboard.

Oyster drills have always been discarded by Texas oystermen, who hate these predators for sucking the life out of so many oysters. But Louisiana oystermen have developed a technique to gather the oyster drills--which have long been considered a delicacy over there. 

Louisiana's Living Traditions had this to say about oyster drills:

The Southern Oyster Drill (Sframonita haemostoma)

Our precious oysters, reclining in their beds as they grow to salty perfection, are in constant and mortal danger of having their life fluids sucked out by a snail. This aggressive marine predator, a menace to the oyster industry, uses acid and a rasp-like tongue to drill neat, fatal holes in oyster shells. French-speaking Louisiana oystermen call these snails bigorneaux, and they know what to do with them. Palmetto fronds are fastened onto poles, and the poles are planted in oyster beds. The bigorneaux, seeing these palmetto fronds as desirable living quarters, fasten themselves to them. Pulling these poles into their boats, oystermen collect hundreds of snails at a time. But the bigorneaux are not only removed from the oyster beds. They are carried home, boiled in seasoned water for about an hour (they are tough), pulled out of their shells with a knife or ice pick, and devoured. At the home of coastal residents, especially in Terrebonne Parish, you might also eat them marinated in vinegar, or cooked in jambalaya. But you won't find them on restaurant menus: these Louisiana marine ‘escargots’ are a local gastronomic secret. Moreover, they are part of the overall natural context that brings us fat, juicy, shucked oysters on the half-shell.

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