French Hermit Oyster Company
By Melissa Corbin | Photography courtesy of Coastal Mississippi
Couple finds love — and a new business that inspires and employs others — with a unique oyster harvest in Coastal Mississippi.
Once upon a time on Coastal Mississippi’s Deer Island lived a reclusive Frenchman named Jean Guilhot, or “The Hermit of Deer Island” as most called him. The emigré literally sang French songs for his supper as he paddled toward tourists aboard the Sailfish delivering his weekly supply of oysters. Certain legends evolved from his life, the most savory being the French Hermit Oyster Company founded by Mike and Anita Arguilles in 2019.
When the Arguilleses first met in the early ‘90s, their passion sprang from the very deep cups and flat tops that now make their living.
Back in the day, Mike enjoyed a hobby of tonging (using a large specialized tool to harvest wild oysters) off the coast of his hometown of Biloxi, Mississippi. He hauled his catch up to Memphis, and served his wild harvests off the back of his truck, often educating naysayers about the oysters he presented.
“Everyone wanted shrimp back then. I’m from Memphis, and didn’t really know much about them,” Anita says of Mike’s oysters, remembering she always took the smallest off his tray out of politeness.
The couple married in 1996.
Employed by the University of Southern Mississippi at the Marine Education Center, Anita is no stranger to aquaculture. The couple also owns a marine contracting business which developed the infrastructure for a Deer Island oyster farm commissioned by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (MDMR) which offers oyster farming classes.
So, when Mike brought home the perfect oyster measuring 2 3/4-inches x 1-inch she remembers thinking, “This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten fresh. This is a business, not a hobby.”
The Arguilleses took the MDMR class and were among the first to graduate, but more importantly, the first to actually begin farming oysters for profit.
Now in its third season, French Hermit has found a groove as smooth as the very oysters this Coastal Mississippi farm produces. On a recent trip to the Deer Island farm with Biloxi still within sight, Mike pointed to floating cages in approximately six feet of water, a depth optimal for the essential sunlight the oyster’s diet of phytoplankton requires to grow.
“They need to stay close to the surface to yield a large crop,” he says.
Combing over the thousands of weekly mature oysters, he pulls one from what looks like a giant lapidary.
“We get them as seed 30,000 per 5 quarts pale,” he says. “We sort them in the tumbler and harvest the market-sized ones.”
French Hermit oysters aren’t those rough, huge mounds of aphrodisiacs one typically might associate with mollusks. Free of foulings, these liberated gems can be found instead perched atop beds of artisan salts, or served in their own delicate juices as the crown jewel of a seafood tower in some of the finest restaurants imagined.
To achieve balanced salinity with mild flavor profiles, Mike says that 20-24 parts per thousand (ppt) is the sweet spot, whereas 35 ppt is full salinity, which is way too salty to consume. Meat-to-shell ratio is also a benchmark. He points to a freshly harvested, mature oyster from the Mississippi Sound whose meat spills almost to the edge of its shell.
“That’s what you want,” he says as he shucks his oysters with a pointed knife. Sticking the knife into the shell’s bill while balancing it on a flat surface, he cuts the eye — the muscle attached to both parts of the shell — loose once inside, pops it open, and serves it fresh in the deep cupped bottom shell.
While visitors may opt for a seat at a table, Mike suggests while on the boat to lean over, kissing the top of the oysters meat while sucking it up for good measure, thus saving your shirt from its otherwise likely demise.
Back on land, French Hermit Oyster Company’s growth comes with discernment.
“We’re in new waters so to speak,” Anita says.
The couple currently has seven farmers in their collective and expects more graduates from the 2021 class to come aboard for next season. The farmers buy their own seed and business, but all sell under the same process.
“Chefs love this, because of the consistency,” she says. “We’re selling thousands of oysters per week, so they have a consistent supply with multiple farmers. We have fun with the chefs, the farmers, and most importantly, with one another.”
Still within the grips of hurricane season, Anita says the farmers of French Hermit remain in a cone of uncertainty.
“The wind causes a surge damaging the cages,” she says. “The ropes break and the cages float away. You’ve lost your investment when that happens. So, you have to sink your cages during the hurricane. You only have about 24 hours to make that call to sink them. Once the storm is over, there are still days that the water is rough before hooking up the cages and pulling them back up. It’s a lot of labor, which affects the cost.”
The Arguilleses call French Hermit Oyster Company a “happy accident” but their oysters may now be found in choice restaurants throughout the Southeast, mostly in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee. Their Facebook page updates sales locations featuring the boutique oysters weekly.
Mark your calendars for Oct. 23 when French Hermit partners with Biloxi Shrimp Tours for a special reenactment. The Sailfish’s Captain Mike Moore, who is also a French Hermit farmer, joins Mike in singing some of Guilhot’s folk songs as they paddle out to meet tourists and regale them of the legendary “Deer Island Hermit.”