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Peat & Pearls, Nov. 5-6, will feature chefs, farmers from across Gulf the Coast, and will benefit oyster reef restoration efforts

Life is hard for Gulf Coast oysters and those whose livelihoods depend on them. Over the last decade, storms, droughts and oil spills have ravaged wild reefs and devastated the livelihoods of many of the region’s traditional oystermen.

But, even as wild harvests have plummeted, new aquaculture techniques have been raising hopes for an oyster renaissance, and a mighty tasty one at that. A new breed of oysterman is preserving the working waterfronts of the Gulf Coast, restoring coastal environments and reviving regional varieties of shellfish that, in many cases, haven’t been seen in decades.

Now, the organizers of a new Pensacola, Florida, event hope to highlight this trend and, in the process, raise money to help restore wild oyster reefs.

“We’re bringing in oyster farmers from across the Gulf Coast, pairing them with chefs from throughout the Southeast and hosting a good ol’ fashioned oyster cook-off,” event organizer Terry Strickland said Wednesday.

Peat & Pearls, as the event is known, will take place Nov. 5-6, during the annual Foo Foo Fest. Early bird tickets are on sale now and range from $75 to $185.

“We’re capping ticket sales at 350,” Strickland said, ”so we encourage people to buy tickets now, before they sell out.”

The main event will be held from 3-7 p.m. on Nov. 5, at the Barkley House, a 19th-century estate located on the waterfront in downtown Pensacola. In addition to oysters, guests will enjoy a cigar garden, Scotch tastings, signature cocktails by Old Hickory Whiskey Bar, educational programming by Glenfiddich , live music, chef’s demonstrations and, on Nov. 6, a VIP dinner with Chef James Briscione, from New York.

Briscione is a Pensacola native, two-time “Chopped” champ and host of “Man Crafted,” on the Food Network . As Director of Culinary Development for the Institute of Culinary Education, in NYC, he’s been at the forefront of innovation in the food world. Strickland said organizers hoped Peat & Pearls would encourage Gulf Coast residents to engage more deeply with their food.

“People around here are used to 25-cent oyster night,” he said. “You don’t often find folks talking about where their oysters came from. We want to change that and encourage people to treat oysters the same way they would a fine wine or Scotch.” For oyster connoisseurs, provenance definitely matters. An oyster raised in Apalachicola tastes distinctly different from one raised in, say, Pensacola Bay, where entrepreneur Don McMahon last year started a popular off-bottom oyster farm.

“The community’s response to Pensacola Bay Oyster Co. has been tremendous,” Strickland said. “But what’s happening here is just one sliver of a much larger story that’s playing out across the South. We want to build on that momentum.”

Organizers expect about a dozen chefs and farmers, from across the region. Besides showing guests a good time, they hope to raise money to help restore wild oyster reefs in the area.

“Ticket sales for this year’s event will benefit the oyster shell recycling program run by Keep Pensacola Beautiful,” Strickland said. “Their volunteers will be on site during the event, collecting all our spent shells and using them to help restore wild reefs.”

Recycling oyster shells is always important, Strickland said, but it’s vital right now. Soon, restoration funding from the BP oil spill will start flowing into the area, and millions have been set aside to restore wild reefs.

“Without a steady supply of oyster shells, those efforts could be delayed,” Strickland said. By helping shore up restoration efforts, event organizers hope to bring the event full circle.

“Oysters are absolutely delicious,” Strickland said, “but satisfying our hunger is the smallest of the many important functions they serve. They clean our water, they create habitat. They sequester nitrogen and carbon. But, for all their strengths, oysters don’t have a backbone. We’ve got to have one of those for them.”

For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit www.peatandpearls.com . ### About Peat & Pearls Peat & Pearls is a two-day celebration of Scotch and regional, farm-raised oysters held each year in the colonial-era seaport of Pensacola, Florida. Ticket sales benefit area oyster reef restoration efforts. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit www.peatandpearls.com.

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