Sunday, January 19, 2014

Washington Oyster Weekend

I was recently in Seattle and Shelton, Washington for the West Coast Oyster Festival.  And by recently, I mean October.  New job, new apartment, apologies for not posting more frequently.  I'd read and heard that Washington is the Mecca for oyster lovers, but I had no idea to such a degree.  Sorry Boston, New York, Virginia, and San Francisco, but the first thing I noticed is that Seattle takes their oysters seriously, very seriously.  It was not only the oyster's ubiquity throughout the city and comprehensive, detailed menus at each locale, but also the conversations that I had with shuckers, diners, and servers.  Everyone I spoke with either at Elliot's Oyster House, The Walrus and The Carpenter, or at the Shelton Oyster Festival really knew their oysters.  People discussed everything from the differing flavors of Hood Canal oysters depending on how they're grown to varying copper notes of Olympias from Hammersley Inlet versus Totten Inlet.  Admittedly, I was surrounding myself with the oyster-junkie crowd, but there most certainly was a tangible oyster culture in Washington that I've found nowhere else.

I believe there are a several strong reasons for this.  First, Washington has arguably one of the most abundant oyster grounds in the world today.  Puget Sound alone is oyster heaven, not to mention the north-neighboring Hood Canal.

Puget Sound is a massive open hand of sprawling inlets and brackish, marshy waters providing some of the most nutrient rich oyster grounds in the world.  Totten, Hammersley, Eld, Harstine, Skookum, Case.  All are most likely familiar names to raw bar enthusiasts, and all eponymous oysters to their respective Southern Puget Sound areas.  Oysters from these areas certainly have a common trait in earthy, mushroom, almost musky flavor.  They are also the fattest and plumpest you'll find. 

Hood Canal, on the other hand is a deep, brackish water glacial fjord influenced by fresh, oxygenated water from the Olympic Mountains.  Oysters love to be beach cultured in this area, and examples such as Hama Hama and Dabob Bay are noticeably brinier, firmer, and more vegetal flavored.

Map of Taylor Shellfish's Operations in the Pacific Northwest.  Puget Sound at the Bottom
I was talking with the GM of Taylor Shellfish at Melrose Market and he spoke of oyster spawn being so rich in Totten Inlet that you could stick a ruler in the water, let it sit for 10 seconds, remove it and it would be absolutely covered in oyster spat.  Let's put it this way: according to Robb Walsh's Sex, Death, & Oysters, Washington produces the second most oysters in the country at 9.3 million pounds.  It is only beaten by Louisiana at 13 million pounds.  California produces a meager 1 million and New York a miniscule 0.5 million pounds.  And yes, this includes shucked meats and un-shucked oysters, before those of you who I know will beg to argue the statistics' validity and representative accuracy.

Not only is the production in the area massive, but the variety of oysters to be had is unprecedented.  Each inlet, bay and bend has a unique flavor to it.  Phytoplankton and algae in Totten Inlet can vary greatly compared to Eld Inlet or any other micro-ecosystem.  Hood Canal oysters from the mouth of the Hamma Hamma River versus the mouth of the Dosewallips River can taste completely different.  A true Washington flight of oysters is something to behold in how many different varieties are cultivated within one state.  Any area producing that many oysters and with such diversity has to have a respectable oyster culture surrounding it.  Any thing less would be a disservice to the hardworking farmers.

Floating Tanks of Oysters at Taylor Shellfish at Melrose Market

Second, much of the West Coast history of oysters is Washington based.  I know I've spoken of the abundant native Olympias that were all over San Francisco Bay, but they were quickly over-fished in a matter of decades.  So, when the local San Franciscan oysters were exhausted, where do you think the 49ers got their oyster fix?  By shipping them down from Willapa Bay, Washington of course.  The frenetic oyster fiends of the West Coast were well supplied by native Willapa Bay Olympias into the early 20th century.  When the Olympias were wiped out, they started carting in East coast virginicas.  They held, for a while, but didn't thrive well enough and soon died off.  West Coast oystering was basically shucked, until two Japanese business men more-or-less accidentally brought in Pacific oyster seed (c. gigas) in 1919.  They dumped useless and valueless dead oysters into Samish Bay, but the oyster larvae on them were still alive:  they took and spawned like crazy.  What nowadays is 90% of West Coast oysters or more all started from this Samish Bay dump.  The modern day Pacific oyster that we all know and love by various names first set its Japanese "foot" (brilliant oyster anatomy joke) on the Continental U.S. in Washington waters.

Finally, Washington has some of the most innovative and creative oyster growers in the world.  As the native species of oyster died off so quickly, the West Coast has been open grounds for growing all sorts of foreign oysters.  While the East Coast can basically only grow the native Atlantic Oyster (c. virginica), the West Coast is open ground to oyster diversification. Virginicas, Pacifics, Kumamotos, European Flats.  Even Australian and New Zealand oysters were tried as the new saviors for this crumbling West Coast oyster industry.  Ideologically, the native oyster species would still be the standard.  But as that has not ecologically or economically been possible, the West Coast is a veritable laboratory for all sorts of oyster experiments.

This means styles of oyster farming as well.  Beach grown has always been Washington's style.  Matter of fact, there are still enough wild oysters growing on beaches in Hood Canal and Puget Sound that people can go out and recreationally harvest.  Living in a city as I do, can you imagine a licensed but basically free oyster and clam dinner only a 20 minute drive away?

Anyway, the farming methods in the state are always inventively growing as well.  Seeding, growing, and finishing oysters in different waters for that perfect flavor, size, and texture is very common.  It's much like viticulture up there.  Tide-tumbling of oysters, also, partly lays its claim in Washington.  Keith Reid was the first to physically pull and tumble oysters to manicure them in British Columbia.  But the origin of using the tides to do the work is a bit of a debate.  I've heard some say Australians developed it in the late 90's.  I've also heard Chelsea Farms in Washington discovered it by accident.  Whatever the origin of tide-tumbling oysters is, it certainly is one of the best things ever to happen to bivalve aquaculture.  It creates a deep-cupped, juicy, plump oyster by being thrashed around in a bag by tidal changes.  This chips off excess and brittle oyster growth, toughens the shell, and even forces the oyster to build up stronger glycogen reserves.  Shigoku, Chelsea Gem, Kodomo, Church Point, Blue Pool, Sea Cow.  The list of tide-tumbled oysters coming from Washington is certainly one of the largest, and they're all signatures of Washington growers who take their trade seriously.

Beautifully tide-tumbled and well-cupped Blue Pool oyster on my visit to Hama Hama.   "But don't say my car's topless...say the" (any Nas fans out there)?

In the end, geologically, historically, experimentally, and culturally, Washington has all things oyster going for it.

So, how did all this oyster antiquity and bivalve abundance manifest itself over my brief three day stint in Washington?  It started with eating.  And, well, was pretty much just eating...and drinking, of course.  Elliot's was my first stop.  As a West Coast oyster institution, Elliot's has a borderline obnoxious selection of 20-some oysters.  The selection was primarily Puget Sound and Hood Canal, with a few British Columbias mixed in.  The best thing was that they had Olympias from Lopez Island.  Olympias are cultured few and far between.  The only ones that I've eaten have been from Hammersley Inlet or Totten Inlet.  The Lopez Island olys were noticeably brinier and crisper as they were grown closer to the open ocean.  Super iron and copper flavored as olys always are, but a fresh sautéed greens minerality rather than a musky old penny copper.  Best Olympias I've ever had.

Displayed selection at Elliot's Oyster House
Oyster stop two was The Walrus & The Carpenter.  It's a popular destination restaurant just north of Seattle in Ballard.  Right at the base of Hipster Street, WA, The Walrus and The Carpenter is a retro Parisian-American raw bar with contemporary takes on cuisine.  The decor reflects this sentiment completely.  Old cookbook covered shelves, wrought iron baskets, and a giant antler chandelier. The food is something else.  Walnut pesto sardines, sautéed tripe, house-smoked trout salad, and shots of Fernet (they knew we were from San Francisco).  However, the best bite was the fried oysters.

Fried Hama Hama oysters at The Walrus and The Carpenter
O' my good god were they delicious.  Crispy, well seasoned cornmeal breading leading into a juicy, salty, ocean oyster bite.  They were incredibly meaty too, like oyster tenders.  All this heat, salt, and flavor was perfectly complimented by a refreshing cilantro aioli.  I'd make the trip back to Seattle for these guys alone.

My final stop was the West Coast Oyster Festival in Shelton, about a two hour drive southwest of Seattle.  It's an annual oyster party in which all proceeds go to charity.  Wine tasting, bouncy castles, beer gardens, funnel cake,  and all sorts of oyster preparations abound.  The focus of the festival, however, is the oyster shucking competition.



Contestants are divided into six different heats with six competitors in each round.  They're given 24 oysters to open as quickly as they can, but also as cleanly as they can.  Judges then review the shuckers' oysters and penalize based on mistakes.  +3 seconds for a stabbed belly, +1 second for excess shell, +1 second for a ripped mantle and so on.  The final time is then calculated and the top 6 best times compete in the final.

I competed, of course, though I don't believe you can actually call my participation "competing."  Some of these guys were real pros who work in shuck houses, getting paid based on the final weight of all the oysters they shuck.  Speed, to say the least, is their goal.  The Léon Brothers of Goose Point Oysters based out of Willapa Bay were most notably oyster shucking beasts.  Many of them had won previous years competitions and were clearly local legends.  I'm certainly not a slow oyster shucker, but these guys crushed me.  My final time before penalties was 3:40, and after the judging was completed I was up to 4:37.  Bad, but not horribly embarrassing.  The winner of the contest posted a final time, after penalties, of 2:59.  That's some serious shucking.  I did shuck early enough in the competition to make it, briefly mind you, on the leader board.


Look at my shit-eating grin.  I'm happier than a kid on Christmas morning.  The beer garden helped a bit.  I considered it a victory to just have made it on the board.

All in all it was an amazing weekend.  If you're really looking for the full oyster experience, Seattle and its surrounding oystering areas have to be on your bucket list.  I plan on returning for the Shelton Oysterfest and competition again this fall.  Ten months of oyster training here I come.

Cheers,
The SF Oysternerd 


3 comments:

  1. Did you just slip in a Nas reference to an Oyster Posting? Well done!

    Had no idea of this Japanese heritage of our west coast oysters. Nice insight into the many oysters that I slurp down with little knowledge of their geographical/environmental contributions to flavor, texture and 'plumpness'.

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  2. Enjoyed reading a bunch of your blog posts (especially the oyster related posts). I thought you would enjoy some of the oyster videos I've created on similar topics. www.WillapaBayDocs.com

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  3. Great article, Greg!! You have such well written posts... makes my mouth water! And wishing I was living back in Seattle again so I could have ready access to all those oysters. Keep on shucking and writing!

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