They pack enough intrigue to kick off a four-star dinner, yet are so low-key you can pick one up directly off the beach and eat it next to a campfire. But when becoming acquainted with the ridiculous riches handed down to us by ecology and dedication and sheer dumb luck, it seems sensible to start with the one you’ll find all over town.
Since 1987, Daniels has worked for Farinelli Shellfish; now he heads the Seattle office, distributing roughly 25 oyster varieties from around the Northwest. Oyster farmers arrive twice a week to deposit the harvest collected by headlamp light during last night’s low tide.
“Pacific's all finish with that cucumber-melon flavor,” Daniels explains as he rummages through mesh sacks of oysters stacked along the walls of a giant walk-in cooler. By comparison, he offers a Flapjack Point, its meat cloaked in milky white fat after months spent gorging on all the algae in the brackish salt waters of southern Puget Sound.
Maybe it’s the appellation inspiring thoughts of breakfast, but this oyster suggests eating bacon by the sea: a burst of salt giving way to sweetness; a combo that lingers on the palate, thanks to all that fat. The first Pacific's arrived in April 1919 on the deck of a steam ship bound from Yokohama, Japan, and destined for a pair of Japanese-born oyster farmers, Joe Miami and J. My Sumoto.
A census taker might lump them together, but anyone who’s familiar knows the freshwater-blockading eddy on Wolf Beach makes oysters more salty, and cosseted Barron Points have good salt but give way to massive sweetness. Stream lurid In the early 1850s, the ambitious headed to California in search of gold, but the truly entrepreneurial soon sailed north, where the coppery flavor of Washington’s only native oyster proved a more likely path to riches.
We weren’t even our own territory yet, but we did have bays full of tiny bivalves, and the Golden State had a swelling population of newly well-to-do gold hunters willing to pay big money to eat them. After a diet of bread and beans and salt pork in the gold fields, successful prospectors wanted to throw around their newfound wealth.
But these oysters packed a big flavor, a clanging metallic taste like licking a spoon you found at high tide. Jon Rowley grew up in Astoria, on the knuckle of Oregon coastline just 30 minutes down Highway 101 from where the first oyster-seeking schooners nosed into the Willa pa Bay, in 1851.
In the early ’80s, “I started asking around, and nobody ever remembered there being any Olympias sold on half shells in the city,” Rowley recalled one day over a platter of oysters. By the 1950s, overzealous harvesting, the arrival of Pacific's, and pulp mill pollution in the south sound had stripped Washington of its very own native oyster.
He was consulting for the seafood restaurant Ray’s back then, and figured his client would be psyched to reintroduce Washington’s long-lost oyster to diners just now coming around to the idea of eating them fresh and raw and on the half shell. Rowley made queries, then headed to the southern fingertips of Puget Sound where he knocked on doors in likely places.
Back in the 1800s, during the California feeding frenzy, harvesters figured out they could grow way more of them if they built dykes along beaches, keeping their coppery charges constantly protected in about six inches of water. When Washington became a proper state in 1889, our newly minted legislature set about legalizing private ownership of tidelands.
You could argue that ownership was why Rowley’s newfound oyster acquaintances still cared enough to quietly preserve them, even though the big money was in those fast-growing Pacific's. The taste of an Olympia may never be a crowd-pleaser, but today we experience its coppery twang by the grace of farmers who view their tidal beds as a source of revenue, yes, but also identity.
Crassostrea same In a 1976 restaurant review in The Seattle Times, writer ALF Collins chronicled his experience at a waterfront fish house in Tacoma. This elegant little mollusk came into its own when people started viewing oysters as a gourmet experience rather than a commodity food summoned from the pantry as needed for soups, stews, or an appointment with some reusable shells that would later get run through the dishwasher.
But most of Washington’s oyster-harvesting history involved waterside shucking houses where workers use small hammers to bash apart bananalike clusters of oysters. Brady Blake, a shellfish biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, first remembers the Yamamoto resurfacing as a sort of novelty item at conferences in the late 1980s.
It’s still difficult for smaller local farmers to get their hands on Yamamoto seed, but Jeff Daniels of Farinelli Shellfish, the man so attuned to the nuances of Pacific oysters, thinks a completely different culinary landscape isn’t far in the future. After ocean acidification strafed the region’s oyster seed supplies five years ago, the state encouraged farmers to start their own small hatcheries.
“Someday when lots of people are growing Yamamoto,” Daniels predicts, “maybe we’ll see Sumo menus like we do Pacific's. But a defining moment happened in 2008, in the world’s most nondescript beige banquet room at the Weston in Providence, Rhode Island.
They dwarf a typical West Coast oyster, with big salt and that slight but telltale crunch when you bite into the meat. Brothers Bill and Paul Taylor had flown in from Washington state with a cooler full of their Virginia, grown along the thickly pined shores of the Gotten Inlet, in the southern reaches of Puget Sound.
A few decades later, Paul and Bill’s father Justin, a taciturn navy veteran with a high school education and an endlessly curious mind, revived the business. Its size means Taylor Shellfish exerts all manner of influence over Washington’s oyster industry.
The family sells oyster seed, Pacific mostly, to smaller farms, and invests a lot of resources into figuring out how to best cope with the ocean’s rising acid levels. Those Virginia, tasted by a 10-judge panel at that Rhode Island invitational with the aid of lemon wedges and hot sauce and certainly bottles of beer, earned the prize for best flavor and placed second overall.
Stream adults Nick Jones farms oysters on Lopez Island and shares an email address with his wife, Sara, whom he refers to fondly as “mother.” So one could be forgiven for stepping off the ferry at the island’s tiny station and foolishly assuming there would be a sage, weather-beaten sort waiting there, maybe bearded…probably in his 60s. Instead, it’s a tall 38-year-old rolling up in his black pickup, tan with both a light dusting of freckles and wire-rimmed spectacles perched on a rather delicate nose.
Swap out his beat-up red buffalo check shirt and wading boots for a cape, and he could be a willowy Hogwarts extra in a Harry Potter film. Nick Jones may not be sage or weather beaten on the outside, but he packs as much knowledge of his trade as a guy who’s been doing it decades longer.
He can quote Jack London and state shellfish testing regulations with equal ease and is prone to spouting bits of off-the-cuff wisdom like Oysters are like children; you put them side by side and their performance will be wildly variable.” His Jones Family Farms raises cattle and produce and harvests shellfish on the island. As the name implies, European Flat oysters are native to countries like England and France, where they’re also called Belong.
It sits now at the edge of a little lagoon, a shantytown Nick Jones fondly refers to as “our lowbrow fertility clinic.” There’s a structure resembling a wooden outhouse growing five types of algae (hey, oysters need balanced diets just like people).
Last year’s crop, piles of flat little moons, are submerged in the man-made lagoon just outside the hatchery in rows of brown plastic trays. “They like a murky backwater with a good exchange,” he explains, boots crunching across the lagoon bottom strewn with pebbles and bits of oyster shell.
Map updates are paused. One I need to find a place that sells fresh oysters and always has them in stock a certain day of the week in the Tacoma area.
Cooke's Cove Macaques (Prince Edward Island, Canada) Why they’re delicious: These tong-harvested oysters are grown in a protected inlet on the northern end of PEI. You’ll get a good wallop of sea-salt brine up front, followed by a sweet, crisp bite of meat.
East Beach Blondes (Minaret Pond, Charlestown, Rhode Island) Why they’re delicious: Besides the killer name, these cultivated beauties are wrapped in a shimmery, colorful shell due to a bit of tumbling in the surf; they’re finished in cages in deep waters. Rappahannock River Oysters (Topping, Virginia) Why they’re delicious: Cousins Ryan and Travis Crouton are on a mission to revitalize their home turf, the Chesapeake Bay.
Yamamoto (Willa pa Bay, Washington) Why they’re delicious: These tiny treasure troves often have thick, fluted shells that hide flavor-bombs of meat. Originally a Japanese cultured oyster, they now thrive in the Northwest, specifically this little bay facing the Pacific.
The sweet, meaty bites have a faint brininess but only grow to about two inches -- a rarity in Gulf bivalves, which usually come as big as a hand. Pepper Groves are pretty with their notched, mottled shells and get high marks for the mouthful of saltwater goodness you get followed by vegetal notes in the firm, toothsome meat.
These Pacific oysters are petite and easy to take back -- you’ll want a dozen all to yourself since there’s an addictive cucumber-melon-y-bready-green tea thing going on in each bite. Now landlocked, she constantly craves the ocean and gets her fix by traveling the country in search of briny bivalves.