by Allen Cox
It’s been suggested that the first person to ever eat an oyster must have been starving, while others have said that that individual was a culinary visionary. Whichever it was, this underscores what I have observed about people and oysters: You either love them, hate them or are afraid to try them. There’s no middle ground.
If there was ever a region for an oyster neophyte to be initiated into the ranks of those who appreciate these bivalve mollusks, it’s the Northwest. Washington enjoys robust oyster production, and in the right season—avoiding them in the four months without an “R” is not a myth—the Northwest oyster varieties tend to be gentle on a fearful palate.
In Washington, oyster farmers grow five species: Pacific, Kumamoto, Virginica, European Flats and Olympia. For each species, the “meroir” of a specific beach, waterway and growing method will affect the characteristics of the oyster, much like how terroir determines the characteristics of wine grapes. Think of “meroir” as a marine terroir. Oyster farmers leverage these meroir nuances to create specific oyster varieties that are unique to that oyster farm.
The best way to experience the oysters in the Northwest is to eat them at the source. Not only will you enjoy maximum freshness, but also a waterfront ambiance that somehow sets the scene for an oyster dining experience.
The restaurant at Alderbrook Resort & Spa on the shores of Hood Canal sits in the heart of Washington’s oyster country. With Chef Sara Harvey at the restaurant’s helm, oysters are front and center on the menu. Harvey’s background in some top Northwest kitchens prepared her for a slate at Hama Hama Oyster Company just down the road from Alderbrook. And the Hama Hama experience prepared her to take the position of executive chef at Alderbrook and start her own oyster farm on Hood Canal, Black Shield Oyster Co., which is in the early stages of production.
Harvey shares her insights into the sex lives of oysters and why they are less palatable in the summer months. “Oysters spawn out in the summer,” she says, explaining that that’s when they are flabby and less tasty. “It’s all winter when they’re building up their bulk—they’re trying to get ready to go dating.”
She adds a fascinating tidbit—that they start out as male and then they flip to female. So, within their lifespan, they can both fertilize eggs and produce eggs for fertilization.
In their first few days of life, “they are looking around for something to land on,” says Harvey. They like their own oyster shell, which is why farmers usually put shells back on the beach. It’s usually about a year and a half until they’re extra small, kind of that raw market-size oyster.”
Alderbrook Resort celebrates “Oyster Month” in April, the end of oyster season. And Harvey has developed sumptuous oyster dishes to satisfy even the pickiest palate. For example, she created her twist on the classic Oysters Rockefeller, which she dubbed Oysters Alderfeller, a delicious baked oyster dish containing a green sauce of Pernod, spinach, white cheddar, lemon and tarragon.
A drive from Alderbrook around the bottom of Hood Canal will take you to Hama Hama Oyster Co., a highly acclaimed multigenerational family operation. On the shoreline in front of the oyster beds is the Hama Hama Oyster Saloon, a popular spot to dine on fresh oysters, either raw or roasted, as well as other seafood and accompanying sides. Seating is outdoors under open A-frames, and the experience is quintessentially Northwest, so guests should dress for the weather. In the spring, you can even learn from professional oyster farmers how to harvest your own oysters at one of Hama Hama’s Farm Days events.
Up on Orcas Island, Washington, Buck Bay Shellfish Farm has an outdoor bistro that’s a similar experience to Hama Hama. They serve oysters grown onsite, either raw on the half-shell or breaded and fried. Oysters are not the only think on the menu—their refreshing halibut ceviche and house smoked salmon are both big winners.
Taylor Shellfish Farm on scenic Chuckanut Drive just south of Bellingham, Washington, operates their Samish Bay Farm and Shellfish Market. Stop in to purchase fresh oysters and other shellfish right from the onsite farm and take it out to their beachside picnic area where they will grill it up for you. Taylor Shellfish also operates three oyster bars in Seattle.
Drayton Harbor Oyster Co. in Blaine, Washington, has an oyster bar downtown where you can sample their oysters raw, grilled, fried or in oyster stew. Or go wild with oyster tacos.
Oysters are farmed along the Oregon Coast, too. But none of the oyster farms in Oregon offer onsite dining. However, you can stop by and purchase oysters to take home or to your campsite. One of the best small-scale growers is Umpqua Triangle Oysters in Winchester Bay on Oregon’s south coast. They have an onsite market where you can purchase their oysters, shucking implements and all the sauces and condiments your heart desires.
If you can’t go to the farm, the Northwest is full of restaurants and oyster bars that specialize in sourcing the best farm-fresh oysters. Seek out establishments that offer a variety of oysters from various farms to get a sense of the subtleties between varieties. You’ll no doubt emerge with a favorite you’ll want to enjoy again and again.
In Washington, check out the Washington Shellfish Trail at shellfishtrail.org/farms for a list of oyster growers and restaurants that specialize in oysters.