A good oyster is like a glass of fine wine. They get their flavor from the soil. There are many types, with real differences, just as in wines, but it’s subtle – and an acquired taste. One only has to look at the popularity of oyster bars – Zagat Restaurant Survey of New York lists over 50 raw oyster bars. Much like wine, an oyster’s taste is greatly influenced by the region in which it is grown, the coldness and salinity of the water, whether the shellfish is harvested from intertidal beach areas, or in suspended Japanese lantern style nets. The water influences the oyster’s size and ultimately, its taste.
If an oyster grows intertidally, the shells tend to get much heavier/thicker, and the oyster ends up tasting a little stronger. On the other hand, if the oyster is raised in a suspended culture system, the shell tends to be thinner, and the meat-to-shell ratio higher. The meat is plumper, and generally has a higher fat content, because the animal has put more energy into production of meat, than shell.
Oysters are mollusks – other kinds include clams and mussels. Mollusks make up a major division of the animal kingdom. People have eaten oysters for thousands of years. Ancient Rome raised oysters on “farms” off both coasts. Oyster harvesting takes place during fall/winter in most regions. Japan, Korea, and the United States are the world’s leading producer countries.
There is an old saying to eat oysters only in months that are spelled using the letter “R”. This came from the days before refrigeration when oysters could quickly spoil. However, there is another good reason to stick to fall, winter, and spring for your oyster forays, particularly raw oysters. Oysters spawn in the warm summer months, usually May-August, although natural Gulfwater oysters can spawn year round due to the warm waters. Spawning causes them to become fatty, watery, soft, and less flavorful instead of the more desirable lean, firm texture and bright seafood flavor.
This being said, you can still find good oysters in spring and summer, usually imported from cooler waters or from farms. A new genetic procedure being used by some commercial oyster farms renders farm-raised oysters sterile, so they don’t spawn at all, thus making prime oysters available year-round.
70% of all oysters sold domestically go through the foodservice market. Our imported boiled oysters are primarily sold to foodservice, and smoked oysters to retail. Lent, Thanksgiving, and winter are the big sales periods.
Early Colonial settlers would eat oysters by the gross (144), rather than by the dozen, with per capita consumption at 10 bushels per year. Abraham Lincoln used to throw parties at his home in Illinois where nothing but oysters were served. The “Oyster Line” brought oysters westward via stagecoach to settlers with unwavering penchants who ventured into the wild frontier in search of new land. Hangtown Fry, a then-expensive dish of oysters and eggs, was created in 1849 at Cary House during the Gold Rush Days.
Nowadays, in Europe, a dozen oysters is considered a standard serving size for a course, whereas in the US, a half-dozen is the usual. Americans alone consume over 100 million pounds of oysters per year.
There are five primary species of oysters produced in the U.S.:
- The Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), virtually all produced on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts: fine/fatty, with a distinctive salty flavor.
- The Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas), produced entirely on the Pacific coast: mild/spicy, large/crisp meats, from Japan in the early 1920s, and now the backbone of the Pacific Northwest, comprising 75% of the global oyster supply.
- The European flat oyster (Ostrea edulis), raised via aquaculture in both Atlantic and Pacific waters: salty, and harvested at 3-4” long.
- The Olympia oyster (Ostreola conhaphila), native to the Pacific Northwest and harvested exclusively in Pacific waters: clear, and clean flavor.
- The Kumamoto oyster (crassostrea sikamea): sweet/small, and distinguished by a deep cut. They are slow-growing, primarily sold live for the half-shell trade, rich in flavor, with a salty/sweet finish.
- The Willapa oysters allow us to talk specifically to the Pacific oyster from Willapa Bay.
Oysters are perhaps the perfect food. They are completely natural, low in fat, non-filling, and rich in minerals. No other natural food contains as much zinc as oysters. Zinc is necessary for sexual development (though there is no evidence that the bivalve will increase your sexual desire!). They’re delicious as well. After a round of oysters, you can have your steak and eat it, too.
Oyster bars today are like the original tapas bars in Spain. As tapas have evolved, so have the oysters. Oyster eaters are very good customers, whether today’s oyster eaters are picky or easy to please. If the oyster experience is good, it puts you in a expansive frame of mind. Oysters are always a beginning, a prelude for a life-enriching experience that is about to happen. Whether it’s romance, the meal, or a business venture – one should always start with oysters.
When it comes to the connoisseurs, their opinions arrive in just about as many varieties as the creatures do. Oyster evaluation takes on the trappings of wine tasting as people talk about bouquets and textures and finishes with tones of everything from hazelnuts to watermelon. About the only thing they agree on, is that a good oyster is one from water that’s clean and cold; it’s plump but not flabby, and a little bit sweet, with a certain crisp quality that gives a bounce to the bite; mild is bad, so is mushy. All agree that so many factors feed into the quality and taste of an oyster that even the same variety from the same place can taste different from one month to the next.
Oysters are hypersensitive to their surroundings, reacting to everything from the temperature of the water to the minerals they’re feeding on. Hence the reluctance of experts to select a “best”….that is a very personal thing. Far better to go naked, connoisseurs say, celebrating the oyster’s individuality by slurping each one right out of its shell. Tip back your chin, slide the morsel in, savor the salty-sweet brine of its natural juices, chew with attention, and swallow with satisfaction.
An oyster has no eyes, ears, or nose – so it cannot see, hear or smell – however, two rows of small feelers on its edge do respond to chemical/light, and will cause them to close the shell, against possible danger.
The most famous oyster dish is Oysters Rockefeller, created by Jules Alciatore, grandson of the founder of Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans. It was so named because the dish contains a lot of butter, making it very rich just as the Rockefeller family is. Oyster sauce is a combination of oysters, soy sauce, salty brine, and various seasonings (usually garlic, ginger, sugar, and leeks). It is used in many Chinese recipes.
We mentioned we sell some of our boiled oysters as an ingredient for oyster stew. It is the hearty cream soup perfect for warming a person up. You cook chopped onions (or a leek) in a double boiler, add oysters with their “liquor” (the liquid found in the shell), along with creamy milk, a few pinches of freshly chopped parsley and seasoning – and you end-up with a delicious stew with little effort. Another favorite is fried oysters – add a squirt of lemon juice, and/or serve with cocktail or tartar sauce on the side. Minimalists like to slurp down their oysters raw, on the half shell, with a splash of lemon juice or hot sauce. In the South, oysters are favorite stuffing, with features oysters with a little sage/thyme.
Smoked oysters were introduced to the U.S. by General Douglas McArthur, when he headed the Japanese Provisional Government, following World War II. Seeking to establish as much trade as possible for Japan, he came across the smoked oyster – and stated that they tasted like a little like broiled chicken liver. He suggested that they would make an ideal hors d’oeuvre for American party hostesses.
Today, our oysters are found in Chinese waters, harvested during January-February, and are shelled, cleaned, smoked, and canned. Our smoked oysters come from the ocean. Smoked oysters usually are found to be a light brown color. Occasionally, however, smoked oysters can show a green tinge. This is not a sign of spoilage, but a natural happening due to bad weather. When the rough seas tear and destroy the oyster beds, the oysters sink to the bottom and must feed on the green seaweed. A large amount of the chlorophyll is retained, and the smoking cure will not cover the green. The color does not affect the delicate flavor. It has, however, caused questions of concern from consumers. Smoked oysters are packed in various sizes - tiny/petite/small, medium or large. We offer oysters both boiled, and smoked. Smoked oysters, wrapped in bacon and skewered, make a delightful party snack, hot or cold. Boiled oysters are excellent in stews.
An oyster spends all except the first few weeks of its life in one spot on the sea bottom. It uses the shell material produced by the mantle to fasten itself to a rock or to some other object in quiet waters. The shell substance hardens, and holds the larger valve firmly in place. Most oysters live about 6 years, but some live as long as 20 years.
A female oyster may produce as many sa 500 million eggs a year. The yellowish eggs are so tiny that a mass of them looks somewhat like thick cream. The female lays the eggs by spraying them into the water. The spat (young oysters) hatch about 10 hours later. Each spat is about as big as the point of a needle, and looks somewhat like a toy top. The young oysters swim by means of hairlike growths called cilia. The cilia beat the water like ships and push the oysters forward. When the oysters are about 24 hours old, their shells begin to grow.
An oyster spends the first two weeks of its life floating, and swimming. During this time, the animal has a muscular “foot” that extends from its body. The foot disappears after the oyster finds a place to settle. The oyster uses its foot as a feeler to test rocks, empty shells, and other hard objects, then it fastens itself to one of the objects. Several oysters may use the same rock as a home. They may attach themselves not only to the rock, but also to each other. Large, crowded beds (groups) of oysters can be found in rocky inlets along the coasts.
Young oysters grow rapidly. A month-old oyster is about the size of a pea, and a year-old oyster is about 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) in diameter. Oysters grow about an inch a year for three or four years, and then grow evern more slowly for the rest of their lives. Some oysters grow as long as 12 inches (30 centimeters).
An oyster has many enemies, and has no defense, except its shell. Human beings are probably oyster’s greatest enemies. They catch and eat millions of oysters every year. Fish may swallow thousands of newly hatched oysters in one gulp. Crabs and other sea animals eat young oysters after crushing the soft new shells. Starfish pull the shells open with their tube feet and eat the oyster meat. Oyster-drill snails and shelks use their filelike teeth to bore holes in the shells and suck out the soft parts. A bird called the oystercatcher pries open the shells with its strong beak. Diseases caused by viruses that are harmless to human beings may kill millions of oysters in one year.
From the handful of companies farming Willapa Bay, more than a century ago to the estimated 350 independent growers in western Washington State today, the bay has always been an essential contributor to the oyster industry. Though the shellfish are pulled from bays and inlets all the way from Alaska to the Baja Peninsula, Willapa is thought to be the largest farmed shellfish producer in the U.S., having provided, along with neighboring Grays Harbor, around 42 million pounds of oysters in 2003 at a value of $32 million, according to the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association.
As they’ve always done, the farmers are tinkering with ways to stay on their feet while the industry landscape shifts – rolling with a changing market and dipping into other shellfish, such as clams and geoducks, to stay afloat. An oysterman’s best defense against fickle nature and an even more fickle market.
In the early ‘90s, Willapa was still largely a meat market. The oysters were drawn from the bay, sent to a processing plant, and shucked for their contents - where they would end up in a jar in a refrigerator somewhere. In the past 5 years, the market has flipped. People don’t want pre-shucked oysters anymore. They want them in their natural packaging, in the shell, live. Some farmers think the reason is a generation althing : today’s home cooks don’t really know what to do with a jar of oysters, or it could be that we got fancy. Oyster bars came into vogue, and white-tablecloth restaurants started presenting them on a bed of ice, and making them a luxury. More likely, it was the corresponding boom in the Asian market, which went looking to Washington for the large, fresh oysters, that were so in demand.
It used to be, the Willapa would produce about 90 % shucked product is 10 % shell. Now, it’s about half and half. Supermarket demand for shucked oysters is basically dying, and we have seen a shift toward restaurants.
The switch has been a trial. It’s more expensive and difficult to ship shell oysters, which are heavy, unwieldy and, if that weren’t enough, alive. It can take up to 4 days to get the shucked product from bay to box. With whole oysters, it must be done in one. Different market trends make things tricky, too. Americans want a small oyster, the Chinese want big. And what do you do with what’s in between? There really isn’t a market for it. Add in the fact that it takes a different growing method to produce a single, lovely oyster of the right size and shape, than it does to grow a lumpy clump of them, that no one but the chuckers will ever see. The farmers are experimenting with so-called cultchless growth methods, testing ways to prevent the shells from clinging together as they mature - that’s where the hatcheries come in, which can produce not only single oysters, but other species as well. Hatcheries have given stability to an industry where so much had traditionally been left to chance, and their increased use is another part of the change in oystering.
Nearly all Willapa oysters start their lives in 1,400 liter tanks under 1,000 watt lightbulbs, feeding on lab-procuded algae for a month until, at about the size of a frechle, they’re transferred to the pool-sized tanks on the bay’s shore. These little guys are grown on salvaged old shells, which is why there are great, heaping piles of them behind the buildings and in the parking lots of every farm along the Long Beach Peninsula.
Some farmers use what is called natural set, sprinkling their tideland with shells and hoping the oyster larvae manages to attach. If it rains too much, the altered salinity of the water could kill the baby oysters. If it’s too windy, the larvae could be swept out to sea. If it’s too hot, the warm water would be fatal. With the hatchery, farmers don’t have to depend on Mother Nature as much. Once the baby oysters, called spat, are dropped in the bay, they’re left to grow for about a year. After that, the farmer picks them up from the bottom of the bay and transfers them to another oyster bed, where they’re left to fatten or grow even larger. A crop of oysters can be moved as many as 4 times in the standard 6 years it takes them to mature. Much more akin to ranching than farming, the process allows the oysters to get different nutrients at the right stage in life, and the variety lends a better flavor once they’re ready to be eaten. Though hatcheries give farmers more control over their volatile product, there are trade-offs. A hatchery oyster is more fragile and takes longer to grow. But a fragile oyster is better than no oyster.
The waters of Willapa Bay have been kind to those who labored here. But the farmers have not always returned the favor. Around the turn of the 20th century, what was then called Shoalwater Bay, became barren after over-harvesting wiped out the native oyster species. Called Shoalies by those in the know, but better known as Olympia oysters, the breed was thriving naturally in the bay when San Franciscans, riding the high tide of the Gold Rush, discovered that Willapa could supply a skyrocketing demand. Their boats headed north, and companies started popping up around the bay, loading the small, coppery oysters onto ship decks by the shovelful.
“Willapa wasn’t being farmed,” says Rowley. “It was being plundered.” By around 1900, the bay was bare. Farmers tried to grow other species, but none was able to survive. People had all but given up when a lawyer-turned-farmer named Gerard Mogan, began quietly experimenting with a Japanese species called the Pacific oyster.
The Pacific was the one that stuck. Hardy, and considerably larger than its predecessors, it thrived on the nutrients Willapa provided. When farmers talk about the Willapa oyster now, they’re talking about a Pacific. And when they talk about the bay, it’s with no small amount of pride. Willapa is widely considered the most pristine estuary in the country, and oyster farmers say they are a big part of the reason.
It’s true, the quality of an oyster depends on nothing so much as the quality of the water it’s grown in. But the oystermen chafe at being lumped in with the irresponsible farmer of Willapa’s past. Most still pick oysters by hand rather than scoop them up with a dredging boat; they’re careful to reseed their tideland when the picking is done, and they get red-faced at evidence of poor septic planning and the slowly increasing development along the peninsula. The difference between an oyster now and a farmer is, a week after we leave, you never know we were there. Surly environmentalists though they may be, the farmers are also businessmen. Always. Washington is the only state that allows state-owned tideland to be purchased for shellfish farming, and the watery plots the farmers tend are often their own. But most farmers don’t own wide swaths of land. Their holdings are more piecemeal – 10 acres here, 50 acres there – the better to ranch the oysters from bed to bed.
In the high tide of a gray afternoon, the evidence is everywhere. Slim hemlock boughs reach up out of the water as markers thtoughout the bay. Pieces of PVC pipe tied with faded fabric are staked like homestead flags in the muck beneath the rippling water, so each farmer will know where his field ends and another begins. But all are affected by what they say is the biggest problem facing Willapa oyster farmers today. The least of their worries is the market. The real issue is with invasive species. The most problematic pest is the ghost shrimp, a small, translucent creature that burrows beneath the bay floor in a constant search for food. Like a mole in a field, it tunnels, churning the ground until whole areas of tideflat are reduced to loose sediment. For oysters, this means a slow, sinking death into the maw of the mud. Willapa’s population of ghost shrimp has exploded in the past several years. Farmers have been using the insecticide Carbaryl to control the problem since the early 1960s, but a recent battle over using it in the bay resulted in an agreement with the Washington Toxics Coalition to phase it out by 2012. Oystermen are not at atll pleased about this. They feel picked on, overridden because they didn’t have the money to fight the thing to the top. Faced with a nearing cutoff date, and no alternate plan, they worry for the future of the industry. Most oystermen don’t see a real problem with the chemical, and they’re not above a selective use of Willapa’s famous selling point to bolster their position. “Willapa Bay is the cleanest estuary in the U.S., and they’ve been using Carbaryl for 40 years”.
Being left alone is what many oyster farmers want most. Head down, work hard : that’s the way they like to do it. Because when they look up, not everyone can agree on what’s in front of them. Practically all of them will admit they think their way of doing things is best, and they quickly disagree on everything from the directon the industry should take to the way an oyster should be grown.
Though several associations are meant to deal with local and regional issues in the business, there is no state oyster commission like there is for other high-profile Washington crops, such as the apple. Some have tried to unite the farmers under an agricultural commission for the sake of marketing, but the farmers have resisted.
Though the bay’s fruits enjoy a fine reputation in water-quality circles, the average consumer won’t necessarily know that the oyster they’re eating came from Willapa. The current trend is to focus more on the species, such as Kumamoto, Olympia, or Pacific, than on its origin. But Willapa is beginning to see a shift as oyster bars strive to feature a more specialized product. It’s kind of like your wine. You have your species of grape, but you also have the region, and you’re starting to see more of that regional aspect with oysters.
Do not forget that oysters are the most valuable of shellfish – or did you forget in the Pacific ocean/Persian gulf that it is oysters that produce pearls – try our Perla Pacifica or Napoleon oysters – our pearls for you.
The Celebrated Oyster House Cookbook, by Fred Parks
Consider the Oyster, by M.F.K. Fisher
The Joy of Oysters, by Lori McKean-Casad and Bill Whitbeck
Oysters: A Culinary Celebration, by Joan Reardon
The Oysters of Locmaraiquer, by Eleanor Clark