A Field Guide to Pacific Oysters
By Jessica Yadegaran, Chelsea Lin and Cynthia Nims; with additional reporting by Haley Durslag
June 13, 2016
Few of our outstanding regional foods reflect a taste of place quite like oysters do.
Because these bivalves filter many gallons of water daily, they literally take on the taste of their home, thanks to specific nutrients, minerality, brininess and other characteristics of the water they inhabit. And holding that craggy, rough shell—which may carry barnacles, miniature mussels, a tuft of seaweed—transports us right to the beach from which it was harvested. It makes for a culinary adventure, even if you never leave your stool at the oyster bar.
We’re fortunate in this region to have growers producing all five species of oysters found in this country, offering a diverse range of tastes.
Native to the East Coast, where it is known as the Eastern oyster, the Virginica (from its Latin name, Crassostrea virginica) is available from a handful of Northwest producers and brings variety to our local selections. It has typical Eastern brininess with added West Coast complexity of an earthy-rich, almost sweet character. Keep an eye out for Totten Inlet Virginicas on oyster-bar lists—a slurper’s treat.
A nonnative (originally from Japan) but by far the most prolific species, the Pacific comes in various shapes and sizes based on where and how it’s grown (which varies a great deal within this region). This oyster is usually named for where it’s from (Penn Cove, Barron Point, Dabob Bay, Hammersley Inlet), rather than by species. Some Pacific oysters, such as Hama Hamas, show off the typical ruffly, fluted shells; others may be smoother—like a shigoku—hinting that it’s been tumbled, a technique that forms deep cups and produces elegant oysters.
Smaller than most Pacifics, this oyster is very popular in oyster bars because of its mellow, not too briny flavor and ideal size for slurping. It often has a deep cup with full, firm meat.
The only oyster native to our waters, it’s small in size but big in rich, mineral flavor. It’s a little persnickety to grow, which means not too many producers have Olympias, so these oysters are worth enjoying when you find them, even though they may come at a premium price.
Coming from even farther afield, these oysters are prized abroad (just imagine the famous Belon oysters of France). Among the very few producers that grow them in the U.S. is Jones Family Farms on Lopez Island whose Shoal Bay flat is prized.
Oysters courtesy of Taylor Shellfish
SHOP LIKE A LOCAL
What you’ll pay for these briny delights depends on where you are, what type of oyster you’re buying and the time of day. A dozen may go for $10 or less if you’re at one of the local farms, such as Hama Hama Co. on Hood Canal (hamahamaoysters.com) or Taylor Shellfish up on Samish Bay (taylorsamish.com). In our urban retail markets, the range may be $10–$20 per dozen, the higher end for prized slurps such as Kumamoto and kusshi oysters. In oyster bars, they often go by-the-each, generally $2.50–$4. If it’s happy hour, with its lower prices, you can indulge in even more, though sometimes that’s “shucker’s choice,” meaning a particular variety is offered rather than giving you the choice.
To Mignonette or Not
Purists just ignore those little dishes nestled alongside oysters on the half shell, preferring to consider the oyster’s liquor the only embellishment needed. But for most of us, those offerings can be delightful accents to the bivalves. The simplest may be lemons for squeezing or a classic mignonette: red wine vinegar, minced shallot and freshly ground black pepper. Variations on the theme allow bars to personalize things, whether going in a soy-ginger direction or freezing a citrus concoction for a refreshing granita. Whatever your preference, do the oyster a favor and use a light hand, so it still has a chance to shine through. Get Cynthia Nims’ recipe for rice vinegar–ginger mignonette.
About that ‘R’ Month Thing
It’s a common question—whether it’s OK to consume oysters during the summer. This adage—that we not eat oysters in months without an “R” in their spelling—was true in its time, when refrigeration was limited in the hot summer months. The rise of summertime water temperatures prompts oysters to spawn, which makes the meat softer and less enjoyable—though not harmful to consume. But oyster farmers today grow—for the large part—triploid oysters, which are sterile and therefore don’t undergo summer spawning as wild oysters would. So there’s far less reason to turn away from oysters this time of year.
Go back to the main Seafood Guide article.