Archive for February, 2011

Walrus and Carpenter Low Tide Oyster Picnic

February 17, 2011

Although I grew up a stone’s throw from Tomales Bay and have always loved a good bowl of steamed mussels, pile of fried shrimp, or mess of crab legs, I was never an oyster eater.

Something about swallowing the gooey, briny little knobs always made me a little queasy. And chew them? Forget it!

Elliott's Chef Robert Spaulding shucking Olympias

Even when I lived in Boston and frequented the bar at McCormick & Schmick’s with a bivalve-loving co-worker, the best I could do would be to douse one or two small oysters in Tabasco sauce, close my eyes, and gulp them down with a healthy swig of whatever white wine was on hand. I appreciated the ritual of oyster eating, but it just wasn’t my thing.

Then I met Carl, whose years cooking at Elliott’s Oyster House on the waterfront in Seattle had given him a healthy knowledge of, and appreciation for, the bountiful oysters of the Pacific Northwest. 

Every November Carl returns to Elliott’s to shuck hundreds of oysters at the restaurant’s Oyster New Year bash. It was at this huge party, wandering through a massive tent on the end of Pier 56 and sampling scads of oysters whose names I’d never even heard of,  that I finally began to “get” the appeal of these tasty little shellfish, to enjoy the sweet succulance of a perfect bite of cold fresh Kumamoto or Skookum or Snow Creek.

I am lucky to have my own personal shucker

Like a nice wine, a good oyster is a perfect encapsulation of a specific terroir, in this case the waters from which it came, redolant of  cold seawater and (in my imagination at least) clean air and pure earth and sand.

In the flush of my new way of considering the oyster, I was thrilled to get a chance to attend this winter’s final Walrus and Carpenter Oyster Picnic, organized by oyster impressario Jon Rowley and held at low tide in the dead of night on the shores of the South Puget Sound’s Totten Inlet.

Our host, Bill Taylor of Taylor Shellfish Farms, giving us the oyster lowdown as the bus approaches the beach

The idea: a group of eager oyster lovers dress in many layers and gather with Jon at Elliott’s. In a light rain, we hop a bus south. At a gas station off of Highway 101 we pick up a man in a red jacket – no ordinary hitchiker but Bill Taylor, fourth generation owner of Taylor Shellfish. Bill guides us off the main highway and down a dirt road to a stretch of tidelands near Steamboat Island where his family has farmed shellfish for over a century. The bus parks, we eagerly disembark, turn on head lamps and pull up hoods, and set off down the beach, which is littered with oysters of all shapes and sizes, there for the plucking.

Shucking Kumamotos and Pacifics

Winter low tides are the best time for picking oysters right out of the water, and the Taylor team has set up a line of oyster and wine-tasting tents along the sand, with lanterns illuminating other stations where harvesting and shucking lessons attract small groups up and down the tideline. A bonfire provides warmth and the opportunity for rustic oyster roasting.

Carl and Marcia examine a Virginica

Carl, his friend Marcia, and I have a blast roaming the beach, pulling oysters from their tide-exposed perches, and savoring them with copious amounts of ice cold, Oyster Wine award-winning vinos (which I was also helping to pour for the group).

Delicious “Oyster Wines”
Carl finds a bunch of Olympias, the only oyster native to the Northwest, nestled in the sand and shucks them open for us to enjoy. Olympias are tiny, about the size of a quarter, and have a coppery yet creamy taste – sort of like eating a penny, if pennies had the consistency of butter. A little weird, but oddly appealing.

Shucking lesson with Waterfront Chef Peter Levine

As the rain begins to pour down harder and the moon disappears behind full cloud cover, we trudge back up the beach to enjoy a steaming cup of oyster stew prepared by Chef Xinh, a former star Taylor shucker who now runs her own seafood restaurant in nearby Shelton. It’s a warm, comforting end to a fun and delicious evening.

Chef Xinh serves up oyster stew