Consider the local, seasonal shellfish

By Joie Hyde
Posted 12/27/23



What do an oyster and a bear have in common? Both the ursine apex predator and the bivalve filter-feeder need to fatten up to prepare for winter’s lean rations.

The …

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Consider the local, seasonal shellfish




What do an oyster and a bear have in common? Both the ursine apex predator and the bivalve filter-feeder need to fatten up to prepare for winter’s lean rations.

The National Park Service’s Fat Bear Week contest features bears in hyperphagia, a state in which bears are active 20 hours a day and consume as many as 20,000 calories. It’s a good thing that bears have seven times the bloodhound’s acuity of smell, since they search a wide area for various foods, including shellfish.  

The oyster, on the other hand, builds up stores of sustenance in the form of glycogen, without the bother of hunting. The oyster has a simple strategy: wait for supper to be brought on the waves. A rounded shell with a “deep cup” develops when an oyster tumbles. (If there were a Fat Oyster Week contest, the winner might be a Taylor Shellfish specimen that bears the unprintable name of a Scottish movie villain from Mike Meyers’ Austin Powers sequels.)

From a diner’s perspective, however, an oyster’s appeal is not necessarily about its size, though some prefer large oysters for grilling or frying, and small oysters for slurping raw. While contributing to the health of its home waters through filtration, the oyster develops merroir, an oyster connoisseur’s term derived from the vintner’s, terroir, the “taste of place” that gives wine its character. Oysters raised in beds only a short distance from each other, or at different depths, taste different. 

Most experts agree that oysters are at their most flavorful during the late fall and winter. According to food chemist and cooking authority Harold McGee, the flavor of shellfish, including oysters, is based on the accumulation of amino acids. The oyster uses these substances to offset its salt level, McGee writes, “the saltier the water, the more savory the shellfish.” 

Oyster delight

Local diners have excellent options for enjoying oysters from nearby waters, now at their peak of flavor during the holiday season.

In Port Townsend, Ichikawa owner Mark St. Oegger says, “With the cold weather, oysters are brinier.” The popular Japanese restaurant, named for Port Townsend’s Japanese sister city on Tokyo Bay, currently offers Sweet Creek oysters. The Sweet Creeks hail from Johnson & Gunstone, a sixth-generation family-owned shellfish farm located on Discovery Bay. Ichikawa’s sushi chef, Peter Swan, serves oysters on the half-shell “Japanese style," according to St. Oegger, “with a little pinch of grated daikon, green onion, and a squirt of ponzu sauce.” Ponzu is a Japanese sauce that incorporates citrus and ingredients that add savory umami. St. Oegger says that diners at Ichikawa generally order oysters as an appetizer, because oysters tend to go well with the selection of appetizers on the Ichikawa menu.

In Sequim, Salty Girls manager Anissa Hayter points out, “People want oysters in summer because they are [served] cold and the weather is hot, but oysters are more flavorful when the weather is cold.” Salty Girls selects from about 50 varieties of oysters, according to Hayter. In addition to Johnson & Gunstone oysters, and Rudy’s oysters from Pickering Pass, Salty Girls often serves oysters from Jamestown Seafood, a collaborative enterprise with the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. On a recent visit, Sequim Bay Sapphires and Jades were served with a choice of three sauces: a red-wine-shallot mignonette, frozen Champagne sauce, and sesame-ginger-scallion Yamashita sauce.   

If your celebrations revolve around your own kitchen, you can enjoy local oysters from Key City Fish in Port Townsend. Aaron Emery of Key City concurred with Ichikawa’s St. Oegger and Salty Girls’ Hayter that, “This is a good time of year to be eating oysters —the water’s nice and cold.” The fish purveyor’s Pacific oysters come from Dabob Bay, north of Quilcene, and from Pickering Pass. Key City also offers specialty oysters such as Kumamotos and Shigokus from Samish Bay. Key City does not open oysters, though they sell the oyster knives and accompaniments, and their staff is known for giving friendly advice.

Whether considering the oyster as a curiosity or as a special holiday treat, the contribution of local oyster harvesters should not be forgotten. According to Joanie Hendricks, District 3 representative for the Marine Resource Committee, oystering can be dangerous work, especially at this time of year when tides are low only at night. “You can see the headlamps of people working along the canal. It’s hard work, there is mud, and night work throws off circadian rhythms,” Hendricks observed.

It seems an extra measure of gratitude is the right accompaniment to a plate of oysters.