SOUTH BEND, Pacific County — It’s oyster-breeding season on Willapa Bay, the body of water that produces more farmed oysters than any other in the U.S.
On these tidal-bay flats where inbound Pacific seawater collides with outbound fresh river water, delicious oysters — some exquisitely tiny; some chubby — grow so that they might find their way onto our plates, often at prices of more than $3 each.
There are two kinds of people: those who love raw oysters and those who can’t imagine ingesting them. My husband and I fall into the first category, and this culinary fixation is the theme of a week’s exploration of the Pacific Northwest, whose bays, inlets and sounds are home to some of the world’s best little bites of wonder. Willapa Bay is Stop 3, though, so let’s back up and start at the beginning.
Stop 1: Samish Bay, Skagit County — Having flown into Seattle, we head north on Interstate 5, getting off at Exit 231 onto Chuckanut Drive, Highway 11. We drive past potato farms north to the shores of Samish Bay, where, in the tiny town of Bow, we visit an outpost of Taylor Shellfish Farms, one of the nation’s largest oyster-farming outfits.
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We buy a dozen raw Washington oysters — four each Kumamotos, Shigokus and Olympias — for $20 (including a $5 shucking fee) and take them outside to eat on a picnic table. (You can also buy a small bag of charcoal and use grills on the deck to barbecue your oysters.) They’re spectacular — clean-tasting and plump, each about the size of a quarter. The Shigokus may have emerged from this very Samish Bay, although they also thrive in Willapa Bay. The Kumamotos probably came from a cove west of Tacoma where Taylor also farms oysters. The Olympias likely hail from southern Puget Sound.
The Olympia oyster, the one species native to the Pacific Northwest, fell victim to over-harvesting in the early 1900s and is now really hard to come by. Most local oysters are varieties of the Pacific oyster, imported from Japan and now thriving, happy as clams, in the waters of the U.S. and British Columbia.
Pleased with our first plate of oysters, we pop back on I-5 and drive to Stop 2: Vancouver, B.C. We consume (with the help of a friend) 36 on the half shell at Joe Fortes Seafood & Chop House (777 Thurlow St., www.joefortes.ca
), which has been serving up the beautiful bivalves for 27 years. We choose Northwest Pacific varieties — all delectable.
Kusshis are my clear favorite — bright, sweet and tiny morsels. They’re grown in floating trays and constantly tumbled. This, I’m told, thickens their shells and makes them the wonders they are. To fry one would be a sin. Joe’s Gold, Gems, Satoris and Kumamotos are also sweet, plump oysters, small to medium-sized. The Sawmill Bays are gigantic — mild and firm-fleshed but bigger than most Gulf oysters and, hence, bigger than I really like my raw oysters. They’re tasty, though.
Filled to the gills, we trek back to Washington’s southern end for Stop 3 on Willapa Bay. We drive up state Highway 13 on the Long Beach Peninsula to 273rd Street in Nahcotta, where the little Willapa Bay Interpretive Center (open only Friday through Sunday; portofpeninsula.org/oysterhouse.html) sits on stilts next to an oyster farm in Willapa Bay. Oyster interpreter Don Young tells us all about oyster farming.
We learn that baby oysters have tiny little shells and need something to attach to. The best thing, really, is an old oyster shell, and that’s why we see big earth movers carrying huge loads of them to dump into the bay for just that purpose. Some shells are strung out on long lines in a vineyard-like setup — the farm next to the interpretive center looks like this — so that nascent oysters can glom onto the old shells in clumps, known as clutches.
We also learn that during breeding season, which it will be by the time you read this, adult oysters can go all mushy and aren’t the best for eating.
We overnight in a town that bills itself as the Oyster Capital of the World, South Bend. Indeed, it’s surrounded by oyster farms and oyster-processing and canning plants. It even boasts the World’s Largest Oyster — a concrete half shell that serves as a photo op for visitors.
Oddly, it’s not easy to find oysters to eat in South Bend. We’ve been told about wonderful oysters cooked on a grill at River View Dining (dining in the diner sense). Alas, the place is inexplicably closed, even though we’re here on a day the sign says it’s open.
Our motel operator sends us a few blocks down to a tavern called the Chester Club (1005 Robert Bush Drive), where, next to a bar full of ancient mariners, we chow down on platters of lightly breaded and tenderly fried local oysters. Washed down with a couple of Buds, they get the job done nicely.
We don’t get a raw Willapa Bay oyster until a couple of days later in Stop 4, Portland, at Jake’s Famous Crawfish (401 S.W. 12th Ave.). They’re worth waiting for — plump, buttery, mid-sized oysters, briny and fine.
Stop 5: The Oregon coast. Overnighting in Cannon Beach, we head to Mo’s Seafood Restaurant (www.moschowder.com) in search of Yaquina Bay oysters, farmed just south of here. We enjoy the plump, mid-sized oysters fried but are told they’re not served raw in summer. Bummer.
Time to circle back to Seattle for Stop 6. Before flying home, we consume our last dozen raw oysters at what a friend has told me is the best place in Seattle to eat them: The Walrus and the Carpenter (4743 Ballard Ave. N.W.; thewalrusbar.com
The Lewis Carroll characters famously beckoned, “O oysters, come and walk with us … a pleasant walk, a pleasant talk, along a briny beach.” Great name for an oyster bar.
The reward? An assortment of four Washington oysters from tiny to medium-small: the lovely Samish Bays that we’d enjoyed earlier, along with three from inlets around Seattle: Pickering Passages, Sea Cows from Hammersley Inlet and Treasure Coves from Case Inlet — all various iterations of bright, sweet, buttery, perfect oysters (and half price because of happy hour).
As we speak sadly of our upcoming flight home from the Northwest, the poem’s final verse resonates:
“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?”
But answer came there none —
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.
Helen Anders writes for the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman.