Understanding Pacific Oysters and the Art of Slurping

Above: historical photo property of Taylor Shellfish. All other photos by Malindi Taylor.

The Curve is dedicated to exploring and feeling out the corners of complex, multi-dimensional, often hierarchical and always completely random subjects. The aim is to inform readers – in progressive, graduating fashion – on everything from gin and poems to cheeseburgers and trees.

Today we consult with oyster expert Malindi Taylor of Fanny Bay Oysters and Taylor Shellfish to find out the best way to slurp bivalves, whether you’re a first-timer or life-long indulger. Go ahead and chew – yes, chew! – on this…

Beginner: Go Pacific

“Beginner oyster eaters need to know one basic fact: most of the oysters you eat are all the same species (Pacific), just grown in different bays using different cultivation methods and then given a name that reflects its characteristics. I suggest newbies in the oyster world start with a Pacific oyster because it’s the most widely cultivated oyster in the world and, although the names may vary, they are easy to find at any raw bar or seafood store. But let’s start with a classic name almost everyone recognizes, like Fanny Bay Oysters. Grown directly on the beach in Fanny Bay, BC for about two years before harvest, they are available in several sizes (depending on how big of a slurp you think you can handle), and are available year-round. Flavour will change slightly throughout the year, but is primarily cucumber up front with a slate like finish that reflects the hard rocky beaches along Baynes Sound where they are raised by hand. The best place to buy to take home and shuck or have them shucked fresh is directly at the Fanny Bay Oyster Bar & Shellfish Market in downtown Vancouver (owned and operated by the farm)…hands down freshest oysters in the city. Try them without sauces at first so you can really taste the oyster, and always remember to slurp, chew, then swallow!”

Intermediate: Experience the Region

“There are regional tastes with oysters, west coasters prefer plump small Pacific oysters with lighter sweeter flavours they can enhance with a small amount of mignonette. Whereas east coasters prefer the full on brine of the Atlantic Virginica species that can usually handle their own with a bit of fresh horse radish and lemon…unless you’re in the South gulf, NEVER douse your oyster in hot sauce! But the intermediate oyster lover looking to enhance their knowledge and repertoire of oysters should experiment with all different species of oysters, while taking note of their shells! Oysters shells should tell the story of how that oyster was handled before it landed on your plate. Sun Seeker oysters (pacific species), grown in the cold deep waters of the Desolation Sound just north of the Sunshine Coast, will have a beautiful smooth shell that packs a bit of weight to it. The Sun Seeker is grown in an innovative floating system, which allows the waves to tumble these oysters along the surface of the fjord-like bays that are so characteristic this part of BC. The bigger the waves, the hardier the shell and plumper the oyster inside which pays off with the reward for opening one of these brilliant little gems. Shucking classes can be hard to find, but there are few people better to teach than Scotty Bordignon of Big Shucker Oyster Catering who can customize a class just for you and your friends.”

Advanced: Try ‘Tide to Table’

“Any old oyster bar can put up a dozen different Pacific or East Coast oysters and call themselves the best…but I challenge you to search for the rare oysters that are so special that only certain farmers even take the time to grow them. Totten Inlet Virginica and Kumamoto oysters are those kinds of oysters! They are both incredibly hard to get your hands on because of the time and commitment to farming these beautiful bivalves. Eating either of these oysters is certain to provide an extraordinary experience you’ll never forget. Totten Inlet Virginica is an East Coast oyster grown out here on the West coast in one of the world’s most productive shellfish bays, Totten Inlet, at the very end of the Puget Sound. This shallower silty bay is where the tides move slowly and all the conditions meet to make a great environment for growing oysters. Three years of growing time embodies this oyster with all that is great about East Coast oysters – their traditional brine and crisp texture are accompanied by the best of the West’s plump meat packed shells with sweeter flavours, and topped off with the magical earthy qualities of Totten Inlet itself.”

The Kumamoto was originally brought to the West Coast in the late 1940s to help the decline of local stocks, this oyster is painfully slow growing (up to four years from start to finish), but worth the wait. Its deep shell ruffles in concentrated shades of green indicate the experience inside, lightly briny with green rind of a melon in the flavor profile. The Kumamoto is small but mighty because of the duration of time it spends carefully filtering the water column for algae.

Both of these juggernaut flavour-packed oysters can be found regularly in a true ‘Tide to Table’ experience at the Taylor Shellfish Samish Bay Farm Store & Oyster Bar along Chuckanut Drive, just south of Bellingham, WA.

Extra Credit: Tastes like Heritage

“Olympia Oysters tell the entire story of the Pacific Northwest oyster industry in one tiny bite. The indigenous oyster species to the West Coast of North America has been noted to be one of the first examples of oyster farming in the shellfish gardens of First Nations that lived in the Salish Sea. The Olympia or “Oly” holds a very special place in my heart as an oyster farmer and as an oyster lover. My family has been growing Olympia oysters since 1890 and we’ve fought to keep this species from disappearing from our coastline. Oysters are directly influenced by the landscape around them. Pollution from people, cities, industry, and even agriculture can damage the delicate estuaries where the bottom of the food chain thrives. In the late 1940s, farmers saw this species slipping away due to pollution and over-fishing and were able to preserve their livelihoods by bringing in replacement species while giving the Olympia time to recover its populations. The tradition of clean water conservation has continued alongside the growth of the shellfish industry, so as a true oyster connoisseur you must also act as ambassador to the oceans.

As someone who grew up along the quiet narrow bays of South Puget Sound I feel that the Olympia is highly under-rated because of its small size, limited availability, and higher price point. Coppery flavour with a smooth finish, you can appreciate that it takes farmers up to five years to grow this coin-sized oyster. Said to also be author Mark Twain’s favourite oyster, the Olympia is probably most beloved by those that care for the rugged retelling of oyster aquaculture’s home grown history. Feel like you want to give back while also enjoying this special species? Buy a ticket to one of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund’s annual Walrus & Carpenter Night Tide Picnics for 2020 (available Nov. 1st on the Taylor Shellfish Website).”

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