Pearls of Wisdom

September brings a fresh crop of oysters to local restaurants and fish markets.

Written by Braiden Rex-Johnson
Photographs by Kate Baldwin
Styling by Christy Nordstrom

Over the past two years, an East Coast oyster raised in Northwest waters has won the hearts of oyster aficionados from Seattle to Los Angeles, Chicago to New York City. Crassostrea virginica, also known as the Eastern or Virginica oyster, is crisp and briny with a hit of strong, mineral-laden salt.

Native to several Atlantic regions, these oysters were once the mainstay of the U.S. oyster industry. Production here started in the early 1900s, when a large quantity was grown in Willapa Bay for the oyster-hungry San Francisco market. In 1917, for unknown reasons, the stocks died out.

Thanks to improved technology and understanding of the oyster organism itself, however, Taylor Shellfish Farms has been commercially distributing this species for the past two years. Totten Inlet oysters take three to five years to reach a minimum market size of 3 1/4 inches, which is deemed ideal for sweetness and complexity of flavor.

“Many who have tasted it say it’s the best oyster they’ve ever eaten,” Taylor says of his Totten Inlet virginicas. “They’re mild compared to the Pacific and not as crunchy as the Kumamoto. They’re not overly briny or salty, but there’s a richness and something in the flavor that adds dimension. The algaes in Totten Inlet really complement the virginicaoyster.”

The new crop of Virginicas is available this month, so September is the perfect time to sample them. Locally, you can find Totten Inlet oysters at most fresh seafood markets, as well as oyster bars and seafood restaurants such as Ray’s Boathouse, Elliott’s Oyster House & Restaurant, the Oceanaire Seafood Room, Shucker’s and, of course, Union.

Know Your Oysters

Five main species—Olympia, Kumamoto, Pacific, European Flat and Eastern—call inlets, bays and coves in the Northwest home, and most are available September through March. Because oysters vary depending on where they are raised, oysters are often marketed under the name of their home waters rather than simply by species name.

Olympia (Ostrea lurida and Ostraola conchaphila)

Native to the West Coast, quarter-sized Olympias are slow growing and take three to four years to reach maturity. They are highly coveted among oyster aficionados for their sweet meat and light, buttery flavor, and, thanks to their small size, “Olys” are considered the perfect oyster for first-timers.

Kumamoto (Crassostrea sikamea)

Slightly larger than Olympias, Kumamotos are distinctive for their more deeply cupped, highly fluted shells. Native to Japan, “kumos” are noted for their delicate, fruity, almost cucumberlike flavor.

Pacific (Crassostrea gigas)

Hearty Pacific oysters are mild, sweet and rich-tasting. Originally from Japan, the Pacific is now the most important commercial oyster species in the region and constitutes 99 percent of West Coast oyster production, according to a 2004 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study.

European Flat (Ostrea edulis)

European flats were once the most widely cultured oyster in Europe and are known as Belons in France. Optimally 3 to 3 1/2 inches in size, European Flats are round, flat oysters with a distinctive salty-metallic (coppery) finish that some feel is an acquired taste.

Virginica (Crassostrea Virginica)

Native to New England, Middle Atlantic, Chesapeake and South Atlantic, these oysters were the first East Coast species grown commercially in Washington state. Virginicas combine a clean, briny, smooth sweetness with a pronounced mineral finish.