Shuck it yourself!

Langdon Cook offers tips for foraging your own wild oysters.
Langdon Cook  |   January 2012   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

—Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

There’s always one: Always one longtime Washington resident in my shellfish-foraging classes who has never eaten a raw oyster.

I like to start them on a Kumamoto and then move to a slightly more challenging Pacific before working up to the prize, the sadly beleaguered Olympia, known to admirers simply as an “Oly.”

Greg Atkinson, acclaimed Northwest chef, calls our native Oly a “diminutive oyster with colossal flavor.” Some connoisseurs consider it the tastiest oyster in the world, with a flavor comparable to the European flat oyster, but with a sweeter and even more sensual kiss of the sea.

Don’t plan to pick Olys at your local shellfish bed, though. The minimum size requirement for sport-harvesting oysters in Washington is 2.5 inches across the shell; just about all Olympia oysters are too small to harvest. Instead, you’ll want to forage farm-raised Olys at the local raw bar or farmers market, such as those reared by third-generation oyster grower John Adams at his Skookum Point shellfish farm.

For those who want to shuck their own, try the non-native Pacific oyster, a very tasty oyster that can reach gargantuan sizes (we call those big ones “gaggers”) and is no danger of being fished out anytime soon. If anything, climate change and the acidification of the oceans will do in our oysters before foragers and raw-bar patrons can slurp them all up.

One of my favorite activities is to go to a Puget Sound beach (especially along the west side of Hood Canal) at low tide, sit on a bucket, and shuck oysters right where I sit. In Washington, you can still eat wild oysters right off the public beaches, with a limit of 18 a day per person (check the regulations for dates). There’s nothing better than relaxing on a local beach, studying our sky’s infinite shades of gray and tossing back a briny jewel from the sea, preferably with a good oyster wine or beer. You, too, might find yourself beginning to be happy and make plans.