Culinary travel in the West

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The West's native oyster makes a comeback

The Olympia oyster has been absent for almost a century. But now it’s returning to our plates––and one taste will make you a believer

  • Champion shucker David Leck at Taylor Shellfish store in Seattle.

    Taylor Shellfish shucker

    Chris and Sarah Rhodes

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We walk to where the oysters are clumped in mesh bags to protect them from seastars and other predators. Taylor opens a bag, pulls out a handful of Olys, and starts shucking. With our boots sinking into the mud, we slurp one briny oyster after another. Olympias are notoriously finicky, needing a steady supply of plankton and specific water temperatures to flourish.

Growing them can seem as much art as science, and the attrition rate before they’re market-ready, after three or four years of cultivation, can be high.

“Olys are not a moneymaker for us,” says Taylor, whose ancestors began farming these waters in 1890. He raises Olys for other reasons. For the challenge of getting the growing conditions right. As an important tie to our past. And “because they taste so darn good.”

Later that day, I buy a couple dozen Olys at the nearby Taylor store and drive to the family cabin for lunch. It sits on a low bluff overlooking a cove and, beyond it, Totten Inlet. The cabin has been closed up for months and is cold inside. I light a fire in the kitchen’s wood-burning stove. As the room grows toasty, I set out the oysters, my shucking knife, some saltines, and a bottle of bitter IPA on the Formica dinette table that came from my grandparents’ kitchen many years before. I eat lunch and gaze at the view. Mist hovers just above the water, a flotilla of mallards drifts by, and the garish yellow-gold-orange leaves of alders and maples punctuate stands of dark, sober firs on the far shore.

In that moment and place, eating Olympia oysters simply feels right. I think of my grandfather and how he’d gather his fishing poles while my grandmother dished up blackberry cobbler—the best I’ve ever tasted. I think of my parents, themselves getting up there in years, sitting on the rocky beach watching us kids pile shells into our pails in the late-afternoon sun. I’ve since eaten all manner of delicacies in far-flung corners of the world, and have lolled on beaches of powdery sand and crystal blue water. Compared with them, cold and gray-washed Puget Sound and the scrawny Olympia may not seem like much. But to me, they’re home.

SHUCK CENTRAL

These three Washington farms supply virtually all of the Olympia oysters on the market. Keep in mind that supplies are seasonal and may be better during the cooler months.

Taylor Shellfish Farms. Find in-the-shell Olys at their stores in Seattle (1521 Melrose Ave.), Samish Bay (2182 Chuckanut Dr., Bow), and near Totten Inlet (130 S.E. Lynch Rd., Shelton). Olys on the half-shell are available at the Seattle store and at restaurants like Elliott’s Oyster House ($$$; 1201 Alaskan Way, Pier 56, Seattle; elliottsoysterhouse.com) and the Oyster House ($$; 320 Fourth Ave. W., Olympia; theoysterhouseatolympia.com). Or order online at taylorshellfishfarms.com, where a dozen cost $12.

Sound Fresh Clams & Oysters. This father-son operation sells its Olys shucked to order at the Olympia Farmers Market (Thu–Sun starting in Apr; 700 N. Capitol Way, Olympia; olympiafarmersmarket.com). skookumpoint.com 

Jones Family Farms. Their Shoal Bay Olympias from Lopez Island are on the half-shell at Elliott’s Oyster House, the Walrus and the Carpenter ($; 4743 Ballard Ave. N.W., Seattle; thewalrusbar.com), and the Brooklyn Seafood, Steak & Oyster House ($$$$; 1212 Second Ave., Seattle; thebrooklyn.com). jffarms.com

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