Stalking the Dainty Ostrea Lurida

img_0002In putting pen to paper in this December month is when in my youth I stalked the wild mollusk, the dainty Ostrea lurida, with the common name of the Olympia oyster. It lives in the Puget Sound of Washington State. The dainty Ostrea lurida is a species of most delicious, most edible oyster, a marine bivalve mollusk in the family Osteidae.

It’s okay to stalk this tiny mollusk in December because there’s an ‘r’ in December’s spelling. Most people will tell you that the “r-month rule” doesn’t matter anymore. They’ll say that it’s cool to eat raw oysters in a month doesn’t have an “r” in it—like August—because it’s safe. And sure, it is safe. But you know what? It’s gross. Raw oysters aren’t meant to be eaten then, so stop it. And besides, oysters grown in cold water taste better, and are better, so just follow the “r” month rule[1].

img_0005Oysters in their raw state are a succulent luxurious treat. Raw oysters glistening with the briny sea liquor make quite a sensual impression. M F.K. Fisher referred to them as “a lusty bit of nourishment”, and I’d have to agree with her perfect description.  You can enjoy them raw and experience the sea that they lived in. Because the oyster is an animal that lives to pump and filter sea water through its body, you can really get a taste of the water that the animal lived in, which can be good or bad. If you want to eat raw oysters, you should buy them in the shell and shuck them yourself. It is not advised to eat raw pre-shucked oysters sold in bulk.

M. F. K. Fisher liked oysters and so do I. I think oysters are more beautiful than any religion. They not only forgive our unkindness to them; they justify it, they incite us to go on being unspeakably horrendous to them. Once they arrive at the supper-table they seem to enter thoroughly into the spirit of the thing. There’s nothing in Christianity or Buddhism that quite matches the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster. And speaking of fine dining, oysters and absinthe are a match made in heaven, forget champagne. The combination of briny, mineral-rich oysters and the soft fennel and mint of the absinthe strikes a chord in the discriminating epicurean palate and brings each element to light in a new way. James Beard said, “While a mug of stout or a glass of champagne is great, it is absinthe and oysters that really make a perfect match.” It stands to reason that it must be so because James Beard said it.

img_0004James Beard also said; “Don’t say ‘oyster juice,’ say ‘liquor.’ Oyster liquor is the natural juice inside the oyster that keeps it alive once it’s out of the water. It is unacceptable to rinse or dump that juice out of the oyster before consuming it raw. That juice is precious and should taste amazing, and that’s why it’s referred to as liquor. James Beard also said; “Don’t say ‘water’ say ‘terroir.’ It’s a French word that you may have heard used with wine. Terroir (pronounced ‘tehr-wahr’) means the characteristics of a place—its climate, geology, and wildlife, for example—that impact the food produced there. Beard says terroir affects the flavor of an oyster just as much, if not more, than it does wine because the effects are less subtle. Oysters take on the exact same salt level of whatever water they’re in.” He says; “Ocean oysters, for example, will be much saltier than oysters from the northern Chesapeake. Other terroir elements that affect flavor include the algae in the water (because oysters eat algae) and the water’s minerality.”

But it is M. F. K. Fisher who admonishes us, “And NEVER say ‘aphrodisiac,’ research shows that raw oysters are rich in rare amino acids that trigger increased levels of ‘sex hormones’. And, yes, sometimes to some people oyster resemble female genitalia. And yes, an 18th-century male named Casanova who said he slept with 122 women used to eat 50 oysters for breakfast. But that whole thing is both annoying and gross, so don’t talk about it if you want to be a charming oyster person.

img_0006I remember an Oyster Bar of my youth located on Chuckanut Drive a roadway that veers hard to the northwest like it’s making a getaway—escaping to greener pastures and better views, which it offered in spades: forested islands rising from the glistening waters of Samish Bay like the great backs of giant whales; eagles, herons, and ancient forests; far-off peaks forever cloaked in snow and ice. And this oyster bar of my remembering was the Pacific Northwest’s premier dining experience; its intimate, multi-tiered dining rooms offered stunning views of the San Juan Islands from every seat. The seasonally inspired menu features a variety of fresh seafood, steak, and vegetarian dishes with locally sourced produce and an award-winning wine list to pair. The Oyster Bar on Chuckanut Drive—once just a shack where oysters were sold to passers-by, became the epitome Oyster Bar of fine dining. Clinging to the side of a wooded cliff overlooking Samish Bay, the setting is hard to beat and every table had a water view—and sunset, too, if you time it right. With a name like Oyster Bar, it’s not surprising that oysters feature heavily on the menu. During the warmer months they opened the outdoor patio, which was accessible via the lower level. Perched amongst Douglas fir, Madonna and cedar trees and facing out to Samish Bay and the San Juan Islands, it is not an experience you’ll soon forget.

img_0003The Olympia oyster bears the weight of history on its barnacled shoulders. As the only indigenous West Coast oyster, with a range from Baja California to Alaska, it sustained Native Americans for millennia. Lewis and Clark gorged on them, and Gold Rush forty-niners literally loved them to death, depleting vast beds in the San Francisco Bay and beyond. Even in oyster-rich southern Puget Sound, where pioneers crowed that “when the tide is out, the table is set,” the free meal ended. By the late 1920s, polluted wastewater from pulp mills slowly decimated Olympia stocks. During my own youthful summers on the south Sound in the ’60s and ’70s, at the family cabin on Totten Inlet outside Olympia, the oyster was like an honored ancestor—no longer seen but fondly remembered by my grandparents, who could spin tales of prodigious pan-fries and pearly shell mountains outside shucking house doors.

[1] The r-month rule is only important with raw oysters. Grilled or fried ( what a terrible thing to do to an oyster) oysters are about the same year-round.  But still, oysters grown in cold water are better so just follow the ‘r’ rule.

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