We spent the past few weekends in a food and wine haze, and while I loved every minute of it, but am ready to admit you can have too much of a good thing. Recently, we attended a wine tasting at Quivira Vineyards in Sonoma, County, sampling plenty of delicious food paired with the winery’s latest releases. I always enjoy this event because its interesting to see what foods that the winery thinks are the best to pair with their releases. Of course, I would never argue with anyone determining that oysters and wines were a natural combination and quickly concur that their choice of oysters were fantastic when paired with their wines. I never got my question answered as to why Washington oysters, when Tomales Bay oysters were close at hand, but as I got to further sample different varieties I was certainly not going to complain.
They offered up two succulent types of oysters to accompany their Sauvignon Blanc, both from Washington State: Gem Oysters and Eagle Rock Oysters (Totten Inlet). Oh my, having access to unlimited oysters is a dangerously good thing. In my personal commitment to educate myself on the vast array of beautiful oysters I determined a bit of research beyond the tasting kind was in order.
Both of these oysters came from the southern part of the Puget Sound near Olympia. According to Rowan Jacobsen in his book, A Geography of Oysters, each inlet adds its own character to the oysters, but all oysters from this area of the South Puget Sound share some common characteristics: ”full, rich, intense, more sweet than salty, a hint of cooked greens or seaweed, bordering on musky. Its like a sea version of collards with pork fat.” I’m not sure about musky, but seaweed was definitely a description I’d use for the oysters we sampled, and the Gems were the more sweet of the two.
Given that this area is about 200 miles from open sea, the water’s salinity does not significantly impact to the flavor. What does have influence are the nutrient and algae rich rivers, tidal zones, and mud flats that make up this area, and why each inlet and beach offers its own unique contributions to taste.
Early in the oyster farming practice in this area, the oysters were harvested using the rack and bag approach but while the bag protected them from predictors, the lack of abuse by the waves never allowed their shells to toughen up, so now a hybrid system is often used, that allows them to grow until they reach a size where they can survive being in the sea. They start out in the rack and bag and get fattened and toughened up along the beach. Oysters grown in this area grow at a much faster rate than their brethren in the Willapa Bay or Hood Canal.
Gem Oysters have a creamy sweet taste that we really enjoyed, however it was lacking in toothiness. We shamelessly stood in front of the booth and took the oysters as soon as they were ready.
Also called Chelsea Gems, these oysters come from the Eld Inlet, and are known for for growing fast, fat and sweet. These oysters are grown using the rack and bag technique, and are ready for consumption in only five months.
Eagle Rock Oysters are creamy and sweet with a definite sea weed flavor. The taste was mild, especially when compared to the Gems. Unlike the Chelsea Gems, these oysters are grown using the hybrid rack and bag + beach system and are ready for eating in about eight months. These oysters are also classified as Totten oysters, and here is where the seaweed descriptor comes to play because that was one of the first tastes I got from my initial sample.
If you are curious about Washington State’s oyster industry, this PDF offers some good information.
Both were delicious, but we thought the Gem Oysters edged out Eagle Rock in the taste department, while the Eagle Rock was definitely the meatier of the two if that is your inclination.
They served these oysters with a selection of accompaniments, including the ubiquitous Tabasco sauce, a lovely apple jalapeno granita that I think was the hands down favorite, a homemade spicy seafood sauce and a vinegary concoction that jarred with the sweetness of the oysters and especially the wine. Someday, I’ll post either post their recipe, or my interpretation of the granita, but in the mean time, I wanted to share a recipe from one of my favorite chef’s famous for his ways with creatures from the sea. While in DC, I was lucky enough to have a meal prepared by Rick Stein, an English chef, and have been a fan of his cookbooks ever since. This dish is divine, and I do not make it often enough.
Oysters in Tempura Batter with Sesame Seeds and Lime
¼ c dark soy sauce
¼ c water
Juice of 1 lime
20 Pacific oysters – (either oyster described above would work, but for this dish, I think the Eagle Rock would be a better choice)
Vegetable oil for deep frying
1/3 c flour
1/2 c cornstarch
pinch of salt
4 T toasted sesame seeds (Rick used the white seeds, but I’ve also used black for a more dramatic visual effect)
¾ c ice cold fresh soda water
lime wedges for serving
Mix all the ingredients for the dipping sauce together and set aside. May want to make individual dipping containers.
Shuck the oysters, and keep the liquor for other uses. Save the deeper, bottom shelves to serve the oysters in.
Heat the oil for deep frying to 375°F. Make the batter ix by shifting the flour, cornstarch and salt together in a bowl. Stir in the sesame seeds with the very cold soda water (the water must be both icy cold and fresh (full of bubbles) for the batter to be at its best). Stir until only just mixed – do not over stir, and the batter should still be a bit lumpy. The batter can be thinned with a bit more soda water if you think it is too thick, the ideal consistency is thin to the point of translucency.
Indiviudally dip the oysters into the batter and then into the hot oil. Fry for 1 minute until golden brown. Remove from the oil and then allow to drain briefly on paper towels. Make sure the oil maintains its temperature between rounds, do not allow to cool.
Arrange the oysters in the bottom shells and serve with the dipping sauce.