Monday, November 23, 2009

Aw, shucks

In my quest to eat as locally as possible during the ABF project -- lemons and Odwalla bars and coffee and macaroni exempted -- it'd been quite some time since I'd sunk my teeth into any seafood. By the time I arrived in Seattle, I only had a vague recollection of what salmon tasted like. I hadn't had a mussel in months. (Okay, there was the time I slipped going through Chicago and bought a little box of sushi at the Whole Foods. I'd been craving tuna like nobody's business for days, but I was sorely disappointed. I didn't get sick or anything, but there was a certain something missing. Namely flavor. And there was the nightmare-inducing fish fry on my way through northwest Ohio.... No more seafood until I hit the coast, I vowed.) My first night in Seattle, we sauteed some scallops at Pam's house. The following evening Pam treated me to a sushi dinner. The salmon nigiri nearly brought tears to my eyes it was so good. It got me thinking: since I am learning about sustainable food, well, it only makes sense that I look into sustainable seafood when I'm in the Pacific Northwest, right? Good. Oyster research. I'm on it.

I'd first heard of Taylor Shellfish during a chat with Dustin at Art of the Table one afternoon. I went home and looked the up the Washington-based operation, sent out an e mail, and was pleasantly surprised at the speedy and welcoming response from Bill inviting me to speak with him in person and check out a shellfish harvest at their farms near Bellingham or Olympia. (I was surprised as much by the kind nature of the invitation as I was by the fact that he responded at all. In my experience in Washington State, it takes a small miracle for folks to call or write back. I like to think this is because Washingtonians are too busy hiking or gardening or recycling to check their messages.) Anyway, the timing worked out such that I could join Bill and his colleague Marco on my way through Olympia.

I knew the quality of Taylor's shellfish was exceptional -- first, because Dustin had recommended them, and second, because I tried their wares myself. Repeatedly. Just to be sure. For the 3 evenings I was in Bellingham, Kendell, Kirsten, and I feasted on some variety of Taylor oyster, picked up at the Chuckanut shop: raw Virginicas, grilled Virginicas with an herbed mustard garlic sauce, broiled Pacifics on rye toast with more of that divine herbed garlic concoction. On the night I was slated to head out with Bill and Marco to check out their processing facility and a few harvest areas in Shelton (just west of Olympia) a week later, Marco invited me to make dinner with him and his wife. It was here that I learned how to shuck an oyster without accidentally slicing off any fingers. We sampled raw Olympias (quite salty), Virginicas (still my favorite), and Kumamotos (great with lemon) with a nice local wine before we got cracking on the main meal: sauteed scallops with fresh herbs, quinoa, and a warm beet green saute with roasted beets and carrots. We would need our strength, after all, to make it through the evening harvest with a low tide near 1am....

Now, I'd read something awhile back about oysters being used to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and thought, "Wait. Delicious food that purifies our water system? Seriously?? Why doesn't the EPA just dump a boatload of clams in the Potomac? I'll bring the garlic butter for stage two!" Well, I learned from Marco that in fact there are two different kinds of water pollution. There is the toxic variety -- sewage, say, or chemicals from a paper mill -- and the variety that is largely an excess of agricultural nutrients -- aka fertilizer, which causes a burst in algae activity when it leaks into lakes and bays. Oysters and clams and their brethren help address the second type, gobbling up the fertilizer-induced bumper crops of algae that, when mass quantities start to choke the waters as they decompose, would otherwise create "dead zones" -- large pockets of anaerobic underwater activity where fish and plant life cannot survive. Shellfish can help to remediate the effects of industrial ag! At least that was my understanding of the interplay between agricultural runoff, aquatic life, and the mollusk solution. (Now don't go dumping NPK all over the place....)

The beautiful thing about sustainable shellfish farms is that the clams, oysters, geoducks, and mussels clean the water and support (rather than compete with) a healthy aquasystem as they grow. Taylor is meticulous about managing the populations so that the ecosystem remains in balance. It's a very non-invasive operation, so much so that even the PVC cylinders that are used to protect tiny oysters from predators are later coopted as habitat by other underwater creatures. And consider that no chemicals and very little fossil fuel are needed to raise them. They're pretty low maintenance, which may be why folks are starting to get into small-scale shellfish farming all along the coast. All the while, the shellfish farms are producing a tasty, nutritious, renewable food source. Those little guys are packed with vitamins and protein. If you're into that kind of thing. Me, I'm into their amazing tastiness.

You may be wondering what that odd looking thing is that Marco is holding in the picture. Don't worry, this is a G-rated blog. (Or at least PG-rated.) He's holding a geoduck, the first one I had seen up close, though not the specific one that squirted me in the face when Marco hauled it out of the water. I didn't actually see geoducks getting harvested -- we checked out oyster and manila clam operations when I was in town -- but they're really odd looking and fascinating creatures and warranted a photograph. They're the largest burrowing mollusks in the world and some live over 100 years. And they're tasty. I realized when Marco informed me that it's what's known as "giant clam" at sushi restaurants, that I might've eaten this guy's cousin two weeks ago in Seattle. Maybe the eye squirt was the bivalve equivalent of vengeance.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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