On a private beach in Shelton, Washington, about a dozen rubber boot clad shellfish lovers gathered for Bainbridge Island Metro Park & Recreation District’s Skookum Point Oysters class.
“We’re going to pick oysters, we’re going to dig clams. You’re going to be amazed at how easy this really is. It’s kind of embarrassingly easy,” says Seattle forager Langdon Cook.
Langdon has been leading foraging exhibitions for several years now, in collaboration with John and Amy Adams, Skookum Point shellfish farmers who graciously hold the classes on their property.
“John’s grandfather built this home, and so John was raised here with his father,” Amy says. “We’re the third generation. We moved here from Seattle so we decided we wanted to kind of change our lives and raise a family down on a farm.”
Of course, on this farm there’s not a chicken or a carrot crop in sight. It’s all ocean, mud and shellfish.
“This right here is a Pacific oyster, this is a non native oyster,” Langdon tells the group, holding the bivalve in his palm. “You see, sort of, the fluting? This is a good size for eating raw.”
He gives the group some instruction and knowledge:
“The legal limit if you’re on the public beach is 18 oysters, per person, per day with a shellfish license. Now here’s a little wrinkle. You have to shuck those oysters where you find them. You can’t gather a bunch of oysters and take them up the beach and get comfortable and start shucking. You could get ticketed by a warden for that. One of the reasons is, they want those oyster shells back in the water because, especially for the Pacific oysters, the babies set on the shells of the adults.”
Then the class heads out with three pronged garden tools to dig up manila clams.
“Let’s go get our buckets!” Langdon calls out. “They’re just a couple of inches down. Two, three, four inches down. Very easy to just dig them right up.”
After we collected 40 clams each, we started on the oysters. We picked Pacific, and the Oly, an elusive oyster that had the crowd particularly excited.
“If you’ve heard the old, sort of, folklore about only eating oysters in months that have ‘R’s’ in them. The reason that’s come about is because in the warmest months, that’s when the oysters are spawning. It’s not going to hurt you to eat a spawny oyster, but it’s not a culinary delight.”
John actually ran all of our oysters through a seawater filtration system to clean out any bacteria that might have been present.
Class participants get to take home all of their shellfish loot. But John had already collected dozens of clams and oysters for a cooking class right on the beach. We made spicy Thai basil clams, with chili bean sauce, and a French preparation with wine and herbs. While the clams cooked, we learned to shuck oysters, and slurped them right their on the beach
“Some people might want to give it a little squirt of lemon or a mignonette. Please don’t put cocktail sauce on it. This looks good,” says Langdon before he slurps down an oyster. “Give it a chew. Get the flavor.”
Within five minutes, the clams are open, and we lined up with the bowls we brought from home, armed with fresh slices of baguette to soak up the briny sauces. We piled our plates with the potluck we were instructed to bring, oozy cheese and local charcuterie, home smoked salmon and homemade tortilla Espanola. We shared bottles of Washington wines and beer.
This is the third Bainbridge Parks and Rec foraging class Dena Leavitt has taken, since moving back to the Puget Sound.
“Moving back here 50 years later is coming home. So it’s very emotional for me, I love it. You know, you couldn’t do this in San Francisco or Los Angeles. It’s a different lifestyle.”
But our day out in the sun, slurping fresh oysters that sell for a killing in the oyster bars, is much different than the life of an oyster farmer. Amy says they work with the seasons and tides, which can mean harvesting at three in the morning in the middle of January.
“In the winter and in the fall, the best low tide of the day is in the night. You work whenever the low tide is. Conveniently, in the summer, it’s during the day. The rest of the year it’s difficult to schedule things. You just have to work when it’s low tide. You have short windows in which to do a lot of work.”
For the best, up to the minute, information on clamming, stick with Washington State Fish and Wildlife.