Mining for Mollusks

A delicious culinary class on shellfish

We started class in the customary manner — circled around the instructor making polite introductions. “Hi, I’m Julie. I live in Kirkland.” The people there were young, old, local, transplants, bearded, bald — even a chef and her grown daughter joined the party. The Bainbridge Island Metro Park and Recreation District has been offering this unique shellfish-foraging class for several years, drawing the mollusk-curious from all over the Northwest and even fly-ins from California and British Columbia.

Outdoor programs manager Jeff Ozimek bristles with youth and enthusiasm, like a chipper version of Joel McHale if Joel McHale were also a camp director. “My mission as the manager of the Outdoor Programs is to design and offer programs that get people outdoors and help build community. Foraging is a very popular way to engage with our natural world and meet other like-minded folks,” he said.

The class is co-taught by Langdon “Mr. Forager” Cook, a rugged, craggy author, and John “Mr. Mollusk?” Adams, the farm manager for Taylor Shellfish Farms in Dosewallips.

“Wild foods are really charismatic,” said Cook after the meet and greet. “My goal is to turn people on to stepping out the front door and finding nutritious, delicious food. Foraging classes are designed to educate as well as create future stewards of the land and sea.”

Wild foods? Stewards? Engage with nature? Cue ripples of foodie shivers. Let’s get foraging!

SF-Bearded-diggerDosewallips State Park is located on the western side of Hood Canal and is adjacent to the privately owned Taylor Shellfish oyster beach. With 5-gallon bucket and 3-prong garden claw in hand, we began the rubber-booted trudge toward the beach trail only to stop short for a group photo, near a red sign with a skull and crossbones that read, “Danger: Toxic Shellfish.”

When an undesirable biotoxin (PSP, ASP, DSP) shows up at one Puget Sound beach, the Washington State Department of Health shutters them all regardless of whether other beaches test negative. If we had been foraging on a public beach, we would have had to forgo the shellfish that particular day, not knowing if ours was the beach affected by harmful bacteria.

However, our class was foraging on the adjacent, privately owned Taylor Shellfish Farms beach, and since the company has water samples independently tested several times per week, we could feel confident that the spoils of our day would not, in fact, be spoiled. It is good to note that we were not harvesting mussels, varnish clams or butter clams — species that are known to retain toxins even after beaches are reopened.

But, back to the beach trail. As we clomped down the path toward the beach, we were treated to a few foraging bonus lessons from Cook. He pointed out salmonberries, stinging nettles (only forage these with gloves on) and, as we got closer to the mud flats, sea beans. I picked a sea bean stalk a few feet from the path and crunched the salty sea vegetable between my teeth, thinking how they would be a great addition to a salad for texture and seasoning. Or, perhaps pickled and served with salmon.

The tide was extra low that morning, perfect for collecting oysters. Dosewallips State Park is open year-round to oyster and clam harvesting (with the exception of health department closures). This may come as a surprise if you’ve ever heard the maxim, “Only eat oysters in months with an R.”

Adams explained that the “R” rule is applied mainly to oysters eaten raw. See, warmer months (i.e. months without an R) are when most oysters are getting their groove on. Spawning oysters tend to have an “off” flavor unless they are cooked, but there’s nothing wrong with a fried oyster po’ boy in summer. Will there be no end to the mollusk myths debunked?

The going got a bit dicey as we made our way across the muddy tidal flats. Tall rubber boots are a must — the sucking mud is surprisingly strong, and I sank up to my mid-calf during an unfortunate misstep. Oysters should be harvested as close to the tidal line as possible because it is colder near the water, and colder temperatures mean less chance of bacterial growth.

SF-oyster-on-beachI had never seen an oyster bed before. I thought maybe they were attached to lines deep in the water. But “bed” is the operative word, as in flat on the ground. We squished around the beach, eyes focused, picking up shells to examine for the characteristics of a good oyster (see sidebar). Most were “gaggers” — a raw slurp might cause discomfort due to size alone — but great chopped for stew or a hearty hangtown fry. The individual limit is 18 oysters (that’s a heavy bucket, people), but we still had clams to dig, so many of us tried to curb our oyster greed. And, it is good to note that oysters must be shucked on the beach, leaving the shells for future oyster generations.

Next up, manila clams. Again, my expectations were way off and involved shoveling sand at lightning speed, a hole large enough to get buried in, and some sort of tube apparatus. Reality was much less dramatic — scratch at a few inches of gravelly mud with a 3-prong garden claw and poof: clams. Once the 40-clam (1.5 inches or greater) limit is reached, fill in the hole and level the ground. Rinse the mud from the shells and lug that bucket back to the ice-filled cooler.

The remainder of our day was dedicated to eating. On a camp stove, we cooked a Mexican-inspired chorizo clam stew and a French version with cream and herbs. We grilled oysters on the half-shell topped with hoisin sauce. We drank “oyster wines” (Sauvignon blanc and Champagne are good choices) and enjoyed the many potluck items that everyone else remembered to bring — especially good was the creamy spreadable cow’s milk cheese made by chef Kerrie Sanson, kitchen manager at Heyday Farm on Bainbridge Island.

While the food was cooking, John Adams gave us a tutorial on shucking oysters using icy bins full of sweet Kumamotos and even some coppery Olympias. We donned Kevlar-strengthened gloves, wriggled the oyster knife into the bill (wavy part) of the “Kumo,” and popped those babies open while swiftly severing the adductor muscle from the top of the shell. Slurp and yum. (Kumamoto oysters can’t spawn in the cold water of Puget Sound and are, therefore, tasty to eat raw year-round). Olympia oysters are much smaller and are more easily opened from the hinge, or what Adams refers to as “butt shucking” (thank you for that gem, Adams).

As I waited for the return ferry in Kingston, I reflected on the empowering sense of confidence gained from finding food in nature. We know how to do so many things now — send rockets into space, encrypt Internet data, wear infinity scarves — but the experience of feeding oneself shouldn’t be discounted. It is both a necessity and a pleasure.

The world is your oyster

  • For complete Washington state shellfish information, please consult: wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfish/
  • Shellfish permits: For residents age 15+, $11.35 a day or $16.30/annual (fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov/wdfw/licenses_fees.html).
  • 18 oysters per person; 40 clams per person (or 10 pounds)
  • Oyster minimum size is 2½ inches; clam minimum size is 1½ inches (purchasing an inexpensive clam gauge at most hardware  stores is highly recommended).
  • Thoroughly rinse shellfish in seawater (not fresh) and store on ice (or refrigerator) as soon as possible.
  • Call the WDFW Emergency Shellfish Rule Change Hotline at 1.866.880.5431 for the latest information.

Characteristics of a good oyster:

  • Deep cup
  • Plenty of ruffles on the bill indicating active growth
  • Shell relatively free of holes and pits associated with an unhealthy oyster
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