Tour, shuck, taste Oregon coast's fresh seasonal bounty

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JENNIFER ANDERSON - It's oyster time in Oregon, and the Art of the Oyster tour in Tillamook shows visitors everything from the gathering to the tasting of the decadent, briny treats.I’ve always been a sucker for these decadent, briny treats.

A few weeks ago I slurped far too many dollar oysters, raw on the half-shell, for happy hour at Ringside Fish House. I also indulged in them at the new Headwaters restaurant’s “Sea Bar” at the Heathman Hotel, and the meat-centric Wild About Game event, where Hama Hama oysters were lightly smoked on a grill and crowned with a juicy dab of clarified butter.

The darlings of the shellfish world lately, I’ve sampled the ice-cold, minerally sweet and Instagrammable sea candies at Olympia Oyster Bar and Southpark Seafood, at the SE Wine Collective, and Dan & Louis Oyster Bar.

Like any oyster fanatic I seek them out wherever I go — raw, steamed, fried, smoked or in chowder form — and there’s no shortage of superb spots in Portland, including B&T Oyster Bar, EaT: An Oyster Bar and several more.

My favorite oyster experience, however, was this past weekend at the Oregon Coast.

Last Saturday I headed out to Tillamook with two girlfriends and my 8-year-old son for a free, public four-hour Art of the Oyster tour, hosted by the nonprofit Friends of Netarts Bay Watershed, Estuary, Beach and Sea (WEBS).

The organization offers various tours year-round, through their Explore Nature series of hikes, walks, paddles and other outdoor adventures.

But two tours this month were focused on oysters because they’re best in the winter in Oregon’s cold waters. Like Dungeness crab, these plump, buttery gems are some of Oregon’s finest — and most precious — seasonal bounty.

The tour promised education and tastings, and we got plenty of that — and then some.

The 20 or so of us on the tour came from the Portland area and the coast and included a handful of kids. We headed first to Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, at the heart of Netarts Bay.

There in the parking lot, we gathered around three of the local fisherman who had just brought in a large catch and were scrubbing off the barnacles for cosmetic reasons, since their wholesale customers prefer them that way.

They sold us bags of fresh, live oysters — bigger than any I’d ever seen — for a jaw-dropping price of $8 per dozen, which we promptly put in coolers to bring home. (They don’t normally sell to the public.)

But not before we got a hatchery tour and freshman biology-level crash course on where oysters come from.

In short: Contrary to what my son believed, Oregon’s oysters don’t come from a farm with dirt or even ocean bedrock rooting them down.

They grow here at the hatchery in large water tanks, which are pumped with filtered seawater, temperature-controlled and fed just the right type of algae and other minerals to help them flourish and grow. For example, oysters need the right balance of calcium carbonate to form their shells, which they can no longer do well naturally because of ocean acidification.

That’s the reason there’s only one native Oregon oyster — the Olympia — and it’s not legal to harvest because the state is protecting its recovery.

The oysters that are harvested by private companies in Oregon — from Netarts, Yaquina, Tillamook and Coos bays — are all native to Japan, and need warm water to spawn. Which is why oyster farmers raise them through aquaculture methods.

Our next stop was just a short drive east, into town, at the processing plant for JAndy Oyster Company, also out of Netarts Bay. One of the largest oyster hatcheries in the country, they sell to Portland-area groceries, restaurants and the public.

And the best part — they’re just a few minutes south of the Tillamook Cheese Factory, off Highway 101, so any stop to get cheese or ice cream can easily include a quick oyster roundup (just call for hours beforehand).

As the fisherman expertly shucked them for us — which is entirely easier if they’re first quickly steamed — we savored the opportunity to taste the oysters raw and smoked, just a stone’s throw from where they were caught that morning.

We bought more oysters to go, $9 per dozen here, planning our feasts on the way home. Sometimes the best-laid oyster plans change for the best. When we couldn’t find any shucking knives to eat them raw, we steamed them and cooked them two ways: battered in a spicy chickpea flour and fried, and sauteed in butter with just the slightest squeeze of lemon.

Add some ice-cold champagne and beer — a feast of champions.

JAndy Oyster Company is at 703 Ivy Ave. in Tillamook, open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays in the winter. For more, call 503-812-0253.


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