Notebook

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Glacier Points in Halibut Cove, Alaska

July 25th, 2014
Bottoms up!

Bottoms up!

Back in February I wrote about a relatively new Alaskan oyster called Glacier Point. Here’s what I said:

For years, I’ve been describing the finish of certain Alaska salmon (especially Kings) as “oystery.” Now, having tasted my first Glacier Point oysters, from Alaska’s Kachemak Bay, I realize that I may have had it backward. The finish of Glacier Points is salmony. But what would you expect from an Alaska oyster? How could the sweet, savory sea essence that defines Alaska NOT get into its greatest foods? From here on out, I will simply describe the flavor of both King salmon and Glacier Point oysters as “Alasky.” And I will seek it out whenever possible, because things taste delicious when they’re Alasky. Glacier Points have a beautiful balance between sweet and salty, to go with that killer finish. They are small and light, but nice and firm inside. Their fine delicacy comes from being a product of suspended culture, and goes against the rough-and-tumble image Alaska likes to present to the world, but if you’ve ever knocked around the 49th state in midsummer, you know there is a dreamlike quality to the place, as if it was made of light instead of matter, so it seems entirely appropriate that each oyster bottles a bit of this.

Kachemak Bay is down at the end of the Kenai Peninsula, right on the edge of Cook Inlet and the Gulf of Alaska. Big country.

No water quality issues here. Kachemak Bay is surrounded by Kachemak Bay State Park, where the bears outnumber the people by a factor of about a hundred to one.

Well, I just so happened to find myself in Alaska last week, and just so happened to make my way down to Kachemak Bay to see what all the fuss was about. The oysters are farmed by Greg and Weatherly Bates:

Greg & Weatherly Table

These guys used to farm Georges River oysters in Maine. Six years ago, they lit out for the territories to have an adventure. And they have. They found one of the more perfect spots on the planet. It’s called Halibut Cove, and it has a year-round population of about 15. More in summer, all in rustic houses on huge pilings (30-foot tides) surrounding said cove, which gives the whole place a Robert-McCloskey-comes-to-Alaska kind of vibe. Ten-year-olds rowing across the cove to pick up the mail at the country’s only floating post office. That kind of thing.

Halibut Cove

But, this being Alaska, certain things happen that don’t happen in Maine. Weatherly plugged her first bear when she was nine months pregnant and has kept the freezer stocked with bruin meat ever since. Greg occasionally wrestles salmon sharks to the beach when they creep too close to shore. And just before I arrived, Weatherly and the kids were towed around Halibut Cove in their skiff by a giant sockeye salmon.

Their oyster farm is on the edge of the cove, near Glacier Spit, which was the inspiration for their name. (They thought the “spit” part might be problematic.) The massive Grewingk Glacier towers above them. And sea otters play all day around the cages, including one Greg has named Fat Rat, who looks like he’s just itching to get his mitts on their shellfish. (The otters are, in fact, doing so well that they’ve virtually cleaned out Halibut Cove’s clam population.)

Fat Rat

The oysters are grown in suspended trays and tumbled to strengthen their shells. Greg and Weatherly are producing about 300,000 a year, which makes them the most successful Alaska oyster farmers of all time. Most people who try oysters in Alaska burn out pretty fast, but Greg is gunning for a million a year and shows no sign of flagging. PLus his oysters are sensational. Take a look at them:

Glacier Points

Is it just me, or do they look a little more Eastern than your typical Pacifics? A little more khaki, and with a little less of the dark rim you see on Pacifics? WHatever the case, they definitely have more of that umami brine than almost any Pacifics I’ve tasted, and less of the cucumbery flavors you see in Washington State oysters. And I’ll stick with my initial judgment that there’s a touch of king salmon in them. All in all, great oysters. You can find them all over Homer’s restaurants (best dining scene in Alaska), in Anchorage, at Hog Island Oyster Bar in San Francisco, and, surprisingly, throughout the Northeast, thanks to distribution by Pangaea Shellfish. Next they plan on conquering the West and Midwest.

Mussels

But wait, there’s mussels, too! After several years of watching in annoyance as native mussels set all over his oyster equipment, Greg decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. He now captures the wild mussel set, stuffs the seed into 25-foot-long mesh socks, and hangs them from rafts in Halibut Cove. These are wild Alaskan mussels of a species rarely farmed, and they are super buttery, a spectacular treat for us hunter-gatherer types looking for new thrills. So far, most of these are staying in the Homer-Anchorage region, but who knows? They grow so thick in Halibut Cove, they may soon be turning up in your local seafood joint.

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Matanzas Creek Days of Wine & Lavender Oyster Tasting

July 24th, 2014

DOWL oyster plates
A beautiful sight: Plates of bivalves (Hog Island Kumamoto, Skunk Island (Hama Hama), Sea Cow (Hama Hama), and Hog Island Atlantic) ready to go for the Matanzas Creek Days of Wine & Lavender oyster tasting. We paired these with four of the most extraordinary oyster-friendly Sauvignon Blancs on the planet; you can find them all on the Matanzas Creek website. And here’s the tasting mat if you want to drill deeper. Days of Wine & Lavender is an annual can’t miss event in Sonoma County for oyster lovers, wine lovers, and, of course, lavender heads.

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Maine’s Nonesuch Oysters Now Offering Tours

June 8th, 2014

I often hear from people who want to visit an oyster farm, to put a place to the merroir, as it were. To see how the magic happens. So far, such opportunities have been few and far between; most oyster farmers don’t quite have their operations at a level where they can go the way of the wine world, offering tours, tasting rooms, etc. They are so swamped keeping their oysters happy that they can’t really deal with visitors. In the Northeast, there’s been no one. Now I’m excited to announce that Abigail Carroll, the Nonesuch Oyster maven, has begun offering tours of her spectacular farm in Maine’s Scarborough River (just south of Portland). See her amazing spot, hear her amazing story, taste her amazing oysters. An essential Maine experience.

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Grassy Bar Oysters

May 21st, 2014

Grassy Bars

Classic suspension-culture (aka, “floating racks”) oysters from California’s Central Coast, a relative newcomer to the oyster game (though they were farming them back in the 30s). When you grow suspension-culture oysters in this high-energy, low-rain environment, you get thin shells and a good briny flavor. Grassy Bars are powerfully briny, with a buttery, briny, seafood veloute flavor, and a bitter finish reminiscent of asparagus and pistachios. At least these did. But as you can see in the second photo, they were pretty spawny.

That would account for the smooshy consistency. Grassy Bars openAnother time of year, they would probably be crisper, and the melon and cuke I associate with Central Coast oysters might have been more apparent. One thing that was apparent was the dark, green-brown swirl on the shells, with just a hint of the pink and purple you often see in suspended Pacific oysters. These looked more…grassy. Well worth seeking out if you’re in the neighborhood. They can also be ordered online via Giovanni’s Fish Market.

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Best Song Ever Written About Oyster Restoration

May 20th, 2014

You have to see and hear this song/video from Martin Murray of The Watershed Project, an amazing group devoted to restoring San Francisco Bay. Is there any doubt that it will become the anthem of oyster restos from coast to coast???

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