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Taylor Shellfish: The belle of Puget Sound's oyster ball

The Northwest shellfish purveyor has raised the bar on the oyster experience with an award-winning variety that's not-so-local.
Virginica oysters at Taylor Melrose

Virginica oysters at Taylor Melrose Ronald Holden

Among Seattle's quirky notes of here-and-only-here culinary expertise (shade-grown coffee, artisanal breweries, craft cocktails, Copper River salmon, and so on), one could argue that none is more local than the humble oyster. 

Puget Sound is home to some of the world's best oyster beds, thanks to cold, clean water and nutrient-rich runoff from the Cascades and the Olympics.

Ya got your Kumamotos, your Pacifics, your Olympias, your Virginicas. Yup, Virginicas — "east coast" oysters whose seed was brought to Washington by transcontinental train nearly a century ago, and grown on the banks of Totten Inlet.

And, get this: In a blind tasting four years ago, sponsored by the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, those "west coast" Virginicas were judged number one. "Stunning," said Rowan Jacobsen, author of The Geography of Oysters. Local grower Bill Taylor, president of Taylor Shellfish Farms, was humble, saying it's, "A thrill to have our oysters appreciated by such an esteemed panel."

Now I ask you, isn't the platter in the photo something to behold? A thing of beauty. Two dozen Virginicas, a baker's dozen Olympias. Fresh off the beach at Totten Inlet, perfectly shucked and served up at the Taylor Shellfish retail outlet in the Melrose Market on Capitol Hill. Unshucked, the Virginicas are $13 a dozen, the Olympias $12. They hit you up for $5 to shuck the first dozen, $2 a dozen after that. By my math, that platter runs $47. It fed four of us quite regally. 

Taylor Melrose, as the farm calls their storefront operation, is far from the only spot in town to serve oysters on the half shell. Elliott's Oyster House, for example, sponsors the annual Oyster New Year (coming up in early November). Shuckers in the Fairmont Hotel is right downtown, while Renee Erickson's Walrus and Carpenter in Ballard is an out-of-the-way temple. F.X. McRory's in Pioneer Square also has an elaborate, stand-up oyster bar.

But oysters are all about freshness, and that's where Taylor —  already the leading shellfish supplier to the local restaurant trade —  excels. Taylor Melrose, after all, is the company store and the showcase for its oysters, mussels, clams and crab. It's a retail outlet that will pack up whatever you want to take home, and it's a tasting bar as well. There are terrific oyster bars all over Europe of course, most of them sit-down affairs (like Seattle's top oyster restaurants) but few of them have tasting counters —  bancs de degustation — outside of big cities.

Taylor also has the luxury of hiring the top talent in the industry. David Leck, the reigning king of shuckers (he won the national speed-shucking championship in Boston this year) calls Taylor Melrose home. When he's not on duty, the store's manager, Kevin Bartlett, or the assistant manager, Tom Stocks, are almost as fast and every bit as skilled. In Marco Pinchot, they have an environmental activist with a graduate degree in biology.

Why do we so revere the oyster? Probably because it represents a mythical connection between man and nature.This observation was spoken (in the course of a wine-and-oyster seminar this summer) by oyster farmer Lissa James, who (with her brother, Adam), runs Hama Hama Oysters. It provided a philosophical, mystical underpinning to the whole enterprise. James wrote about her experience as an oyster farmer on Crosscut earlier this year. 

Said James: "Even a farmed oyster is other-worldly." 

Seattle writer Ronald Holden blogs at Cornichon.org. He can be reached at editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Sep 29, 10:05 p.m. Inappropriate

I personally will never purchase anything from Taylor Shellfish. You talk about how those oysters are grown locally on Totten Inlet, but have you seen what sort of environmental damage they cause there? My mother-in-law lives on Totten Inlet and has many stories of nets or plastic pvc piping washing up on her beach because of messes made by Taylor Shellfish. She has watched the ecosystem get destroyed as Taylor Shellfish kills off predators in the area (they simply call them "pests") causing the natural food chain to become way out of balance. The Sierra Club has been actively trying to get Taylor Shellfish to change their destructive ways for years with little succes, mainly because so many are unaware of how destructive Tayor Shellfish is. Taylor Shellfish may be local, but they are not an asset to our area; their farming practices cause the destruction of our local environment. Read the following links for more information:

http://protectourshorelinenews.blogspot.com/2010/08/sierra-club-asks-taylor-shellfish-to.html

http://www.thenewstribune.com/2012/09/26/v-printerfriendly/2310504/industrial-aquaculture-continues.html

Dave0

Posted Tue, Oct 2, 10:12 a.m. Inappropriate

Dave0's mother-in-law is one of a handful of longtime aquaculture opponents whose arguments don't (as it were) hold water.

Posted Thu, Oct 4, 9:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Taylor has one of the best reputations around with most of the environmental groups. Check facts before you believe a newspaper posters diatribes.

Posted Tue, Oct 2, 1:48 p.m. Inappropriate

I wonder if DaveO read the second link he posted:
Glenn van Blaricon of the UW School of Aquatic Fisheries Science and SeaGrant Washington, and Sean McDonald with the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Science, took some heat for the results as explained in their interim report, Geoduck Aquaculture Research Program.

“The effects are minor and temporary,” van Blaricon said of geoduck harvesting, based largely on studying the placement of PVC pipes and harvesting for one year. The notion that geoducks farmers come in to an area and kill everything, then leave, is not true, he said, calling it a “fairly serious exaggeration.” He did say he was surprised at the rather limited impact of geoduck farming based on the study.

Let's face it, the real reason shoreline property owners are up in arms is because it "ruins" their views. They don't want anyone to disturb their tranquility. It doesn't matter that they don't own the property where the aquaculture is taking place, they want to control everything within their vistas. They will tout science until science proves them wrong, then they just lie.

Posted Tue, Oct 2, 11:40 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks Ron for the wonderful article about our Melrose store and to you and Joe for your comments. We work hard at Taylor's to be good neighbors and responsible tideland farmers. We were recognized for this just last month when SeaWeb a leading international NGO that promotes sustainable seafood production presented us with their Seafood Champion award. The company and our managers have been recognized with a number of awards for these efforts over the years.

Our mussel farms in Totten Inlet are audited and certified as sustainable by the Food Alliance http://foodalliance.org/shellfish. We are in the process of certifying our other crops with Food Alliance as well. This certification would not be possible if our practices destroyed the ecosystem as DaveO suggests.

Ours crews routinely patrol beaches in the vicinity of our farms to ensure and equipment or culture gear that has escaped from the farm is collected. We also participate in twice yearly clean-ups organized by the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association. Those clean-ups typically involve a dozen or more companies, around 20 boats and a hundred people that cover 120-150 miles of South Sound beaches. The vast majority of the debris collected is not from shellfish culture. We have been doing this for over 8 years now and collected over 100 dump truck loads of trash from area beaches.

We are continually learning and looking for ways to farm using fewer plastics and to secure equipment better so it doesn't dislodge in storms. We have made great strides, particularly with geoduck farming gear. As a result, it is unusual now to find more than a half dozen pvc geoduck nursery tubes during the twice yearly clean-ups.

The science as Joe points out suggests impacts from geoduck farming are minimal and short term in duration. What Joe failed to mention is all of the ecological benefits shellfish provide. Oysters, clams and mussels are all filter feeders which help improve water clarity for sunlight penetration necessary for eelgrass and macroalgae. They help remove excess nitrogen from the water and provide valuable habitat, refuge and forage opportunities for a variety of marine species. Elsewhere in the country where they are not blessed with such a vibrant shellfish culture industry they are spending millions in tax dollars to reestablish them for these ecosystem services.

Besides being important for the ecosystem they are important for the economy. In Mason County shellfish farms are the second largest private employer providing over $17 million annually in wages that go into the local economy. They are the largest private employer in Pacific County. Finally, Taylor's also give generously to civic groups and NGOs in the Puget Sound region and the communities in which we farm.

I'm sorry to disagree with DaveO, but I think Taylor Shellfish is a major asset to the area.

billdewey

Posted Thu, Oct 4, 9:46 p.m. Inappropriate

The NIMBY attitude against Taylor Shellfish is simply an illustration about why so many of our jobs have moved overseas.

Unrealistic NIMBY attitudes, and overt actions regarding regulations whether necessary or not - move businesses overseas.

Migration/abandonment of US jobs has a big reason.

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