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How Does your Oyster Grow?

Have you ever wondered how the same species of oyster can have such varied flavors or textures? How does an oyster grown on Hood Canal taste brinier than one from South Puget Sound? The word to remember for your next oyster social occasion is “merrior.”

Like different wines with a “terrior,” oysters have a merrior, illustrating the fact that growing area and method make all the difference when it comes to flavor profile for your next Pacific oyster.

Not all beaches are created equal; some are muddy, some sandy, and some rocky. Each type of growing ground has opportunities and limitations for success. Muddy ground can inhibit the oysters’ ability to circulate water and food into their bodies. This had led to the adoption of culture techniques that suspend the oysters above the mud in long lines, stakes, nets or racks, and bags, while firm, sandy, or rocky bays allow for oysters to be grown right on the beach.

In addition to substrate type, location of the oysters on the beach will determine how long the oyster will take to achieve a marketable size. Oysters grown in the intertidal area are exposed to daily tidal inundation will have well developed adductor muscles and thicker shells thus being heartier for shipment. Oysters suspended in the water column for growing will have the benefit of a constant food source and thus grow quickly but will have delicate shells and be susceptible to the elements. Often times, suspended oysters are placed in the high energy intertidal environment for a few weeks prior to market to harden the shells for shipment and condition the oysters to hold their shells shut.

The method of growth can greatly change the shape of the oyster. A Pacific allowed to grow naturally on the beach will have a sturdy irregular shell with a great deal of frills. The regular exposure at low tide strengthens the shell protects the meat from heat and predators like sea stars and crabs. In Europe, where there is very limited tidal change, some farmers manually pull the oysters from the water for periods of time to mimic the tidal action.

The tumble bag creates an altered but very marketable shape for cultured oysters. Oysters are placed in the bag as small seed and the tide does the rest. The tidal flip and roll chip off the fragile lips and force the oyster to curve. The result is a deep cup in its lower shell.

Each bay has its own selection of phytoplankton yielding oysters with different meat colors and flavors. Pacific oysters grown in Willapa Bay have a different merrior from those grown in Samish Bay. Hood Canal oysters are claimed to be more briny than the sweeter cucumber flavored bivalves grown in Hammersley Inlet or South Puget Sound waterways. Just like the well attuned vintners of the Rhone Valley, oyster connoisseurs are able to detect the subtleties of each bay by tasting the meat and observing the shell.

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