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destination oysters hood canal

Wild oyster with fluted edges found on Alderbrook's beach at low tide (Photo credit JiaYing Grygiel)

Oyster harvesting: ‘Crazy yummy’ fun

Enjoy oystering on the Hood Canal during months with an 'R'

My 8-year-old lifted the half-shell to his lips, tilted it up, and … sluuuurp! Briny and creamy, his very first oyster slipped into his mouth.

His verdict: “Raw oysters are crazy yummy!”

You can eat oysters almost any time of the year, but spring is the prime oyster season in the Pacific Northwest. The sun’s out, the water’s cold, the oysters are plump and juicy. “Spring’s like shooting fish in a barrel. They’re going to be good no matter where they come from,” says Lissa James Monberg, vice president of shellfish for Hama Hama Oyster Company in Lilliwaup. “It’s the best.”

We headed to the Olympic Peninsula to experience oyster culture, and Alderbrook Resort & Spa in Union made for a luxurious home base. The Hood Canal is an extremely special spot for oysters, explains Alderbrook executive chef Sara Harvey, who is also an oyster farmer. The mix of saltwater and freshwater, cut by glacial waters from the mountain range, brings unique flavor and mineral content to the oyster farms dotting the Hood Canal.

Alderbrook Resort & Spa has its own oyster farm on property (Photo credit JiaYing Grygiel)

Alderbrook even has its own oyster farm on the property. The resort’s restaurant doesn’t pull 100 percent of the oysters on the menu from its farm, but “darn close to it,” says Mark Phelan, director of sales and marketing. It doesn’t get any more direct farm-to-table than that. April at Alderbrook means a calendar chock full of oyster activities. It’s an annual tradition. You can paint oyster shells, ring a ceremonial oyster bell, walk along the beach, and observe oysters in their native habitat. There’s even a beer tasting with an oyster stout.

And, of course, eat oysters.

Months without the letter “r”

There’s an old rule of thumb: Don’t eat oysters in months without the letter “R.” That rules out May through August. Our trip was in April—a perfect time for oystering.

The spirit of the rule is you shouldn’t eat oysters during the hottest part of the year. “You don’t want to be eating shellfish when the water’s too warm,” Phelan says. “The heat of the water would allow bacteria to grow. Just like leaving your meat out on the counter.” (You can eat raw oysters all summer long, but those oysters might be harvested from the ocean where the water is cold, not the shallower waters of the Hood Canal.)

Grill them, bake them, steam them, fry them. The most popular way to eat oysters is raw on the half shell. Just as wines represent their terroir, the flavor of the oysters reflects the specific beach they’re from, the water they live in. “Raw oysters is a different experience,” Monberg says. “It’s like someone is whispering to you in a language you don’t speak.“

For raw oysters on the half shell, the top shell is removed and the muscle attaching the oyster to the bottom shell is cut. Live oysters should be eaten quickly after they’re opened.

“People like to watch them get shucked, so they know it’s fresh,” Phelan says. While we were talking, Harvey texted to point out that in France, oysters are served with a shucking knife “They don’t shuck around.”

Exploring the beach in front of Alderbook at low tide (Photo credit JiaYing Grygiel)

Harvesting your own oysters

You’ll see tons of oysters on the beach don’t walk barefoot! and Alderbook asks guests to keep their dogs off the beach. Alderbrook’s official policy is it discourages guests from picking oysters off its beach and shucking them, for safety reasons. “God forbid those oysters make someone sick,” Phelan explains. You can harvest oysters at public beaches along the Hood Canal and Puget Sound. Spring is the peak season. Twanoh State Park and Potlatch State Park, both within a 15-minute drive of Alderbrook, are excellent beaches for oysters.

How do you catch an oyster? You just pick it up off the beach and put it in your bucket. All you need is to buy a shellfish/seaweed license from the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The daily limit is 18 oysters measuring at least 2.5 inches long, and oysters must be shucked and shells left on the beach. The Department of Fish and Wildlife tracks which beaches have oysters safe for humans to eat and keeps a searchable list online of beaches that are open and approved for harvest. On the day you plan to harvest, make sure to check the interactive shellfish safety map for beach closures and health advisories.

If an oyster’s been sitting in the sun, don’t eat it raw. Naturally occurring bacteria can multiply rapidly in warm conditions. “If you’re harvesting oysters and it’s warm out, just treat them like chicken,” Monberg says. “Just cook it.”

Does harvesting oysters on your own feel too daunting? A few days each spring, Hama Hama opens its beach to the public. Farm Day is a family-friendly event where the pros guide you while you harvest and teach you about intertidal ecology. (This year’s Farm Days are during spring break, April 11 and 12; tickets here.)

Kids welcome

Monberg’s 3-year-old son loves drinking the oyster’s liquor, the natural juices inside the shell. Her nephews were shucking their own oysters at 4. It might be a tiny bit in their genes: Hama Hama is a sixth generation family-run shellfish farm.

Giant pile of oyster shells at Hama Hama (Photo credit JiaYing Grygiel)

Hama Hama is entirely kid-friendly and visitors are welcome every day. (Dogs on a leash can come too.) It’s a scenic, 30-minute drive from Alderbrook. The farm store is open daily, and an open-air oyster saloon runs on Fridays and weekends year-round. Bring a toy truck for the kids to push on the beach, or head out to explore the tide pools. We summited the enormous mountain of oyster shells, and were rewarded with a view of the Hood Canal. A pod of seals bobbed in the water just offshore.

We finished the day at Alderbrook with   what else? oysters for dinner. Baked oysters, fried oysters, and best of all, a platter of naked Hama Hama Blue Pool oysters.

Crazy yummy.

If you go:

Alderbrook Resort & Spa

Located in Union, WA, Alderbrook has 77 guestrooms and 16 private cottages, some pet-friendly. Rooms start at $200/night for April. The spa and restaurant are on-site, and there are 5 miles of hiking trails, and an indoor saltwater pool with a view of the fjord.

Hama Hama

Located in Lilliwaup, WA. Farm store open daily, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oyster Saloon is open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., year-round. Kids and dogs on a leash are welcome.

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About the Author

JiaYing Grygiel