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So what's the best oyster to eat right now? If the water temperature in Puget Sound holds, Valentine's weekend might be a great time to try the Totten Inlet Virginica (TIV), the hottest oyster in the country. Virginica is short for the Latin Crassostrea virginica, the scientific name for the oyster that's native to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Virginicas are harvested from Canada all the way to Mexico. But oddly, the Totten Inlet Virginica comes from Washington State.
Washington virginicas are left over from an old oystering tradition. They were first transplanted to Washington after the native Olympias died out in the late 1800s. They were eventually replaced by the faster-growing Pacific oyster — Crassostrea gigas — a Japanese transplant. But a few virginicas remained.
Jon Rowley is the man who made the TIV famous. The tall, muscular, white-haired Rowley is a former Alaska fisherman who's been called the P.T. Barnum of the oyster industry. He's the guy who coined the term "Great American Oyster Renaissance." He's also the guy who thought there was something unique about Copper River salmon and started bringing the fish to market unfrozen in 1983. When he talks about seafood, people listen.
I met Rowley on the front porch of Fairview Grange Hall on Washington's Olympia Peninsula a couple of years ago while he was shucking oysters for a holiday party. His little washtub oyster bar had Pacific oysters and tiny Kumamoto oysters, but the ones he was keen on talking about were the Totten Inlet Virginicas. "They are Eastern oysters that are born and raised in Washington State," he would explain to the partygoers who came over to check out the oysters. Then he'd say, "They are my nominee for best oyster on the planet." It's hard to resist a come-on like that. But the TIV delivered on the promise. Every TIV was a large, meaty specimen with the opaque, creamy-beige color that indicates a very sweet oyster.
In April 2008, the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association held a blind tasting of virginicas. Oysters from nineteen different appellations on the East, West and Gulf coasts were judged. The Duxbury oyster from Massachusetts won the overall category. But the TIV was judged the best-tasting virginica oyster.
"TIVs are one of our most popular oysters. We go through around 1,800 regular-size and 250 extra-large ones every week," Sandy Ingber says. While the local Blue Points are selling for $1.75 each at Grand Central Oyster Bar, the regular three-and-a-quarter-inch TIVs are going for $2.95 each and the four-to-five-inch "Titan"-size TIVs are selling for $3.50. Most oyster connoisseurs insist they are worth every penny.
I got some TIVs by mail order and did a tasting in my back yard in Houston. I shucked some TIVs, some five-inch Texas oysters and some three-inch Apalachicola oysters and asked Gulf oyster dealer Jim Gossen to join me in tasting all three side by side. I knew which was which, but he didn't.
First he pulled a refractometer out of his pocket and tested all three for salinity. The TIV had the highest saline content at close to 50 parts per 1,000, versus about 45 parts per 1,000 for the other two. Then Gossen ate all three. He liked the TIV the best. So did I. It wasn't just saltier, it was also sweeter.
It seemed odd to see TIVs and Gulf oysters side by side. Outside of Rodney's, you seldom find them both in the same oyster bar. There are two oyster cultures in America. In Houston, where I live, the two cultures overlap. Gulf oysters sell for an average of $7 to $12 a dozen in old-fashioned oyster saloons. These oysters are the product of an oyster-fishing industry that goes back many generations. Meanwhile, gourmet oysters like TIVs, Duxburys and Malpeques go for $2 to $3 apiece in upscale seafood restaurants. These oysters are produced by a new generation of cultivators who are reviving the oyster industry in areas where oyster fishing long ago died out.
If you ask the shucker in a Gulf Coast oyster saloon about gourmet oysters, he'll laugh at how much money those rich suckers are paying for their itty-bitty oysters. And if you ask the shucker about Gulf oysters in an upscale oyster bar, he'll tell you they are lethal. If you eat oysters, you have probably already been pressured into taking sides.
John Finger is the founder of Hog Island Oyster Company on Tomales Bay just north of San Francisco. A trained marine biologist and a thin, wiry guy in a gray hoodie, Finger has a rack-and-bag oyster-farming operation planted close to the mouth of the bay, where the salinity is the highest.
"Gulf oyster fishermen are a bunch of cowboys. They don't care what happens to the oysters after they leave their docks," Finger said during a tour. "Oyster farmers have a different mentality; they are more nurturing." You hear a lot of these kinds of sentiments from oyster farmers, and they are understandable. Gulf oystermen are exploiting a public resource, while oyster farmers are caring for a crop.
Hog Island Oyster Company uses state-of-the-art Stanley racks. The racks have swivels that allow the sacks of oysters to flip back and forth as the tide goes in and out, giving the oysters a more regular shape. To guard against contamination, the oysters are purified with an expensive UV filtering system. The company, which produces several species of oysters as well as other shellfish, is helping to restore the Olympia oyster to its native habitat. The operation is on par with the best in the world, and Hog Island is one of the most famous oyster brand names in the country.
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