Farming Oysters for Global Palates
Bill Webb ships delicacy grown in Washington bay worldwide - even, perhaps, to France
SAN JUAN ISLAND, WASH.
THE world is his oyster market.Skip to next paragraph
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Most of Bill Webb's shelled delicacies slide down the gullets of restaurant-goers on the West Coast. But each week a shipment from his Westcott Bay Sea Farms boards a nonstop flight for Amsterdam - continuing on to restaurants in several European countries. The oysters also find their way regularly to Chicago, New York, and other far-flung cities.
In a bid to help supply some of the world's most discerning oyster-eaters, Japanese businessmen are seeking permission from their government to import the Westcott Bay oysters, Mr. Webb says.
France, another tightly regulated market - and one where fine oysters are similarly prized - bans oysters from America, but Webb maintains he has reason to believe that some of his Belon (European-style) oysters get to Paris anyway: Not long after the Amsterdam shipments started two years ago, he says he was asked to start using unmarked boxes.
"We assume that `Dutch' Belon are being featured in Paris," he comments wryly.
What is the secret of this man's success?
He and his customers attribute it partly to the nutrient-rich, clean, and cold waters of the bay, and partly to Webb's homegrown technique.
With his bushy white beard and Navy blue cap, shirt, and trousers, Webb certainly looks the part of a lifelong seafaring man. Yet his past lies not in fishing but in education. Webb came to this scenic island to found a summer camp, building a dock that now leads to his oysters.
Where most growers raise "beach oysters" in muddy tidal areas, Webb's system suspends the oysters in Japanese "lantern nets." Like upside-down apartment towers, they hang from a buoy, with 75 oysters on each of 10 levels. Each level is roughly the circumference of a human embrace.
"The lantern way of growing oysters is definitely a superior way to grow them," says Todd Williams, assistant chef at Chandler's, a Seattle restaurant that serves oysters raw on the half shell.
The restaurant serves other oysters that are less expensive, but generally if people come "for oysters alone, they'll go for `petites' or `flats' " from Westcott, Mr. Williams says. Those sell for $7.95 and 9.95 respectively per half dozen, he says. Another popular oyster, the Penn Cove select, goes for $6.95.
"Bill's oysters are definitely a very nice, clean product," Williams says, adding that Penn Cove oysters are purged of dirt after harvesting by being kept in a mud-free environment for a while.
At the Fish Market Restaurants in the San Francisco area, six Westcott "flats" sell for $7.77. These flats, so-called because one side is very smooth, are European-style oysters.
"We call it a Rolls-Royce," says assistant manager Roger Wiebelhaus, assistant manager of the Fish Market in San Mateo, Calif.
Webb says Europeans prefer to eat oysters that are "much bigger than any of us [in America] would eat" raw. So he ships his biggest ones to Amsterdam.
The "petites," though not considered as fancy as the Europeans, are a delicious and mildly salty Pacific oyster, a hybrid developed by Webb that mixes characteristics of oysters bred on Japan's two big islands: the fast-growing Miyagi from Honshu and the flavorful Kumamoto from Kyushu to the south.
The Belon variety is named after a river in France. Similar oysters are also grown in Holland and the British Isles. For almost a decade, however, European production has been devasted by a deadly parasite. Hence the big demand for Westcott's European oysters, Webb explains.