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.
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.
Westcott Bay Sea Farms is moving to expand production of its European variety. It will soon overtake the Pacific "petite" in volume produced; it's already the leader in revenue.
The Belon grown here are resistant to the parasite, and while some French scientists expressed interest in transplanting Webb's European oysters to France, Webb says the French government has not allowed this.
He began shipping to the Netherlands two years ago when two Rotterdam businessmen, who had heard of his European oysters, paid an unexpected visit. (Growers on the US East Coast raise an oyster that is related to Pacific oysters, but Webb's product met European tastes.)
Webb's oysters are shipped abroad in small boxes, packed in wet newspaper, and chilled by artificial ice. Oysters can stay healthy for a week or more if kept refrigerated, he notes.
Webb came to his current calling after being a teacher and headmaster in two California boarding schools. In 1962 he founded a camp and summer school here.
The summer school only lasted four years, but Webb was left with a lingering curiosity, piqued by several people who taught marine biology there. They all remarked how unusually rich the waters of Westcott Bay were.
Two years after retiring from the Dunn School in 1975, Webb and his wife Doree began raising oysters. "What I really wanted to do," he says, "was simply retire and relax" with a mom-and-pop oyster-farming operation selling to local restaurants.
The Bay itself seems to have had other plans. The "shellfish in this water seem to have a higher glycogen content" than average, Webb says. That substance makes oysters sweet. So when the Webbs started selling oysters to restaurants in 1980, they were met with cries for more oysters and a steadier supply.
When the hatchery that he used proved unsatisfactory, Webb decided to invest in his own hatchery - a complex operation he had hoped to avoid. "Once I made that step I was really into it."
The hatchery, once a faculty bath house, is steamy and warm, like an indoor swimming pool, because it contains tanks breeding algae to feed baby oysters.
The warmth also stimulates oyster breeding, which occurs only in the hatchery. "Even in the summer it never gets warm enough for a natural spawn" in the bay, Webb says. This is to his advantage, since oysters typically lose some of their flavor when they spawn.
The oysters start out as microscopic larvae, and Webb provides trays in the hatchery with grains of sand to which they attach themselves. When they grow to about one-quarter inch across, they go into the "nursery" out in the bay in special plastic trays before graduating to the lantern nets.
The growing process takes a year and a half for the Pacific oysters, and up to twice as long for the European ones. Webb's 22 rows of lantern nets, on 25 acres of the bay leased from the state, hold more than 2 million oysters.
Meanwhile, back in the hatchery, Webb is experimenting with the University of Washington to see if the rock scallop - the only scallop that grows in a fixed position like an oyster, can be grown using his system. To date this shellfish, "the sweetest scallop in the world," has not been commercially harvested because it is so different from the scallops fisherman catch in low-lying nets.
If it works, there may be more pages to add to the story of Bill Webb's "retirement" in Westcott Bay.