Judd Cove Oysters
As you head east out of the small village of Eastsound, you turn a bend that suddenly reveals a picturesque cove lined around with a wide band of flotsam, mostly water-bleached tree trunks and abandoned clamshells, with a gull or two pecking around for scraps. You might mistake the oyster beds for sticks peeking out above the water at high tide, but when the tide's out, it's obvious...sort of.
Neat rows of what look like sticks lined with rope kinda look like the rows of vines I've been photographing this whole trip. Several rows seem only to be a single oyster shell attached to the yellow rope, while the others are gnarly, amorphous clumps of shell and barnacle; the individual oyster is hard to pick out. I'm all questions at this point: how many oysters are in that mess? How long do they take to grow? Do I get in a lot of trouble if I eat one?
As if by edict of the Cove God, a big yellow truck rolled up and out stepped Bill Bawden and his assistant Elijah. I'd been advised to look for "the tall fair-haired guy with the huge hands" by my friends at the Inn at Ship Bay. Lo, there he was. I shook one of those big hands, which were every bit as rough as the oyster shells that had rendered them so. "You're gorgeous!" he exclaimed to me with a big boyish grin.
Bill and Elijah rolled gray wheelbarrows out to a lot of rows. Harvesting is done by sawing the oyster-heavy ropes off the pvc that holds them, and is done to-order rather than all at once. Bill names off the amount each restaurant has requested, including the Inn at Ship Bay, which has ordered several dozen. It's an approximate business, since it's difficult to tell exactly how many of the little guys are hiding in one big chunk. After they're harvested, they go to a separate processing plant to be separated, de-barnacled and sorted for delivery.
"See this little guy here? He goes for about thirty dollars a dozen in New York," Bill says as he shucks one open for me. Wow. I had no idea I was in the presence of such oyster greatness. It's only right then that I realize the prestige of the farm I'm standing in: Jude Cove is one of the most beloved of the oyster beds on the Pacific Coast. Bill explains the price tag: these crustaceans are raised the old fashioned way, seeded on a 'mother shell' attached to the rope, rather than in mesh bags. The oysters that grow on the bottom of the clump have much thinner shells, and therefore spend more time growing their own bodies rather than worrying too much about protection. It takes around three years for the oysters to reach maturity, so seeding and harvesting are in constant cycle.
He hands the oyster to me. I knock it back. It tastes like seabreeze and butter. Fantastic.
I wondered why a famous restaurant on the opposite coast would be into buying from somplace so far away. Surely they've got an oyster or two over there. Water quality has a lot to do with the high regard for this farm. "I sent my water in to be tested, and they joked with me that I was cheating, it was so clean," Bill says.
I naturally had to have a dozen after my visit. I must testify: they're oysterlicious. And knowing where they're grown kinda makes me feel special. Like I'm in-the-know. I know the oyster farmer, so there.
I'm easily amused.