On the half shell
Mar./Apr. 2014 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Toni Scott
Photos by Jack Hopkins
Kumamoto oysters are the pearl of Humboldt Bay
Chef Jim Hughes, owner of Brick & Fire bistro in Eureka, features Humboldt Bay oysters on his menu. He and his customers are especially fond of the sweet, smooth Kumamoto oyster.
Perhaps more than any other item on Chef Jim Hughes' menu, the oysters are paired with strong opinions, with diners either professing love or hate of the shellfish prior to any sampling.
But Hughes, owner of Brick & Fire, a trendy bistro in the coastal town of Eureka, has found the secret to turning on the taste buds of oyster naysayers: serving the highly prized Kumamoto oyster.
"I have had lots of customers who never liked oysters, who would never eat them, and I have turned them into 'oyster heads,'" Hughes said.
Coast Seafoods General Manager Greg Dale, right, and Farm Manager Pong Xayavong oversee the farming of approximately 360 acres of oysters in Humboldt Bay.
Produced in the waters of Humboldt Bay, California's proclaimed oyster capital, the Kumamoto is an oyster variety defined by its small size and smooth flavor.
"They are the best oysters, they really are," Hughes said, as he stood in front of his restaurant's stove, whisking up a sauce to top the mollusks. "Humboldt Bay oysters, especially the Kumamotos, have a balance between sweet and savory and they are the perfect size."
When he opened Brick & Fire—a name that pays homage to the restaurant's wood-fired brick oven—Hughes knew he wanted to use local ingredients on his menu. There was no doubt oysters would top that list.
Kumamoto oysters spend two to two-and-a-half years in the water before they are harvested.
"In Humboldt County, oysters are a well-integrated part of our food culture," Hughes said. "Customers come in knowing about oysters, and you go to people's homes and they are serving oysters off the grill. They are pretty well assimilated into our lives here."
For those who still walk through Hughes' doors with misgivings about oysters, the smooth Kumamoto is the perfect entrée into life on the half shell. Roasted in the wood oven at a temperature of 750 to 800 degrees and served with one of Hughes' signature sauces, the oyster loses its raw texture and rises to a plump juiciness that can be savored, rather than shot or slurped.
Unique flavor of Humboldt Bay
Greg Dale still prefers his Kumamoto oysters raw, straight out of Humboldt Bay.
As the general manager of Eureka's Coast Seafoods, the nation's largest producer of Kumamoto oysters, Dale certainly has prime selection. About 70 percent of the state's fresh oysters come from Humboldt Bay. Tomales Bay, Carlsbad and Morro Bay are also home to oyster production, which contributes to California's vibrant aquaculture activity. Pacific oysters, clams, abalone and a variety of fish species are all farmed in the state.
Dale oversees the production and processing of an estimated 60,000 gallons of oysters a year. Most farmers are accustomed to driving tractors to harvest their crops—Dale and his farm manager, Pong Xayavong, spend their time captaining boats over the 4,000 acres of Humboldt Bay that Coast Seafoods leases or owns. Approximately 360 acres is actively farmed, primarily for the Kumamoto that is shipped to restaurants around the world.
"Chefs really like the Kumos," Dale said. "They are consistent, smooth and easier to open. Chances are, if you eat a Kumo in a restaurant, it's from the Humboldt Bay."
Oyster harvest is year-round in Humboldt Bay and due to the nature of ocean tides, can take place day, above, or night, below.
Dale said the oysters that come from Coast Seafoods, a Pacific Seafood company, and the handful of other oyster producers in Humboldt Bay, are recognizable.
"Every bay has its own unique flavor," he said, adding that Humboldt's is a buttery flavor, while others can be nutty. "It's just like wine. Every oyster that comes out of Humboldt Bay has a distinct taste, just like winegrapes."
The Kumamoto oysters of Humboldt Bay begin their journey in a hatchery, where oyster larvae unite with shell, also referred to as clutch. Once the larvae are attached to the shell, they are called spat. The spat begin to feed, at which time they are placed in the waters of the bay, where they will grow for two to two-and-a-half years before harvest.
While in the water, the oysters are suspended off the bottom of the bay, woven into rope tied between plastic pipes placed in the oyster beds—almost like grapes hanging from a vineyard trellis. Another method of growing the oysters involves putting larvae on finely crushed shell, no bigger than a pencil point, and pouring that sand-like seed into trays or bins lined with a fine mesh to prevent any seed from spilling out. Those racks are also suspended in the bay, which Dale said is prime for oyster production.
Once they are out of the bay, the oysters are transported to Coast Seafoods for sorting and processing.
"Humboldt Bay is a unique place to grow oysters," he said, noting that its salty water and moderate temperatures offer growing conditions similar to the ocean. "It's a place that creates a 'Goldilocks Syndrome' for the oysters. It's just right."
Being an oyster farmer has been "just right" for Dale as well—the dream job for this outgoing man with a love of the ocean. Growing up in Alaska, Dale was an avid fisherman, with his passion leading him to Humboldt County to study fisheries biology at Humboldt State University. Dale worked at Coast Seafoods during college, learning every aspect of oyster farming, and was offered his current position almost two decades ago. Together with his wife, Sandy, a high school agriculture teacher, Dale has built a family centered on farming and food.
"Just like any other farmer, one of the most gratifying aspects of my job is that someone wants to buy and eat something that I grow," Dale said. "I get to spend years seeing something grow and then share it with people that want to enjoy it."
The work of farming oysters is strenuous. Coast Seafoods, home to approximately 70 employees, farms year-round. In addition to weather, Dale tracks tides, which impact harvest timing. Crews can be out in the bay at all hours of the day and night, handpicking the oysters, battling rain and cold.
Dale takes that in stride, though, and said working on Humboldt Bay and farming oysters offers serenity to balance the strife.
"We get to go to the beach every day," Dale said, standing at the bow of his boat, beaming. "It always amazes me. That's the beauty of the ocean. There is never a day that goes by that you don't see something that completely amazes you."