With harvest tours and the upcoming B.C. Shellfish Festival, the world is your oyster this summer on Vancouver Island.
Eating an oyster from the waters around Vancouver Island is a way to taste the mysteries of the Pacific Ocean in a single bite. Oysters owe much of their particular qualities – flavor, size, color, shell shape – to the salinity level and depth of the water in which they are raised. Interestingly, though each of the 12 varieties of oyster from Vancouver Island has its own very distinct qualities, they all originate from the same seed, further underlining the importance of water depth and salinity in their flavor profile.
Consider the Kusshi. Named after the Japanese word for “ultimate” or “precious,” this perfect bivalve is now one of the most sought-after oysters in the world. Raised by only one shellfish grower, Keith Reid of Stellar Bay Shellfish in Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley region, this small (just over five cm [two in]) oyster is raised in deep trays, and an aggressive tumbling process after harvest smooths any frills off the unusually deep cup of its midnight-purple shell, making it easy to shuck without any breakage. The taste? A perfect balance of ultra-clean brackishness and a fresh, almost floral flavor, with a meaty mouthfeel due to the slight stress tumbling.
Chef Robert Clark of Vancouver’s C Restaurant, a global reference point for shellfish cuisine, calls the Kusshi a “little package of joyous oyster meat.” Clark often includes the Kusshi and its larger version, the Stellar Bay Gold, on his restaurant’s prized tasting menus. But as co-founder of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program, Clark loves Kusshi and other Vancouver Island oysters for their sustainability as well as their unbeatable flavor. “What I love about B.C. shellfish is that they’re a very well-monitored food source. Every oyster I serve is tagged, so I know where, when and how it was grown. Each Kusshi came from Keith, I can be sure of that.”
Oysters are fascinating as well as delicious; a visit to an oyster lease is a great way to understand the ocean as a living organism and better appreciate how these tasty bivalves spend their lives before we squirt them with lemon and down them with mignonette. The B.C. Shellfish Growers Association has mapped out a tour of Vancouver Island’s 12 oyster harvests, including five in close proximity to one another in gorgeous Comox Valley: The leases where Mac’s Beach, Fanny Bay, Kusshi, Komo Gway and Chef’s Creek oysters are harvested are within a few minutes’ drive from each other, and many, including Stellar Bay, offer tours for the public.
The B.C. Shellfish Festival in mid-June, which includes a chowder contest, an oyster-shucking contest and an open-air Chef’s Dinner, is also a great occasion to sample B.C. oysters and other shellfish, including clams, geoduck, sea cucumbers, mussels, urchins and other delicacies particular to Vancouver Island’s waters. Chef Clark of C is planning a dish consisting of one perfect, still-living Qualicum Bay scallop on the half-shell passed under the broiler and covered in piping-hot dashi seaweed broth.
“It’s a dish that fits the mood and fits the occasion,” he says. “We have access to the best shellfish in the world, so I want to take the product into account and showcase its delicateness and sweetness – I want to play with it as little as possible.”
B.C. Shellfish Festival, June 17–18, 2011, Comox, 250-890-7561, bcshellfishfestival.ca
Stellar Bay Seafood, 7400 West Island Hwy., Bowser, 250-757-9304, stellarbay.ca
BC Ferries, 1-888-BC-FERRY (1-888-223-3779), bcferries.com
Comox Valley Tourism, 1-888-357-4471, discovercomoxvalley.com
Tourism British Columbia, 1-800-HELLO-BC (1-800-435-5622), hellobc.com
Melora Koepke is a British Columbia-born travel writer now based in Montreal. This story made her homesick.