Sunday, February 12, 2012

Adventure Number Seven: Oyster picking

Union Bay

Warning: If you plan to harvest shellfish be sure to check with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada to see if there is any harvest closures in your area.

As I have written about in a previous post, harvesting wild edibles is a favorite hobby of mine. Be it berries, mushrooms, fish or game. There is something primitive and earthy about it. During the winter the variety of things to gather is limited, especially if one doesn't have a boat to harvest from the sea, including winter chinook salmon, bottom fish or prawns. For us, less marine mobile, all is not lost. We have incredible shellfish resources so close to home and it can be plucked from the inter-tidal zone in Baynes Sound. It should be noted that the supreme time to reap the rewards of the shore is the winter. The old rule of thumb was any month that has a "R" in it. I would concur, although December, January and February are the best.

"Here is a good one"
Natalie and I drove south, just beyond Union Bay, to a shellfish reserve. The reserve is open to the general public, and has no allowable commercial harvest. To take advantage of this place, one must purchase a tidal fishing license. It costs about $20 for an adult and is free for anyone under 16. We have gone to this particular place a few times previous, and I knew where the good patch was. In short order we already had enough oysters in a bag to satisfy the bag limit of 16. Natalie does not possess a license for the 2011/12 season, so we only took one limit, which is enough for our supper. Gluttony does not bode well for the future of this reserve. Oysters take approximately 4 year to grow to harvest-able size in a wild environment, so only take what you can eat and leave many for others.

Pacific Oyster

We took the bag up to a large piece of red cedar driftwood, and I began shucking. Of course I also had to slide a few raw ones. That is one of my favorite things to eat. The salty nectar is just fantastic, plain or with the addition of citrus juice or hot sauce. I offered one to Natalie and she hesitantly took it. It was really quite petite, and her drama about taking it was hilarious. She finally decided to swallow it, and as she tipped it to her lips, the oyster fell on the ground. Laughing, I picked it up and offered it back to her. She took it, and tried to pop it in her mouth, and it fell down in her shirt. I nearly fell on the ground in side splitting snickers. It was so funny. She squealed and hopped around trying to get it out. Now she was giggling and it came out of her clothes. Once we calmed down I convinced her to try it again. I went down and found a really tiny one, and she managed to get it down. She said it was yucky but I don't think it was that bad for her. Maybe next time she will do it again.

What a trooper!

We ended up with about a half liter of oyster meat. We packed the empty shells back to the patch where they came from. It is really important to do just this. The oyster spat travels about in the current and will settle on old shells. Once attached the young oyster will use the calcium in the old shell to help it grow it's own. Plus it lets the barnacles and other small sea creatures alive that live on the shell. The Pacific oyster is a introduced species that was brought to Canada in the ballast water of cargo ships from Asia, to return with coal and timber from the east coast of Vancouver Island. Now the introduced species has thrived in the sheltered waters of Baynes Sound and has displaced the native Olympia oyster. The Olympia does still grow in waters more exposed to waves and storms as they attach themselves to rocks and are more streamlined to fend off the angry sea. The Pacific oyster, along with other bivalve shellfish, has launched a large and important industry for the Comox Valley, employing over 600 people with annual revenues around 20 million dollars. The industry is lower impact than other types of aquaculture. No feed is used, or antibiotics. Shellfish aquaculture is truly organic. It has also become a meaningful source of income for the local first nations which has numerous shellfish tenures around Baynes Sound.

A bucket of dinner

Our trip to the beach was really fun. We had many laughs down there, and we used team work to harvest our dinner. A fantastic and tasty adventure. Picking shellfish is a sweet activity for children and adults alike. Teaching a child where their dinner comes from goes a long way to teach them healthy eating habits. I can't wait to take her clam digging. Find Adventure!

Perfect on the half shell


I have cooked this recipe for many people who were unsure or had a pre-existing dislike for this wonderful bi-valve. It has to be done properly, to be really enjoyable. I love them raw and well done, but to eat one that is slightly under done can be pretty awful. In the olden days, when I was young, it was common to take raw meat, toss it in some crushed soda crackers then fry. The results were ofter burned outside and under done inside. Not very palatable at all. The solution is to pre-cook the oyster meat first. I boil the meat for about 5 minutes, until it turns grey and floats. Drain and cool. Now a project for the kids. Get them to smash up between half a pack and a whole pack of Breton crackers. I usually sift it the crumbs to get the finest possible and then smoosh the coarser crumbs in the sifter with a spoon or something. The finer the crumb the better. Then using the wet hand, dry hand technique bread the oysters in order with flour, egg wash and finally the Breton crumbs. Once that is done, fry them in an oil of choice. I avoid straight butter because it has a lower burning temperature than most other oils. Olive or canola work really well. Turn once browned and repeat on the other side.

You will have a sweet, crunch morsel that resembles a chicken nugget more than the raw oyster it once was. Eat them as is, or with seafood sauce or my favorite, Heinz ketchup. Enjoy!


  1. Just reading this had me chuckling out loud! Love it! I always look forward to each installment of the Next Great Adventure.
    Love you guys.

  2. It was so fun and funny. It was probably my favorite adventure so far!