Wine Enthusiast’s Food Editor, Nils Bernstein, heads to Seattle, Washington—one of the country’s seafood capitals—to talk to representatives of Penn Cove Shellfish and Seatown Seabar about how the ocean’s terroir affects the delicacies of the sea.
Read the full transcript of “Merroir, The Art of Shellfish & Wine”:
Nils Bernstein: I’m Nils Bernstein, Food Editor at Wine Enthusiast Magazine. I’m here at Seatown Restaurant in Seattle, Washington, right on the waterfront in the Pike Place Market. I’m looking out to Puget Sound. I’m about to learn a whole lot about oysters and other shellfish from the area.
Lilly Mosolino: I’m Lilly Mosolino. I’m here representing Penn Cove Shellfish and all the great seafood that we provide.
NB: I grew up in Seattle, but you don’t have to have grown up in Seattle to have tried Penn Cove Muscles, they’re known around the world. Can you tell us a little bit about Penn Cove, how long they’ve been in business and what exactly they do?
LM: I would love to. Penn Cove Shellfish, actually been around since 1975. Ian and Raul Jefferds are both co-owners and Ian’s wife, Karen. Their father back in 1970s, they were raised as military brats, I guess you could say, and so they traveled all over the world and they’d had shellfish and seafood everywhere they went. In Europe their father noticed that muscles were huge, it was delicious, everybody ate it. I think Belgium is the largest consumer of muscles in the world. When they got to the States and they were in Washington the story goes that their father was like, “We’re going to do a muscle farm, we’re going to start one.”
So, they took a boat out, went searching for the best place to put their rafts, came across Penn Cove around Whidbey Island and just saw this incredible amount of naturally-growing, wild muscles, just lining the bay. It’s pretty amazing, actually how much wild still grows out there. He said, “This is it. This is where we’re going to start it.”
NB: Some of the best oysters in the world come from these waters around where we’re sitting now. But, you can’t just say that, “Oh, Pacific Northwest oysters have a certain quality,” because within that, there’s such variety as well.
LM: That is very true. Your Pacific oysters tend to have less salinity to them than the Atlantic oyster because you’ve got more salt water over there, whereas, our oysters here tend to be fed from a lot more fresh water coming out of the Samish River, all the rivers here. Gosh, now I’m forgetting them. You’ve got really nutrient-rich waters here and that leans them towards a sweeter oyster, it’s where you get the cucumber, melon hints coming out of that you won’t notice, say, in your Atlantic oysters, which tend to be more of a salty minerality to them, a briny minerality.
NB: When you talk about sweetness and oysters, I know what it is by my sense, but are you really talking about a lack of salinity, or less salinity, or also this rounded, fruity kind of-
LM: Yeah, that end of that statement because your oysters comprise not only of the brininess that comes from the water, that is in its shell, its liquid but also its meat. Its meat is developed through what it eats, its nutrients, and that’s where you get this meat sweetness. It’s like in wine, you’re trying to describe an off-dry, and you’re like, “It’s sweet but it’s not sweet,” and people hate it when you say that because they’re like, “No, it’s not a sweet wine.” It’s trying to catch that flavor in your … Express it in words that comes across in your pallet.
NB: You know it when you taste it but it’s hard to express. It’s funny because there are so many parallels when you talk about tasting oysters, between oysters and wine because it starts with the visual, how beautiful it is in the shell, the deep cup, it has that character before you even start tasting it. Texture is a huge component in wine and, obviously, oysters. Then you do, you have fruit, vegetable, nutty, mineral, you have the kind of flavor components that you talk about with oysters, are a lot of the same ones that you talk about when you talk about wine.
LM: Exactly. I love the idea of oyster-tasting and people getting more into oysters as a past-time because it does have that kind of niche of it’s fun to do but it’s also very interesting. As Marwar and [inaudible 00:05:11], you’re dealing with your soils and your water and how these end products are a result of their location. I’d actually read an article that you had done on [inaudible 00:05:27] and you had mentioned how a lot of places tend to serve their wine with other foods from that region.
NB: Right, yeah, they call it, “What grows together, goes together.”
LM: Yeah. I thought that just made so much sense because you do see that they pair so well. Not to say that you can’t pair a Pacific oyster with a wine from France, but it is interesting to see the parallels there and how food is grown from in the sea and on the land.
NB: Yeah, I think it’s really exciting.
Chef Sam Berkhardt: I’m Chef Sam Berkhardt, an executive chef of Etta’s and Seatown Seabar.
NB: Hi, Chef Sam.
SB: Hi, how you doing?
NB: So what do we have here? You brought some assortment of local oysters?
SB: Yeah, we get all of our oysters from Penn Cove, of course. Usually, Raul comes here four to five days a week. I think he gets his day started about three or so.
LM: He gets up at two in the morning.
SB: He gets up at two.
NB: Wow, right when I’m going to bed.
SB: Yeah, to make sure that all the downtown and, especially Tom Douglas Restaurants, have delicious Penn Cove oysters. So, some Capitals, some Cranberry Creeks, and some Compass Points. The Capitals will be a little salty. The other two are in the middle, nothing super-sweet, but I’ll get an assortment here to get us started.
SB: We serve ours here with a mignonette, it’s the classic accompaniment to oysters, so it’s some champagne vinegar, some shallots, just a touch of Tabasco to give it a little something else to it.
NB: And this beautiful bruleed lemon.
SB: Yeah, bruleed lemon’s our signature touch here. We call it sweet lemon, it gives it just … Everybody’s had lemon on your oysters, we’d be happy to give you regular lemon, but we put a little sugar on top and hit it with the blow torch to give it a different perspective.
NB: These are incredibly beautiful, I wish we had a picture of them right now. They’re all quite … I mean especially compared to Atlantic oysters, they’re quite small, the first thing I noticed. I actually grew up in Seattle and moved about 20 years ago so I periodically … Well, frequently, have these desperate cravings for Pacific Northwest oysters, and these are how they look in my fantasy, so thanks for that.
SB: We serve the oyster just as it lies in the shell. A lot of places, basically, you come through with your oyster knife on the right side, you cut the top joint and the bottom joint and then you put it down, basically. You just walk away, you don’t need to do anything else. When you have a perfect oyster that lies in the shell and it’s not beat up and it’s not punctured a whole bunch and that’s really the key of good oyster place. If people got to flip their oysters, everybody does it their own way, but we here like to show off our craftsmanship by just showing you like that.
NB: Keep it as pure to how it grows.
NB: These are stunning. It looks like they’ve been brushed with something for a photo shoot. They’re glistening.
SB: Yeah, one of the reasons we’re called Seatown is to try to give people from out of town a taste of Seattle. They can come in, eat an oyster, drink a Northwest beer or some wine and really get a sense of what oysters are here and what the seafood situation is here.
NB: Yeah, just shellfish in general.
NB: All right, will you join me?
LM: Yes, I actually [crosstalk 00:08:57].
NB: That’s very big of you.
LM: All right, you start at that end, I’ll start at this end?
SB: That sounds good.
NB: Yeah, we’ll meet in the middle. I’m just going to eat them with no sauce. Mmm! Oh, wow! A really deep cup. A really crisp … It’s actually kind of both crisp and a little bit creamy, but it is, it’s briny, it’s powerfully briny but it’s not dank at all, it’s bright.
LM: Yeah, so something that can be controversial amongst oyster lovers is that the difference of where your oysters come from and also how they’re kept. At Penn Cove we get oysters from different farms all over Washington and some in California and some up in BC. They all come through our facility and everything is fresh and live and served live, or brought live to our restaurants and shipped all over the country. To maintain that we … We keep them out in our waters in Penn Cove for a couple of days when they’re transported to us originally, just to keep them extra-fresh and really happy. You want to eat fresh oysters if you’re at a restaurant. You don’t want to know, “Oh, those things came out two weeks ago.” You’re like, “What?”
NB: These taste like happy oysters.
LM: Yeah, and so-
NB: Sorry to consume them-
LM: No, no.
NB: And destroy their happiness forever, but [crosstalk 00:10:32] is converting to us.
LM: Often times, you’ll get people who argue that … It’s called wet-storing, that process of doing so, they lose their actual flavor, their original flavor, because the water that is in their shells is actually from where they’ve been kept those few days before they’re being sent out. I have tasted a lot of oysters, I’ve tasted oysters that came from their location and to be honest, I don’t find it makes a huge difference. The meat, itself, what this oyster’s been built up of is from where it’s grown, so maybe that primary flavor, that liquid that you’re getting, that really nice saltiness, can differ depending on whether it’s come from where it was originally harvested or if it’s being kept somewhere else first. Really, it doesn’t change the nature of the oyster itself.
NB: It’s a great, happy oyster, it’s a great oyster. All right, let’s work through these. These are phenomenal. I’m going to do one and one and one, to see. I just have the Capital and the Compass Point has a really different … Well, here, let me get a fresh one and see what I’m … Really, really different. It’s a meatier flesh, maybe a bit sweeter as well.
LM: Yes, that’s [crosstalk 00:12:08].
NB: It’s different in size and texture, but they’re not far apart. These Capitals are from Spencer Cover and the Compass Points are from Samish Bay, but that difference between them, is that something is, in part, even though those areas are quite close to each other, they’re different.
LM: Yeah well and I live on Whidbey Island and I drove over here last night, so I took the bridge over from the island over to Mount Vernon towards Seattle. Within that, just crossing the bridge, it was something like 10 degrees warmer. You can go 20 miles or so and your temperatures are going to be very different in Washington. That does affect the waters in which these oysters are in and so you will get more algae or more nutrients depending on where they’re at. They also respond to those temperatures in their texture so you noticed how the Compass had a meatier feel to it, the texture was there was the … Since the Captials are a little bit more tender.
Colder waters are going to create typically a firmer meat and those are the things you’ll notice. Your flavors might still be very similar but then you’re getting a difference in texture depending where they’re at.
NB: It’s so funny, it’s as if you really could be talking about wine. You have, even on the same vineyard, might just have slopes that have different sun exposures and they’re quite close to each other but they’re growing … You might grown entirely different varieties that might be suited for different exposures that are quite close to each other in a vineyard.
NB: Yeah, it’s fascinating. I notice we’re both eschewing the mignonette and the lemon, which are delicious but I find when I taste oysters I just like them straight. Is that something you recommend as people are learning about oysters?
LM: With the learning about oysters, if you haven’t had an oyster before I might recommend kind of helping it along, mignonette, some lemon, something like that, because it can help cut through some of that flavor that people who aren’t big on seafood might not necessarily like. If you really want to taste the differences, figure out what’s going on with this oyster, what might have created this flavor and pinpointing the difference in flavors, I would recommend, definitely, just that nice liquor in there, you want to have a little bit of that liquid, that ocean spray that’s in that oyster, so you get kind of the taste that it’s living.
NB: It’s probably a good idea to taste an assortment so you can taste these. It’s really pretty noticeable differences even when you’re tasting oysters from the same area.
LM: It is.
NB: They usually come with a little cocktail fork to help pry the meat of the shell. What do you think? Fork or no fork? Just bring the shell up to your mouth and slurp or use a little fork?
LM: I’m a slurper. I’m not going to begrudge anybody the way they like to consume their oyster. If you’re eating it, I’m happy.
SB: I’m a slurper too.
NB: Chef Sam. Slurp or fork?
SB: Slurp, slurp.
NB: All right, I don’t know. We might be-
LM: I might-
NB: I think we’re going to-
LM: I think it’s-
NB: Go on record as being pro-slurp.
LM: Yeah, [crosstalk 00:15:40].
NB: I’d love to talk a little bit about … You know, we’re talking about the oysters in their purest form, but cooked oysters can be amazing as well. Chef Sam, do you have any thoughts on … Are you not destroying a perfect oyster by cooking it?
SB: I think it’s like eating braised short ribs versus having a nice mid-rare steak. There’s more ways to enjoy things than just the purse way. While I think eating a [inaudible 00:16:10], beautiful oyster from the Pacific Northwest, or where you get them from, is the most, simplest and one of the most interesting food experiences you can have, I feel, because it’s like nothing else in the entire world. Doing a good cooked oyster can also be, it can be a 9 instead of 10, but they can be done really well. Here at Seatown, we had a little fun with it. We pan fry them with some cornmeal and then we give you some kimchi, that’s made right down the street at Britt’s Pickles, and we give you a little chili aioli, and then some lettuce leaves, so you make little lettuce wraps. You put a pan-fried oyster in the lettuce leaf, a little kimchi, a little sauce, roll it up and eat it.
NB: That sounds amazing.
SB: Yeah, it’s really good. It’s one of our more popular dishes.
NB: The oysters to cook with, would those be different than ones that you would eat on the half shell?
SB: You’d want a little bigger ones, you want it to be a little plumber. Some of these little Capitals we have here, that would be … Once they fried up they’d probably be about the size of a dime or something like that and it’d maybe not be worth quite the amount time that you put into preparing that. That’s another cool thing about oysters, there’s a huge range of sizes and flavors and so while it might be an acquired taste to do it, straight on the half shell, doing them either shucking them out of the shell and frying them or putting some compound butter on them and putting them under the broiler is a delicious way to do it. I love them on the grill, put some delicious butter on there or just some butter and Worcestershire and hot sauce and herbs.
NB: Would you shuck it before putting it on the grill or can you put it on the grill-
SB: You can go two ways, you can put them on the grill and they’ll pop open and then you can basically just easily take their shell off and then pour your butter over the top. Or, I like to shuck it, make sure it’s cleaned out so it won’t stick in there, make sure it’s no shell fragments, stuff like that. Then put the butter on, put it in the oven.
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