The Olympia oyster boasts a flavor so intriguingly odd, so unlike other oysters, it has aficionados searching for words. Chef Maylin Chavez, who owns Olympia Oyster Bar in Portland, Oregon, calls it "sweet like a carrot," but also "savory like a shiitake or chicken bouillon" and, most quirkily, "sneaky like a radish."
Sure enough, the oyster does seem sweet and mild at first, before hitting you with a peppery bite—although, to me, it’s most reminiscent of a matsutake, the wild mushroom prized for its distinctive aroma, a mingling of funky socks and cinnamon candy.
"It tastes like a wet penny," claims Kyle Christy of Dame Restaurant, another Portland chef who features the oyster on his menu, "but in a good way." My favorite descriptions come from the poetic accounts of oyster historian Rowan Jacobsen, known for his unparalleled love of the Olympia, who likens this singular oyster to "a potato chip dipped in mustard oil...a mermaid’s Bloody Mary" in his book The Essential Oyster: A Salty Appreciation of Taste and Temptation.
That thought-provoking flavor is one of many reasons the tiny Olympia, or Oly for short, is now making a comeback from over a century of decline due to habitat damage from mining practices, overharvesting, and industrial pollution. As the West Coast’s only native oyster species, the Olympia was once a staple of coastal tribes, and the oyster of choice in San Francisco’s iconic Hangtown Fry. But it was long ago eclipsed by the ubiquitous Pacific oyster, which has been imported from Japan since the first decades of the 20th century. In the past decade, the Olympia has become the champion of restoration efforts that promise to heal estuaries of the West, and its intriguing flavor has elevated its status to cult favorite—for those lucky enough to find it.
A diminutive creature that grows much more slowly than the robust, wavy-shelled Pacific, the Olympia oyster hides inside a tiny, flat teardrop of a shell, its meat on the pink side of beige. It grows only to about two inches, the nugget inside the size of a nickel.
Prior to the 1840s, millions of these bivalves lined the rocky underbellies of sheltered bays, their shells forming a reef of sorts that provided a protected habitat for marine life along the coast from Alaska to Baja. But within just a few decades, populations near San Francisco had almost been wiped out by the Gold Rush boom.
One might say the Olympia was doomed the moment they found gold in them thar hills. Many of the first Forty-Niners to arrive in California would have been accustomed to cheap oysters at the downmarket oyster saloons that flourished from New York to the Midwest, where men would down several dozen in one sitting. Numerous accounts indicate they were unhappy with the tiny San Francisco Bay oysters, which were small even for Olympias and yielded nuggets of dark, unfamiliar-tasting meat.
With a growing swell of miners, the demand couldn’t be met by tinned oysters shipped from Baltimore, and live ones from the East rarely survived the trip until the Transcontinental Railroad arrived in California in 1869.
By 1851, a more regional solution had been found. In Washington, populations of the same oyster were discovered by surveyors in Shoalwater Bay (now called Willapa). There, they grew larger and lighter in color, thus broadening their appeal, and in greater numbers as well. Massive quantities of Olympias were bought and seized from natives and shipped from Shoalwater to San Francisco. A decade later, Oregon oysters from Yaquina and Netarts Bays were also being harvested to meet the demand. Since remote bays filled with the bivalve were suddenly valuable—one entrepreneur claimed to be able to sell Olympias at 11 times the going rate for an oyster in New York—white prospectors filed land claims that colonized the area and wrested control of the resource from local tribes.
All of those Olys were served raw on the half-shell and in a variety of cooked preparations, perhaps most famously in the Hangtown Fry, a legendary scramble of eggs cooked with oysters and bacon that made its mark on the mid-19th-century San Franciscan food scene and endures as one of the city's earliest signature dishes.
All signs indicate that the dish originally featured Olympia oysters, often called "California oysters," instead of Pacifics or canned Eastern oysters. This changes our understanding of what eating oysters was like in the Gold Rush days. Many early egg-and-oyster recipes from San Francisco required the cook to shuck several dozen California oysters for a single entrée, a feat that would hardly be necessary if one could rely on other varieties. The regional America Cooks cookbook project of 1949 even throws some shade on the iconic San Francisco dish, quipping that “California uses Olympia oysters [for the dish], for which the State of Washington is famous.”
The state of Washington is still famous for its Olympias today, as Puget Sound is one of the only places the bivalves now grow without human intervention, though it’s also the site of several breeding operations. The largest of these is Taylor Shellfish, Washington’s oldest and the country’s largest shellfish farm, founded in 1890 to fill Californians’ voracious demand for oysters at a time when Olympias still grew wild in Willapa Bay. Taylor still grows them as a nod to the farm’s origins, one of only a handful of farms devoted to the process, and sales indicate the demand is rising.
Brittany Taylor, a fifth-generation oyster farmer who oversees the oyster-breeding program at Taylor Shellfish, explains that Olympias are bred from "seed," fertilized babies that are set individually on mother shells, or discards from adult oysters, which are then submerged. These form tiny oysters, called spat, that can be sold to develop and mature at other oyster farms. But due to their growth patterns, Olympias aren’t a common choice for breeders: They take about three years to reach commercial size, versus the single year required by a Pacific oyster, making them a longer-term, more costly investment.
At the same time, an unusual feature of the Olympia’s life cycle makes it uniquely suited to absorb the stresses of climate change. Dr. George Waldbusser, an ocean ecology expert at Oregon State University, explains that while most oysters release their eggs and sperm into the water for fertilization and development, Olympia females hold the fertilized eggs internally for over a week. Waldbusser found this meant that baby Olympias could devote more energy to fast shell growth, which means they handle ocean acidification more effectively than other baby oysters, enduring when others die off.
This ability to resist acidification has caught the attention of environmentalists, and projects are under way in many West Coast bays to fortify the water with native oyster cultch, or shell beds, and introduce more spat. The Nature Conservancy set out five million larvae and filled 12 acres of Netarts Bay with a stable population of Olympias over an eight-year period from 2005 to 2013, according to Dick Vander Schaaf, an associate director of coast and marine conservation for the organization.
Similarly, Laura Brown, shellfish biologist for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, has led two successful restoration projects in the Yaquina Bay with the help of students at the Siletz Valley charter school, who perform restoration and monitoring work as part of their environmental studies curriculum.
With its longer period of maturation and resulting scarcity, finding the Olympia in restaurants can be a challenge. It makes only brief appearances at New York’s Grand Central Oyster Bar and is available in just a few restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. It also comes at a higher price, sometimes a dollar more each than other oysters.
To justify the cost of this rare creature, conservation-minded West Coast restaurants emphasize its key role in coastal ecology. At Olympia Oyster Bar, Maylin Chavez serves it only on weekends in winter and spring, when it’s in season, but is proud to "pay homage to a resilient and flavorful and delicate animal that was overharvested and impacted by pollution." She sometimes offers flights from the few farms that grow them, including Hama Hama Co. on the Hood Canal, to capture the vast range of different "merroirs."
Dame Restaurant in Portland confidently offers no other oyster but the raw Olympia on its PNW-seafood-centric menu, allowing guests to experience the flavor prized by Kyle Christy. "If we can have a conversation about it," owner and GM Jane Smith says, "we can tell customers that Olys are tiny, but the flavor is singular and wonderful, and they’re native to the coast and represent the restoration of the land and water that’s possible. Some are really into it. Others are 'why the F did I just pay over three dollars for a tiny oyster?'"
For her part, Brittany Taylor recommends Olympias as a gateway oyster. "My dad started me on Olympias out on the water, when I was a child. The small size and flavor are perfect for beginners, since they’re not as slippery and surprising as your first Pacific," she says.
To experience them for myself, I traveled to Newport on the central Oregon coast, and wound eastward around forested, tranquil Yaquina Bay. The bay is the only place in the Pacific Northwest that still has a commercially viable and sizable wild population of Olympias, now growing opportunistically on farmed Pacific oyster shells. Oregon Oyster Farms, founded by the family that owns Portland’s venerable Dan and Louis Oyster Bar, sits on a site where native Olympias flourish now just as they did a hundred years ago. The farm collects them when they harvest their cultivated Pacifics.
Manager Marci Novak Dodson met me at the retail shop. The rousing horns of a Mexican tune floated on the air from a long house on the dock, reaching out on the water on stilts, and seals cavorted in the channel. Men shucked oysters at lightning speed and pulled up ropes of dense clumps of shells that are hung from floating rafts. Dodson pointed me to the massive tubs of discarded, shucked Pacifics. And there they were, little Olympias, often a half dozen or more, stuck all over the mother shells that formed both a growing medium and a habitat. We collected a few dozen and shucked them, Dodson deft with her knife, me happily sacrificing a clean notebook to messy slurping while I tried to capture their flavor in words.
I asked her how she likes her oysters. "The Hangtown Fry," she said. "I make mine with eggs, half and half, and frijole seasoning, then I melt cheddar on top of it."
I have to confess, the dish has always sounded revolting to me: wet oysters in a sloppy scramble with greasy bacon. I’m not alone in this thought. But when Dodson described her version, I could suddenly imagine why the Olympia would transform the dish from unappealingly soggy to appetizing. Made with Olympia oysters instead of huge, juicy Pacifics, which tend to ooze liquid even when fried, the dish would be less a "wet brown mush," as one reviewer called it, and more fluffy and sturdy, the eggs studded with small but powerful, almost meaty morsels of oyster. The Olympia’s tiny, flavorful nugget of meat, which cooks down to the size of a thumbnail with no excess moisture, would infuse the eggs with its mushroomy flavor. Dodson’s inclusion of frijole seasoning (a spice blend for beans) and cheddar would complement the base flavors nicely.
Returning home with few dozen Olympias, I tested the theory, conjuring up a contemporary Hangtown Fry with a new spin. Instead of scrambling the eggs, I used them to make a savory Dutch baby for a showy brunch presentation. I shucked enough oysters to fill a half cup, then pan-fried them with chopped bacon. The odor of smoked meat rose, and the cooking Olys even looked like little pieces of mushroom, deeply flavored with fresh, oceanic umami.
As I folded them into an eggy batter in a cast iron pan, they sizzled in melted butter. The puffy pancake rose in the oven, forming an appetizing crust over the rich, brown bits. Just as with the dish of the legend, when I served up my rare and costly treat, the smiles on my guests’ faces were worth their weight in gold, and I knew that the Olympia is definitely worth the effort.