Right off I'll disclose that by no means am I an oyster expert, although I've been eating Washington State oysters for over 40 years and know some things from the consumer side of the oyster equation. As with wine, the particular conditions of their geographic origin impart distinct effects on flavor; yet, unlike wine, the degree of freshness is of paramount importance when making the choice to eat oysters!
A Bit of Historical Background
The easily gathered Oyster contributed significantly to the diet of indigenous coastal peoples (e.g., Chinook, Chehalis, Skykomish, etc.) in what became the State of Washington, along with clams, mussels, salmon, and other seafoods. Survivors of a ship which the cook had set afire began Washington's first commercial oyster-harvesting venture in Willapa (accent on the final syllable) Bay in 1852. Oysters were shipped south to San Francisco for feeding the burgeoning Gold Rush population. By 1920, oyster-harvesting commerce had severely depleted the native Olympia oyster variety (smallish) formerly prevalent in the region. The oystermen tried and failed to introduce to these waters oysters which were shipped by rail from North America's eastern seaboard. Finally, they were successful by introducing Japanese oysters (later renamed Pacific) to Willapa Bay. Nowadays, most Washington State oysters on the market are the Pacific variety, which grows to maturity in two years, although there have been some efforts to improve the population of Olympia oysters with modest success in recent years, especially in Netarts Bay, Oregon. Washington's state government estimates that there are approximately 350 oyster farms on the Willapa Bay coastline of Pacific County. This is the area with the largest production by far of any in Washington, although certainly not the only place oysters thrive in this region.
Puget Sound Appellations & Flavor
There are nine appellations in the lower five, long inlets of Puget Sound between Olympia and Shelton, WA. These are rich and intensely flavored oysters, "more sweet than salty" with "a hint of cooked greens or seaweed" (Jacobsen). Hood Canal is a much different environment: salinity up a few notches, colder water, and rocky shore. It has eight appellations producing remarkably firm oysters, with hints of lettuce or lemon zest. Quilcene are my favorites, although Hamma Hamma was readily available in the 70s, and I ate about a pint per week (they were only $2.49 back then). North Puget Sound has another seven appellations. Although I'm not as familiar with them, Jacobsen says these are "brinier," much less intensely flavored, "more cucumber than smoke."
Seattle's Elliott Bay Oysters on Pier 56 (access from Alaskan Way) is the best restaurant in Washington for trying the flavor gradations of Puget Sound oysters. Unfortunately, it is temporarily closed (since October) for nearby infrastructure construction, but should be reopened by late August or Labor Day, 2015.
Grays Harbor (from which I write) is a large county just north of Pacific County. There are two major oyster farms I know. Lytle's Seafoods on the north shore of the harbor, I believe, suspends its oysters in large wire cages. Brady's Seafood on the way to Westport, WA uses the more traditional method of constructing trellis-like arrangements on mudflats, upon which the oysters can attach. Both sell oysters in the shell by the bushel, or already shucked into quart containers categorized as Ex.Small, Small, Medium, or Large. The oysters of this area are pretty firm, (rewardingly fresh for me), typically briny with the digested plankton center complementing lips and flesh. Their versatility is remarkable -- sauteed up with home fries for breakfast -- late afternoon appetizers on half-shell with cocktail sauce -- sauteed with onion, sweet peppers, mushrooms. lemon juice & fennel seed for evening entree -- or lightly smoked with flaked salmon, cod, shrimp in some chowder variation. Dry or moderately sweet white wines pair well with oyster dishes, e.g., chardonnay, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, or Vouvray.
Links to Background Information
Both retrieved 2015.1.29
1. Jacobsen, Rowan. (2014). The oyster guide: a geography of oysters in North America.
2. State of Washington Dept. of Archaeology and Historic Preservation. Pacific County -- thumbnail history.