Genesis of the tide-tumbled oyster
STORY BY JENNIFER CRAIN
At high tide, all you can see of the Eld Inlet tidelands is an unbroken ribbon of pebbly beach. When the water recedes, the farm comes into view, a muddy plain dotted with clam beds and, farther out, mesh oyster bags attached to long racks. Geoduck clams squirt streams of water up from the mud at random.
Shina Wysocki and Kyle Lentz grew up here, on the Olympia property where their parents, John and Linda Lentz, established Chelsea Farms in 1987. As kids, they zip-tied oyster bags to racks on the beach. Today, the two co-manage the shell fish operation, a 15-employee business that produces Manila clams, geoducks, and oysters on 50 acres of tidelands in the southernmost inlets of Puget Sound.
The siblings wade out in identical pairs of brown-and-tan fishing boots to inspect the oyster bags. When Shina picks up a bag by its loose end and lifts it high, the teardrop-shaped oysters inside clack together as they somersault to the other end of the bag, like an enormous rain stick. There are hundreds of bags on the beach, each crowded with oysters the length of my pinky. These are Chelsea Gems, darlings of the booming half-shell oyster market and the product that quietly revolutionized the region’s oyster industry.
Farmed Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas), like the Chelsea Gem, retain some of their ancestors’ rugged traits — ridged shells, purple striping, the occasional barnacle — and develop the same way they have for millennia. Placed on the proper beach, an oyster will grow, feeding off of nothing but the phytoplankton in the water.
“I never know if we’re farming or ranching,” Shina says. “We’re growing wild animals in the same way that nature grows them. All we do is seed them and then protect them. Compared to a lot of terrestrial farming, it’s very wild.”
True. But cultured Pacifics are painstakingly uniform, a trait they don’t share with their ancient cousins. The fact that you can buy a dozen oysters with identical measurements is an industrial triumph, one that owes its success to a mix of ancient cultivation techniques, contemporary equipment, and unrelenting upkeep.
Oysters grow new shell material prolifically; left alone, oyster shells fuse together and form a reef. To create marketable oysters, growers have to chip off the new, brittle shell growth at intervals, forcing the oyster to channel its energy into making a thicker shell with a deeper cup that is easier to shuck and is the right shape for slurping.
To achieve this, some farmers gather oysters and run them through an oyster tumbler — a rotating, perforated metal tube — before returning them to the beach. The oysters are tossed about, chipping off the new shell growth. As they tumble, the oysters pull themselves inward, developing a strong, plump muscle.
Kyle says that his father, who passed away last year, relished low-tech farming methods. To grow tidy, bite-sized oysters without the mechanical fuss, John and Linda initially adopted the French rack-and-bag method, in which oyster seeds (tiny oysters grown in nurseries) are placed in mesh bags and strapped to racks that sit up off the mud and sand, below the high-tide line. The system produces a less gritty product and protects oysters from star fish, gulls, and other predators.
But to keep the oysters from growing into one another or through the holes in the mesh, Linda had to turn them by hand a couple of times each season, a task that required her to unstrap, shake, and turn the bags before strapping them back down. The heaviest bag weighed 50 pounds.
As the idea man, John tried to come up with a less backbreaking solution. An idea struck him when he paid a visit to Joth Davis more than 15 years ago. Joth, an oyster farmer and shell fish researcher, was growing cup-shaped oyster seeds using an adaptation of the Stanway cylinder, the original tumbling system, invented by an Australian oyster farmer 30 years ago. Mesh tubes roll with the changing tides, removing silt and tumbling the oysters inside.
Back at home, John started to develop his own method, aiming to harness tidal action to turn the oysters at regular intervals. He unstrapped one end of each mesh bag and attached a oat — he experimented with empty juice jugs and pool noodles, before settling on a commercial oat. When he got it right, Josh saw the bags rise and fall with the tides, tumbling the oysters inside. The oysters “cupped up,” as expected. They also grew twice as fast. Surrounded by free-flowing water, they reached market size in only nine months.
John wasn’t the only farmer growing tumbled oysters. Australian and French farmers piloted the cylinder method in the late 1980s. The first to go to market on this continent, the Kusshi oyster from British Columbia, is tumbled by machine. But John fathered the first domestic tide-tumbled oyster, using a system that was all his own.
Rather than patent his method, John talked about it with other shell sh farmers, who adapted it for their own growing conditions. “He really enjoyed being part of the shell sh community,” Kyle says. “He had learned a lot from other people, so he felt like sharing his ideas.”
As the concept took off, a collection of tumbled oysters emerged across the region. Already revered for their sweet, cucumber-laced flavor, the Paci c oysters — with improved shape, texture, and availability — created a surge in demand that has contributed to the transformation of the oyster industry over the past decade.
Shina and Kyle are proud of their dad’s innovation. “It spurred a change in how people cultivate their oysters,” Shina explains. “Adopting it is the sincerest form of attery.”
Chelsea Farms sells oysters to restaurants in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Portland, among others. In Seattle, Chelsea Gems are served at Westward, Elliott’s Oyster House, Gold Finch Tavern, Quinn’s Pub, and Anthony’s. And they’re sold retail at Boston Harbor Marina and Bay Mercantile in Olympia.
Soon, Chelsea Farms will serve customers face to face at Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar, a 40-seat venue in an indoor marketplace, set to open soon in downtown Olympia. The raw-oyster bar menu includes Chelsea Gems and other local oysters, as well as the farm’s geoduck, a rarity in a region that exports most of its crop. Shina, who graduated from the culinary arts program at The Art Institute of Seattle, is developing a casual menu of shell fish-based dishes that include the farm’s clams and oysters, as well as regional mussels. She’s also developing non-shell sh options.
“This will provide us with the opportunity to be a part of our community, which we feel is really important,” Kyle says. “We want people in our community to know what we’re doing here.”
Jennifer Crain writes about food production from her home in Olympia. Learn more about her work at jennifercrain.com.