Aw, shucks: Oysterville offers a chance to come out of your shell

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Oysters grill over hot coals until the shells open.

OYSTERVILLE, Wash. — Usually, razor clams get all the publicity.

Last spring’s razor clam-digging opening on the 28-mile-long Long Beach Peninsula’s ocean beach was a big deal because state fisheries honchos temporarily upped the daily limit after a long closure assured a good harvest. Fanatical diggers descended in droves.

But cross the 1 3/4-mile-wide peninsula to where the Pacific surf doesn’t pound and you’re in the land of the oyster. No digging required.

It’s a much quieter kind of delicious.

Here, foggy mists hang like lace curtains over sprawling Willapa Bay, where the palette is all soft greens, dusty blues, and sea-grass tan. After you’ve had your fun beach-town fill of Long Beach’s Go Karts, arcade games, flashy kites, and Jake the Alligator Man (the star attraction of Marsh’s Free Museum), and grumped about whatever new development has caught your eye (because the beach towns of your childhood aren’t supposed to change), it’s time to head 15 miles north and visit the quiet village of Oysterville.

Camera icon brian J. cantwell / Seattle Times
Sea grasses flourish at the edge of Willapa Bay in Oysterville.

Aah. Even the old-school name of the place is kind of soothing.

Near the far end of the peninsula, time seems to have paused, as though the community were clamped away in its own shell. The whole 80-acre village is a national historic district, with development limits and design standards overseen by the National Park Service. Meaning: Nothing changes much.

Founded in 1854, in its heyday Oysterville was a little boomtown, and the county seat. In those days, Willapa Bay shipped boatloads of oysters to San Francisco to feed the increasingly sophisticated tastes of gold-rush-rich Californians.

Now, Oysterville is just a quiet, mostly residential community, a perfect place to be a hermit.

Strolling recently along a row of 19th-century houses, each with a placard erected by the Daughters of the Pioneers to tell when it was built and by whom (“R.H. Espy House, co-founder of Oysterville, 1871”), I chuckled to myself when a big SUV pulled up and a sunglasses-clad tourist, perhaps in search of taffy stands and bumper cars, asked with some dismay, “So, where is Oysterville?”

“You’re in it!” I told him, looking around with a smile at the steeple of the tiny white-and-red church near a towering line of ancient cypresses and around the corner from the old one-room schoolhouse, no longer used for daily classes.

Beyond the old houses, the 25-mile-long bay is now America’s largest producer of farmed oysters. On your way there, drive snaking Highway 101 along the bay’s eastern shore and you’ll cross bridge after bridge over rivers and sloughs that bring nutrients oysters feed on. At river mouths, prairie-like salt marshes bristle with reeds, capturing erosion-caused silt that might choke the bivalves. With a largely undeveloped shore, Willapa Bay has all the makings of an oyster Shangri-La.

Camera icon brian J. Cantwell / Seattle Times
Cyclists pass the old Oysterville Church, a gift from founding father R.H. Espy, who donated land and money for it in 1892.

Stroll the village. Step into Oysterville’s simple old church, where heat comes from a potbelly stove and the lighting is all by oil lamp. (Befitting a community by the sea, on our visit, a Bible on the lectern had been left open to the Book of Jonah.) Peek through windows into the schoolhouse, which these days hosts a summertime science academy for local kids and a public lecture series (recently on the schedule: a chief of the Coast Guard motor lifeboat school at Cape Disappointment).

Then it’s time to get oysters for dinner.

Follow the road to the bay and you’ll find the former oyster cannery, which claims to be the only one of its kind on the National Historic Register. Today, the weathered dockside buildings are home to Oysterville Sea Farms, which markets products under its “Willabay” trade name. A retail shop in a rustic waterfront shed sells oysters shucked or in the shell, along with clams, crab, and shrimp.

You can buy oysters or shrimp cocktail ready to eat with a glass of wine on a deck overlooking the bay. But my mission was to procure oysters in the shell for my first-ever experiment with roasting oysters on a charcoal grill.

On the way to the beach, I’d already picked up a dozen medium-sized beauties across the bay at Goose Point Oysters, on the west side of 101 just north of the Niawiakum River, near Bay Center. This time, I chose a dozen small oysters for comparison.

In-shell oysters of any size were $7 a dozen there, or three dozen for $20 if you want a real feast. A sign promised they’d been harvested that day.

“All our oysters come from right out here,” said counterman Mike Gibbs, nodding toward the bay where Oysterville Sea Farms stewards more than 200 acres of private tidelands “These on the shell are hand-picked.”

Being new at barbecuing them in the shell, I asked for guidance. He suggested putting them directly on the grill, waiting for the shells to open slightly on their own, then prying them open with a butter knife.

“Hold the shells up first and look at them, and you can usually tell which is the ‘up’ side, because you want to keep the juices to cook them in.” (Place them “cupped” side down.)

What kind of recipe might he suggest? “Garlic, butter and a fork,” Gibbs said with a smile.

I paid for the oysters and a $20 bottle of Willabay Oyster Blanc wine, developed by Oysterville Sea Farms and produced for it by Mount Baker Vineyards. A watercolor image of the oyster shed decorates the label.

Back at our beach rental at the north end of Long Beach’s Discovery Trail, I watched in suspense as the first batch smoked and sizzled on the grill. Would they open? At first, all they did was spew water like one of those Italian fountains with cherubs. I worried that my coals would be extinguished. (This might have been for the good; if coals are too hot, the shells can explode, warned a website I consulted later. Perhaps safety glasses are in order?)

Gradually, one by one, they began to open, and I went to work prying the shells. I topped the oysters with minced garlic, substituted a few drops of olive oil for the suggested butter, and let them bubble a bit longer before serving with a choice of red cocktail sauce from the Goose Point Oystery or my wife’s homemade tartar sauce (mayonnaise, dill pickle relish, finely minced onion, and paprika).

Or we just ate them off the shell and savored the taste of sea, salt, and smoke, washed down with a sip of Oyster Blanc.

To finish off? A quiet walk through grassy dunes to dip toes in the surf among scampering sandpipers.

I rarely say no to bumper cars, but this was a really good day at the beach.

If you go

•  Not only can you buy oysters to take back to your beach rental or campsite, Oysterville Sea Farms, on the Oysterville waterfront, has a deck with tables where you can enjoy seafood and a glass of wine when the weather is pleasant. Retail sales 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Sunday (offseason hours); check Facebook page for occasional special openings, or call 360-665-6585. More details at willabay.com.

• On the east side of Willapa Bay, stop in at the Oystery at Goose Point Oysters, where they provide grills (charcoal, too) for you to barbecue oysters on a deck with umbrella tables overlooking the Niawiakum River. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, September-April; till 6 p.m. in summer; 7081 Niawiakum St., Highway 101, Bay Center; goosepoint.com.