A Day With The Oyster Man

Written by: Andrew Findlay    
Published by: WestJet InFlight Magazine (Aug. 2003)

"Sex appeal. That's what it really boils down to," he says, as though stating the obvious when I ask him why some people are fanatical about oysters. After downing his fourth fresh one of the afternoon, a brine of oyster juice sparkles on his bushy beard and drips onto a white T-shirt with a sketch of a fellow who bears a striking resemblance to himself. A whimsical image that is underscored by the slogan, "Join The Oyster Revolution."

I'm standing on a beach warming my toes in the sand and thinking of ways to procrastinate. The reason I've come to this tiny island between the West Coast and Vancouver Island is to do something I've never done before: eat a raw oyster. No better way to challenge the sensibilities of a guy who was raised in cattle country.

Bringing the shucked bivalve to my lips, I close my eyes, mutter a few half-baked prayers, then pour it into my mouth along with its salty nectar. I bite down tentatively on the creamy tan-coloured meat once, then twice. Could it be that I'm actually enjoying this delicacy? Oyster grower Brent Petkau watches intently, pleased to welcome another reluctant recruit to what he unofficially calls the "Oyster Revolution." Petkau, also known as "The Oysterman," is as passionate about his product as an Italian vintner is about red wine.

"Sex appeal. That's what it really boils down to," he says, as though stating the obvious when I ask him why some people are fanatical about oysters. After downing his fourth fresh one of the afternoon, a brine of oyster juice sparkles on his bushy beard and drips onto a white T-shirt with a sketch of a fellow who bears a striking resemblance to himself. A whimsical image that is underscored by the slogan, "Join The Oyster Revolution."

With his salt-and-pepper beard, light brown beret, and lively eyes, Petkau appears every bit the part of a revolutionary-minus the hard edge.

On this warm May afternoon, I have joined Perkau on his daily commute, a 20-minute walk along the shore of Marina Island to his "office." Marina is just 15 minutes by boat from where Petkau lives at Manson's Landing on Cortes Island. Once the exclusive domain of hippies and pioneering families, Cortes now hosts a growing count of wealthy residents from south of the border. Take the draft dodgers, millionaires, artists, loggers, and fishermen, throw in 70 or so free-thinking oyster farmers, and you have a demographic mix that only makes the already combustible Gulf Island politics even more interesting. Petkau, a former tree planter and forestry consultant from Nelson, B.C., admits this diversity is one of the reasons he likes it here. Officially, however, it was the oysters and combination of nutrient rich waters and protected coves that first brought Petkau to Cortes seven years ago. He's been on a quest for the perfect oyster ever since: palm-sized, he says, and infused by the natural tastes of the sea without the need for rich, oily marinades.

Petkau spends much of the summer here on Marina Island living in a rustic sea shanty with his partner and their two young children, working his 10-acre oyster lease like a Robinson Crusoe of the seafood industry. This is his bread and butter, a bountiful slice of foreshore that supplies fresh oysters, as well as clams, to restaurants in Calgary and Toronto.Oysters can be harvested either from beaches, like this, where they are seeded in the sand, or from deep-water rafts by dangling strings of oyster shells that act as hosts for the seed.

As we walk and talk, Petkau seems fascinated (or you might say obsessed) with oysters. But he's not the only one: oysters are a curious food, a slippery mollusk that can inspire devotion, fear, and even passion because of their alleged aphrodisiacal qualities. Shuck one and you might find a pearl, formed when a grain of sand penetrates the soft tissue of an oyster and grows into a lustrous gem of nacre, the same material that forms the mollusk's shell. In ancient times, it was considered to be the ultimate symbol of perfection. Pliny, the great Roman scribe, called pearls "the most sovereign commodity in the whole world."

The oyster that we have come to appreciate as a food, Crassostrea gigas, is actually indigenous to Japan and was introduced to the West Coast around 1905. Known alternatively as the Pacific or Japanese oyster, it has been an adept colonizer now found between Alaska's Prince William Sound and Newport Bay, California.

For an hour, Petkau and I methodically comb his beach, stopping occasionally to swallow an oyster.

I pause for a moment and gaze up and down the shoreline. It's bereft of human activity, deserted, without a single boat in sight, further accentuating the fact that oyster growers tend to be an independent lot, their working day set by the rhythm of the tides. That's not to say they are backwards at business-Petkau and other small scale growers have proven remarkably astute, prospecting high-end markets often overlooked by the larger seafood companies. Oyster growing is now an integral part of B.C.'s coastal economy with an annual harvest of 7,300 tonnes and a wholesale value of $14 million. Petkau falls clearly on the boutique side of the business, preferring to develop a personal relationship with restaurants and chefs who care about where their food comes from. More diners want to know what they're eating-where, how, with or without artificial additives and by whom it was harvested.

After an hour of oyster picking, throughout which Petkau schools me on the art of harvesting the perfect beach-hardened oyster, we walk back to where his boat is anchored. While Petkau paddles out to the powerboat in his canoe, I wait on the beach in front of the sea shanty, a weather-beaten structure of salvaged boards, logs, and windows that seems to lean improbably into the wind.

I jump in the boat, and after a 10 minute cruise, we slide through a narrow, steep-sided entrance into Gorge Harbour. As part of his oyster growing business, Petkau belongs to a cooperative that share a collection of rafts for deep-water oyster cultivation.

"It takes three years to grow a good oyster," Petkau says, as he reaches into the water and pulls up a bag of oysters. "This is mariculture at its best. We don't feed them, we don't use chemicals of any sort, it's all natural."

A small skiff nudges up next to Petkau's boat, a man with a tanned and smiling face at the helm.

"This guy is a master ouster grower," Petkau says, introducing me to John Shook.

Shook has rather simple explanation for how he came to be an oyster grower. He says he was helping a friend work his oyster lease, drinking a few beers at the same time, and thought, "This isn't a bad way to make a living."

On a warm, T-shirt only spring day like this, the life of an oyster grower does indeed appear quite idyllic. It's a profoundly different story in winter when the low tides coincide with the dark of night and the south-easterly wind blows the rain into a relentless horizontal torrent, and you'd rather be indoors sipping a hot drink. That's when oyster growers earn their buck, Petkau says.

The oyster, as a coveted restaurant food, is making inroads in unlikely places. Michael Noble, the brains and inspiration behind Calgary's The Catch, is one of those chefs helping to train the palates of land lubbers to accept, or rather love, oysters. In fact, both Noble and Petkau agree that cow town puts Vancouver to shame in terms of its oyster appreciation. Perhaps those who are proximate to the sea take its bounty for granted.

Noble is almost as interested in where his ingredients come from as he is in whipping them into delectable dishes. It's sort of like a furniture maker want to meet the person who felled the trees and milled the logs into lumber.

It's about wanting to tell the full story behind what you create.

"I think there should always be a story around what you're serving. On Cortes Island, it's not the big box approach: it's small scale, ethical, real salt-of-the-earth stuff," says Noble, who buys oysters from Petkau year round.

Boating back from the Gorge to Petkau's home at Manson's Landing, it strikes me how dissimilar oysters are from most other foods. Think of clams, and you might dream about a steaming bowl of chowder; carrots, a fibrous vegetable rich in beta carotene that's good for the eyes. Oysters, however, come gift wrapped in a fable: they're seafood with sex appeal of almost mythological proportions. Since Roman times people have believed oysters to be an aphrodisiac. In the past therapist treating sexual disorders, for lack of any other suggestions, have been known to recommend eating oysters. But before you head to Cortes to slurp oysters by the bucket full, there's something you should know. Unless you're aroused by phosphorous, zinc, iron, and B12, there's nothing scientific to support this age-old belief, other than the fact that for some reason, eating a raw food has a primal, even suggestive, quality.

After tying up at the government dock at Manson's Landing, we walk across the tidal flats to Petkau's home. Tonight we will dine on-you guessed it-barbecued oysters.

After a day of oyster snacks and meals, I can't help but wonder what mythic prophecy would suggest if one were to eat too many.

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