Category Archives: Comox Valley

Fanny Bay Oysters

“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides are very good indeed —
Now if you’re ready, Oysters, dear,
We can begin to feed!”

             -Lewis Carroll

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We knew we were buying ocean-front property.

We had no idea we were also buying a farm-front estate.

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See those turquoise rectangular plots out there awaiting sun exposure in the outgoing tide?

That’s a bona fide farm, aquaculture-style.

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Oysters, baby… oysters.

Acres and acres of some of the best in the world reveal themselves twice a day in that amazing zone known as “our back yard.”

That’s me, gently tiptoe-ing through the two-lips (aka, bivalves.)
Hahaha… get it? Bivalves… two-lips…
Sorry. I’m just in this for the shuckles.

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And the oysters. We’re in it for the oysters, too.

Why, many of you will ask, do apparently rational people willingly slurp back completely recognizable, unadorned and unaltered (except for having been chilled and treated to a spare drop of lemon juice to tone down the salt hit), raw, living critters?

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Rowan Jacobsen’s amazingly engaging*, informative, and delightful little tome, A Geography of Oysters, lays out at least two compelling reasons:

1. In a way unique among all edibles, raw oysters taste like the sea.

Landlocked in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and pining for the briny ozone air of your favorite coastal town and the sound of eagles and waves breaking on the beach? Hit a local oyster bar, knock back half a dozen of these puppies, and save yourself several hundred dollars in air fare, ’cause you’re there.

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2. More than any other food, the flavor of particular oysters, like the terroir of wine, is derived from the unique intersection of the bottom composition, river inlets, salinity, and the thousand other variables that make one place different from another.

This is why oysters are named for the place they come from, rather than for their species. Their “somewhereness” links palate to place.

Raw Fanny Bay oysters (of the species Crassostrea gigas, or Pacific oysters) have a smooth, clean, light cucumber, medium salt Fanny Bay-ness to them that is now permanently bolted to our definition of “home.”

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They’re “beach cultured” oysters, meaning that once the little tray-nurseried gems reach the age of oyster-majority, they’re hardened off for market on our beautiful rocky shale beach.

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Think of them as yogi vegetarians who live on filtered algae and plankton, using the daily tides to strengthen their core muscles by clamping resolutely shut during low tides to preserve their sweet life juices and to guard themselves against beach predators.

Between that and the regular intense natural tanning sessions, they grow stout, shucker-friendly shells that also extend their shelf life.

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While the gustatory appeal is self-evident to us, the details of the whole oyster-farming process still remain a bit of a mystery.

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This much we know: the practice involves tides, oyster growth cycles, sex (theirs), and winter survival.

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Things involving boats, winches, and large quantities of oysters happen during high tide.

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At low tide, the stuff (in this case, the nursery trays) that was dropped off at high tide begins to emerge…

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…as do these good oyster farmers of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, who now show up to engage in intensely manual labor.

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Next time you enjoy a Fanny Bay oyster, give a “cheers!” to the backs that brought you that joy.

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The relationship of–and duration between–the dropping off…

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… and the picking up of oyster-related bits is still unclear to us, as yet, but give us a full year on the observation deck and we’ll get ‘er figured out.

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Meanwhile, what’s not confusing in the least is how lovely Rick’s hands look while shucking an oyster…

Oyster Shucking Gloves

… and therefore how important a protective shucking glove is.

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Of course, oysters don’t give it up easily, and a regular kitchen knife is too sharp and flexible to be of much use, so if you’ll need a dedicated oyster knife or two (or four).

Our original “pre-Fanny Bay residents” oyster knife—a Dexter-Russell 3″ shucker—has been a reliable workhorse. We bought it because it’s apparently used in a lot of commercial kitchens and was inexpensive. And it works just fine.

Dexter-Russell 3″ Boston-Style Oyster Knife

However, as we’re now into bigger league and more regular shucking, it was time to get serious. The Cook’s Illustrated top-rated oyster knife is the R Murphy “New Haven,” a style involving a slight bend at the end which makes a lot of difference when detaching the shell-attaching muscle thingy.

We bought one  and love the well-crafted, light, and comfortable simplicity of it. Plus, the upturned tip makes finding your way into and through the hinge way easier.

R Murphy New Haven Oyster Knife

Oyster shucking is rarely a single participant sport around here, so we also decided to try the OXO Good Grips Oyster Knife. It’s also a “New Haven” style, a “recommended with reservations” option with Cooks, but an Amazon Best Seller with a 4.5 star rating based on over 120 reviews.

While at around $8, it’s about half the price of the R Murphy. However, they’re both under $20 and neither one will break the bank.

In the end, the best oyster knife is the one you like the most, and we both prefer the R Murphy, so whoever shows up second at the shucking table gets the OXO.

OXO Good Grips Oyster Knife

One note on the un-named wooden knife with the metal guard in the background of the photo above: forget about it. It’s too blunt to effectively wedge into the hinge so you can lever it open, and the guard only teases you into thinking it’s protecting you from a potential oyster edge poke, when in fact the best protection is a great knife that allows you to stay in control.

A Geography of Oysters:
The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America

*Okay, just how engaging can a book on the geography of oysters be?

Witness Rowan Jacobsen, from a random paragraph in the chapter entitled “How to Grow an Oyster”:

“As mammals, we have trouble with the concept of jettisoning useful tools as we develop. For us, it’s all progress from infancy to adulthood–language, walking, winking, sex. It’s hard to comprehend a creature that voluntarily ditches vision and locomotion. We place a premium on them, but evolution decided such trifles were useless to oysters, and made the cuts. It’s a bit like being a Hindu mystic. Your life path involves paring down to the bare essentials, making do with less. You find a nice spot, settle into the lotus posture, and do nothing but eat, breathe, and periodically blow off a third of your body mass in one titanic ejaculation.”

I read the whole thing cover to cover in two days, laughing out loud in several places. If you’ve got an oyster lover on a gift list, or if you want to invite conversation while sitting alone reading at a raw bar, or if you’re just a curious foodie and would enjoy a breezy romp through a new subject, this offering comes highly recommended. An IACP Cookbook Award finalist, and a James Beard Foundation Book Award winner, it’s currently at the top of my personal non-fiction hit parade.


Why Did Goldilocks Move?

Because she finally found a place to settle into that was just right.

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After trying out a condo in Silicon Valley (too crowded), a renovated farmhouse in Teton Valley (too remote from any family), and a suburban home in Comox (too, um, suburban), she and her best friend, Rick, finally stumbled upon a humble beach house in a delightful oceanside community south of town, walked directly to the picture window overlooking a world-famous oyster farm, and sighed, “It’s Perfect.”

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Oh sure… maybe it had some funky pink carpeting, higgledy-piggledy sized baseboards throughout, a shot septic system, leaking roofs, 40-year old doors, windows, kitchen cabinets and fixtures, an ancient hot-water heater, squishy basement flooring, poly-B plumbing, and Icky, the resident “sea kitty” in the attic, but all that was SO behind your field of vision when you looked out the windows!

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Look at the view from the kitchen window!

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And just LOOK at the view from the bedroom and back deck!!

We’ll take it, thank you.

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Somehow, the papier-mâché dachshund we found in the hedge two days after we took possession sums up everything that needed to be said about the home itself.

It turns out that, despite the babbling-inducing vistas, “mid-70’s papier-mâché dachshund beach house funky” wasn’t going to be a perfect match for the rickandkathy chi.

So we did what we, apparently, always do.

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The Royale Oui donned our construction glasses (safety first!), climbed on to the top rung of a step-stool (safety schmafety!), and started swinging our trusty sledge hammer at the offensive bits.

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When sledge hammers weren’t quite brute force enough, we called in the Local Boys with their big toys.

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I know! Let’s cut some holes in the exterior walls!

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Excellent! In fact, that was SUCH a fun idea, let’s whack a hole bunch (yuk yuk) more on the INSIDE walls!

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Ceilings? Bah! Off with their headers! Small windows? Make ’em bigger! Weirdly placed big windows? Make ’em smaller! And, ALONG THE WAY MAKE AS MUCH MESS AS YOU CAN!! BWA-HA-HA-HA!!!

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It was actually nice to be able to sit down now and again, even if it was to drive the midgy shovel-loader thingy. I sat on the driveway with a chilled adult beverage and cheered him on.

By this time, what with the demolition of his internal catwalks, the noise, Dave the Pest Guy, Rob the Tree Service Guy, and a few strategically placed industrial-strength rat bait traps, we were seriously disturbing the sea kitty, Icky.

Buh-bye, Mr. Icky Kitty…

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In the past two months, we’ve done an entire house worth of two coats each of primer and top coat. Rick is a real artist with that roller.

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And I’m not too shabby with the edgework.

Say, does this paint can make me look phat?

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I love to watch Rick paint. Uh huh.

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We’re not done yet on that front.

See the baseboard that wraps itself around every curve of every stair? Yup… it yells at me every time I go up and down those steps.

“Halloo!,” it hollers. “Remember me? You promised… You said!”

Shaddup, stairs. I’m busy.

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In the middle of it all, we had to pack up and schlep all our stuff here from Comox Valley, Plan A.

Remember the PM dachshund from upstream here? In the same way, the image above pretty much sums up how much attention and energy we had leftover for organizing that lil’ shindig.

Needless to say, unpacking and sorting through the boxes and the “where does this go?” game on this end has been… interesting.

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But we did it.

We’re in, the boxes are finally gone, and we manage to find the odd hour here and there to just sit and enjoy what drew us here in the first place.

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I feel a real affinity for our new neighbors these days.

Yes, in part it’s the whole “stay calm on the surface and paddle like hell below” thing, but mostly it’s just because they look so at home on the water.

Visiting Comox Valley in July

Get here, however you can.

Comox Valley-1You can arrive by puddle jumper (not nearly as scary as B-grade movies would have you believe) …

Comox Valley-2… or sailboat, if you have a full day or two…

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… or inflatable dinghy, if you’re on a budget, desperate, and have a good back. (I hear they have a great ferry system as well. That would work too.)

Doesn’t matter how. Just get here.

The rest, like the shrimp, salmon, and tuna that arrive fresh at the local docks, just kind of flows from there.

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Whether you’re a salmon or red snapper, wine lover, gardener, eco-tourist, hiker, chef, or fisherperson, you’ll find it’s a very fluid place.

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This is great news if you’re a water baby.

For both of the people in this photo, the pure sand beach and altogether lovely temperature of Kye Bay at low tide is one of the best features of Comox Valley in the summer.

FYI, the one with his hoohoo closest to the water line is less enthusiastic about the actual “swimming” part than the one in the fetching straw hat, but still… They both get almost unmanageable with excitement when they get within sniffing distance of the sand dollars.

Just ask Rick.

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In the summer, at least, everything seems to revolve around hydration, tides, and gardening micro-seasons.

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For instance, take Rick, harvesting the obscenely juicy and dark-fleshed delicious plums from the bountiful tree in our back yard.

We didn’t even fully value it for the beauty it was until a fat and altogether self-serving raccoon started visiting at midnight with this singular thought in mind:

Visiting Comox Valley-27“There must be a thousand plums on this tree! What if I fill up on a few dozen sub-standard plums per night when THE. PERFECT. PLUM. is just one bite away from me, and I’m too full to stay the course?! I know… I’ll just take one bite of twenty per night and chuck the dross into the staff’s fetching grounds until I’m sure I got THE BEST ONE. Then, I will know my life’s mission was complete.”

Little bandit-masked bastard.

Every morning for two weeks, we picked one-bite specimens of perfectly ripe plums off our lawn before the no-good drunken wasps sidled up to the bar for their morning “hair o’ the raccoon that bit ye” nip.

The plums that we managed to beat them to the punch were incredible.

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Also in July: raspberries from the wildly out-of-control bush in our south yard, whipped cream, and maple syrup flow over a french-toast brunch…

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… while the lavender in the front yard provided ample consolation prizes to the heretofore ripped off plum-seeker bees.

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Even afternoon dog walks from our front door have an H2O-ness to them that will rock your world.

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Don’t feel like moving at all from the homestead a few hundred yards from the ocean? It’s understandable.

No problem. We’ll bring Big Fat Peonies from the front yard in water vessels directly to the back deck contemplation zone.

Of course, you might have a bit more ambition than that…

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… in which case, you might want to take an easy deep rain-forest stroll to…

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… more water, and beautiful rocks, and secret swimming holes.

This is Nymph Falls, and if you decide to visit in October, this is a site of the ladder-jumping salmon run.

Comox Valley-17Of course, there is a price to pay for all this proximity to warm, moist, humidity.

Almost everyone’s hair starts looking the same.

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Almost everyone.

Of course, don’t take my word for it: come sea for yourself. I’m just the humble orator of this tale, and since the (red) snapping of this photo, I’ve been further reduced to stock (photography).

We Moved: The Landing

Note to anyone planning a move to the Comox Valley and desiring a petal-strewn welcome: plan your adventure touchdown for sometime in the first two weeks of May, and then don’t blink for a month.

We Moved-9 Also, it’s a good idea to root yourself into a 30+ year old home. Even if the house itself eagerly awaits a proper decorating refresh, chances are good you’ll inherit an incredible mature perennial garden.

We Moved-10 Between you and your neighbors’ yards, you may discover more plants and trees already in bloom than you can identify, and the growing season will barely have begun. And even of the plants you do recognize, you may be surprised to learn there are more than five different kinds of hostas, or that ferns are not the same thing as bracken, or that gorgeous burgundy trilliums grow in BC, but that all do well in the deep shade of a massive hemlock tree.

I didn’t know that. Did you?

We Moved-11 Take time to meet the neighbors who are kind enough to drop by…

We Moved-13 … making sure to reserve enough mental energy from the “where does this go?” unpacking game to breathe in the sweet late afternoon ocean air off the back deck. Maybe one of the biggest adventures you’ll discover in your first month will be the raspberry, blueberry, and currant bushes, or the apple, pear, and plum trees waiting for you in your back yard.

If you purchase your property in mid-February, the above may be disguised as ugly, twisty bushy things or gnarly old maids just begging to be hauled away. Life lesson: everyone needs their beauty sleep. Give ’em a break and avert your eyes in case of mid-winter drool.

We Moved-14You’ll land in time to watch the fledgling grape vines weave their delicate baby pink leaves across and through the railings of your deck.

We Moved-15It’s a tender, Zone 8/Eden kinda place, where it’s rumored you can chuck seeds off your upper back deck and count on something interesting happening in about three weeks.

(Doesn’t hurt to have Uncle Doug’s Secret Magic Tomato Food to make edible interesting things happen, either.)

We Moved-16Is the dirt really browner in the other planter?

We Moved-17You’ll discover that tender leaf lettuce thrives in the Goldlilocks “not-too-hot, not-too-cold” atmosphere…

We Moved-18… as do enthusiastic buckets of herbs and some volunteer parsley so aggressive I’ve taken to scolding it vigorously AFTER I’ve whacked it back and snipped the florets, just to let it know who’s boss.

At least, I think I’m boss, although I’m pretty sure I can hear it sniggering behind my back the second I walk away. Parsley: punk herbs with spitballs.

We Moved-19Apparently, we aren’t the only ones here who enjoy a nibble on something tender and green from a back yard.

Did you know our little Island deer can stand on their hind legs for a full 30-seconds without dancing when practiced and properly motivated? I think the one who frequents our neighbor’s back yard must do yoga several times a week, with a Pilates class on alternating Saturdays thrown in for core strength training.

We Moved-23The early spring lilacs, tulips, and crab apple blossoms are quickly followed by a stunning variety of irises, poke-yer-eye-out poppies, stately foxgloves, voluptuous peonies, and 15 other floral explosions of color and fragrance that I’m sad to say we didn’t identify before they disappeared until next year.

On a more positive note, we now know how to deadhead spent rhododendrons, sticky little buggers that they are.

We Moved-21Of course, as different as some things are from our beloved Zone 3 Teton Valley, many things remain the same, including our love of hand-crafted, wood-fired pizza (stay tuned for more about killer ceramic grill/smoker/pizza oven we scored within 20 minutes of landing)…

We Moved-24 … followed by an evening ramble out our front door and into the awaiting adventures of an active coastal artisan community soaked in beauty and calm.

Doors close, doors open.