IN BAR PARLANCE, OLY IS SHORTHAND FOR AN Olympia beer. In shellfish circles it signifies Washington’s only truly local oyster, the Olympia, the only variety indigenous to the West Coast.
Olys are known chiefly for their size—scarcely larger than a quarter—and a distinctive coppery aftertaste that “just cries out for the right wine,” according to Jon Rowley, un-official local oyster historian and official consultant for Taylor Shellfish Farms. Not every-one takes to the tangy flavor immediately, but Olys are at their best in the winter months. A few samplings usually inspire appreciation.
Plentiful in Puget Sound in the 1800s, Washington’s Olympias ultimately fell victim to San Francisco’s appetite for oysters and twentieth-century industrial pollution. Ships would sail regularly for San Francisco carrying both mature oysters to sell and oyster seed to transplant into Bay Area tidal waters. By the 1960s, the Oly was commercially extinct but made a halting return to Washington waters in later decades, thanks to the closure of the Shelton pulp mill and the 1972 Clean Water Act.
Twenty years after their disappearance, the sweet little bivalves became a Seattle restaurant trend, this newfound popularity engineered largely by Rowley. Ray’s Boathouse even hosted a party in 1983 celebrating the comeback story of Washington’s indigenous oyster. Today only a handful of oyster farms grow Olympias. They take longer to mature, meaning less profit than varieties that are market-ready after a year. “People grow them as much for sentimental reasons,” says Rowley. “Nobody wants to see them go away.”
Restaurant menus from generations past offered Olys fried or served in a rich stew. Today their relative rarity comes with a high cost ($12 for an unshucked dozen at Taylor Shellfish Farms in Melrose Market), which means you’re most likely to find Olympias served on the half shell. Their distinctive flavor needs no embellishment from butter, cream, or frying pan.