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A bivalve revival for the 2010 games

The Olympia oyster could be a huge hit, if Olympic organizers give it a shucking break

NICHOLAS KÖHLER November 12 2007
THE BACK PAGES

A bivalve revival for the 2010 games

The Olympia oyster could be a huge hit, if Olympic organizers give it a shucking break

NICHOLAS KÖHLER November 12 2007

A bivalve revival for the 2010 games

taste

The Olympia oyster could be a huge hit, if Olympic organizers give it a shucking break

NICHOLAS KÖHLER

Tiny yet pungent, the Olympia oyster once flourished from Alaska to Baja before pollution and overindulgence—much of it driven by gold rushes in California and the Klondike, where prospectors ate them fried with eggs—drove it to the precipice. Today, British Columbia’s only native bivalve remains obscure, a species of concern to the federal government, and of little value to most B.C. oyster farmers, who prefer hardier Japanese varieties. But now some are attempting to engineer a comeback for the Olympia—and just in time for its namesake Vancouver Games. The question is, will the plan make it past trademark-conscious Olympic organizers?

For those who love it, the Olympia—about the length of your thumb from the joint down, never bigger than a loonie—is a kind of fetish. “It’s like drinking a 25or 30-year-old Lagavulin,” says Brent Petkau, the B.C. shellfish farmer at the centre of efforts to bring it back. “There’s a little bit of ocean sea salt, then it ventures off into a sweet cream,” says Patrick McMurray, of Toronto’s Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill, one of just a few raw bars in Canada to serve the oyster. Chris Field, of Whistler’s Barefoot Bistro, calls it “amazingly firm-fleshed for the size—you actually know you’re chewing something—and it’s got a finish reminiscent of portobello mushrooms, with a slight metallic edge.”

Such taste and solidity require years to develop, increasing the Olympia’s cost. “It’s so hard to show someone something the size of a quarter, say it’s twice as much as most normal oysters—but when they taste it they’ll understand,” says McMurray, who like all Canadian shuckers must import the oysters from Washington state. Farmers in B.C. tend

to shun the oyster as small and slow-growing. “Him doing this,” Roberta Stevenson of the B.C. Shellfish Growers Association says of Petkau, “is kind of a novelty effort.” Petkau agrees—but says that’s part of its charm. “It’s challenging to grow—but so too is a 25-yearold scotch,” he says. “What I’m trying to do here is rejuvenate an indigenous species.”

Bearded, fast-talking, with the energy of a whirling dervish, Petkau is an oyster showman. Billing himself as the “Oyster Man,” he delights in giving away T-shirts emblazoned with his image (looking like a cross between Che Guevara and the Zig-Zag rolling paper man) underwritten with the words, “Join the oyster revolution.” Some years ago, Petkau hit upon the idea of reintroducing the Olympia to B.C. during the Vancouver 2010 games— a kind of “showpiece oyster for the Olympics”—and set about trying to produce local stock. It was as slow as advertised. Now, with the Games just three years away, it may be too late. “In terms of the Olympics, it’s like you’re writing a major dissertation—and it’s due by tomorrow,” he says, though he’s not above importing Washington-bred Olympias for the occasion. “I’m going to be at the 2010 games, encouraging everybody—hey, an oyster a day will keep the drug-tester away,” says Petkau.

Yet there may be a hurdle beyond mere

time: a federal law passed in June aimed at protecting investors who spent big money to become official Olympic sponsors. The law grants Olympic organizers vast powers to stop “ambush marketers” from using language associated with the Games—including words like “Olympic,” “Whistler,” even “winter”—to sell goods (those powers end in 20ll). “It’s to make sure only the IOC and whoever it authorizes will be able to use the presence of the Olympics in Vancouver to promote their products—they don’t want anyone else to be able to piggyback on that effort,” says Mira Sundara Rajan, an intellectual property expert at the University of British Columbia. One Vancouver eatery—the Olympia Restaurant—has fought for three years to keep a storefront sign up since the mid-1980s, festooned by those famous Olympic rings.

Efforts to associate the Olympia oysternamed for the Washington mountain range— with the Vancouver 2010 Olympics could draw similar scrutiny. “Even ‘The Oyster for Winter 2010,’ that might be enough of an association to make it a no-no,” Sundara Rajan says. Ever the schemer, Petkau (of Cortes Island) relishes the prospect of tangling with the Games—for him the perfect vehicle for advertising his niche product. “I’ll just call them ‘The Courtesans,’ ” he says. Field, the Whistler-based shucker who plans to showcase Petkau’s oysters in 2010, has a better idea. “My answer to the Olympic committee would be—‘Bite me.’ ” M