SURF AND TURF – I wish they all could be California Oysters

12 Nov 2001

Driving to Point Reyes from San Francisco, you pass over the Golden Gate Bridge, head north on Highway 101, and pass east over the foothills towards the Pacific Ocean. The drive only takes half an hour, but it takes you into a different world – wind-swept bluffs and herds of grazing elk. On clear fall days you can even see spurts of water on the ocean’s horizon sent up by packs of gray whales heading from Canada down to birth in the warm shallow waters of Mexico’s Baja peninsula.

Tough ranching families started homesteading in the region at the same time as the rest of Northern California – starting in the 1850s – but the development of Point Reyes has been saved from California’s rapid modernization by the creation of a natural park to preserve its rich marine habitats.

Now the region is a holdout for old-style Californians, who eke out a living from cattle, dairy, and cash crops. It is also an escape for hundreds of San Franciscans who come up on weekends to lose themselves in long rambles among the area’s manzanilla, eucalyptus, and madrone trees. Hikers can wander along the miles of desolate beach where the rough Pacific surf silts up piles of rough seaweed and the air is heavy with salt. The long estuary of Tomales Bay is another favorite spot: kayakers slalom around the bay’s tiny inlets, seeking out the rare birds and otters that frequent the coastal area. The park is the cleanest coastal reserve in California, at Point Reyes you find the type of diversity of marine animals, birds, and animals that you read about in the writings of John Muir – stories from back when California was new.

This August, I headed up north to Point Reyes for an unusual picnic. My dad and I packed a bottle of cold French champagne in a cooler, bought a loaf of Acme bread (Berkeley baked – the perfect sourdough) and set out for the Tomales Bay Oyster Farm. Oysters can only grow in clean water, and the pristine waters of Point Reyes produces (some say) America’s best oysters. Because they are filter feeders, the quality and cleanliness of the water has an immediate effect on the taste and quality of the oyster. Three oyster companies in the area plant and harvest bivalves used by restaurants up and down the West coast.

Our picnic that August afternoon was rustic. We stepped over the sleeping dogs guarding the oyster company’s shed, and bought 30-odd just opened oysters and a few lemons. At the oyster farm, you can buy three sizes of Pacific oysters, either whole, on the half shell, or shelled in jars. We settled down on a stretch of sandy beach, in the shallow water of the beach you could see the rafts where the young oysters are seeded and harvested, and feasted. Oysters are such a rarified commodity – pricey restaurants dole out six at a time – that to really eat your fill of just-cracked oysters is a psychological and gastronomic pleasure on par with filling yourself to the brim with fois gras or fresh porcini.

Large commercial oyster farms dredge coastal waters to harvest the bivalves, a harvesting techniques that takes also the tiny inedible oysters alongside the large mature ones. This is hard on the oysters – dredge harvesting greatly limits the regenerative capacity of the oyster population. The Tomales Bay oyster producers use traditional harvest systems, the French Rack and Bag system and the Raft system, in both types of harvesting the spats, or immature oyster, are seeded and then hand-harvested when they reach maturity.

The only oyster native to America’s West Coast is the Olympic Oyster. The species is not adapted to commercial growing as it can take up to five years to mature. The mature oysters are never lager than 5 cm. in diameter – less appealing for consumers who want flashy saucer-sized shells. The small, buttery Olympics were once very abundant along California, Oregon, and Washington coasts, although their sweet and at times metallic flavor was considered inferior to the East Coast’s blue point oyster. The species has been over-fished and remaining natural populations struggle to survive in polluted waters.

The Blue Point oyster has long been considered the king of America’s native oysters, indigenous to the Atlantic and gulf states, the nature of the Blue Point varies by zone: oysters from the south and gulf coasts are deep shelled with a mild earthy taste, those from the mid-Atlantic and northeast are crisp and salty with a shallow shell.

California’s most-farmed oyster type is the Pacific Oyster, indigenous to Japan, with long, oblong-shaped shells marked by deep flutes. Pacific oysters are mildly flavored – sometimes with undertones of melon or cucumber – fairly insipid compared to the East Coast’s spicy blue points. Another Japanese import, grown on the West coast since the 1940s, is the Kumamoto oyster (it is now extinct in its homeland). The Kumamoto is small and slow-growing, with a rich – almost fatty – flavor marked slightly by salt. The finish is sweet and briny.

The best known of the three Point Reyes producers, the Hog Island Oyster Company, began farming bivalves in 1982 and now sell over 3 million hand-harvested mollusks a year. Hog Island Oyster Company seeds four varieties of mollusk spats, and they work together with the Molluscan Broodstock Program of Oregon State University to develop genetic diversity in oyster strains (especially important in a crop so susceptible to pollution and disease).

Hog Island’s most celebrated oyster is its Sweetwater Oyster, a sweetish Pacific oyster with a smoke-tinged flavor. The Sweetwater is rich and creamy, and San Francisco Chronicle recently judged it America’s Best Oyster. Hog Island has also initiated the “bi-coastal” oyster, where Blue Point spats are seeded on the east coast and raised in California waters. The Hog Island Blue Points are minerally and salty, with a delicate flavor. Hog Island also raises plump Kumamotos and a few clam types.

The oyster farms of Tomales Bay produce primarily for restaurants, but they welcome day –trippers. They farm oysters in a way that respects the environment and contributes to the park’s ecological diversity. I recommend a trip up there to feast on the simple Pacifics (eaten stright from their frilled deep-black shell) of the Tomales Bay Oyster company, or to try some of the boutique bi-coastals of Hog Island Oyster Company – don’t forget the champagne and sourdough!

Hog Island Oyster Company

Tel: 415-663-9218

Marshall, CA

Johnson’s Oyster Farm

Tel: 415-669-1149

Drakes Estero, CA

Tomales Bay Oyster Company

Tel: 415-663-1242

Marshall, CA

Anya Fernald, winner of a Watson Fellowship for the study of artisan cheese in Europe and Africa in 1998, has worked for the Consorzio Ricerca Filiera Lattiero-Casearia in Sicily. She currently works for Slow Food.

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