Deep Fried Oysters

I got a deep fryer for Christmas this past year.  It's not exactly a clean operation, but it's certainly easier than pouring a 1/2 gallon of canola oil in your dutch oven, turning the burner to medium-high, and hoping for the perfect, southern style fried chicken.  I've wasted plenty of time flicking AP flour into hot oil and thinking "sure, that seems about right."  The tempature is always accurate, there's an easy-to-use fry basket (no diving into scalding oil with a slotted spoon), and it's a self-contained, splatter-free operation.  Don't worry, it's not easy or clean enough to make fish'n'chips a daily staple in your diet.  All you cardiologists out there can rest easy. 

I have, however, been frying all sorts of fun stuff.  Cornish game hens, sand dabs, mezcal tapatio hot wings, mixed tempura, Milky Ways, Indiana style pork loin sandwiches.  There's an endless amount of things that could always be made better with a crispy, golden crust.  I'll be honest, though, spilling the meager $8.95 for Yen's Kitchen's General Tso's chicken is certainly more time and effort efficient than prepping, dredging, frying, and worse, cleaning up after making it at home for yourself.  Leaving it to the pros is often more reasonable, but there is something rewarding about making your own "take out" food at home, from time to time. 

Naturally, fried oysters eventually came to mind.  Simple enough approach, no?  Cornmeal dredge mixed with an Emeril's Essense of sorts and served alongside a remoulade or flavored aioli, right?  Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of the classic fried oyster.  The Walrus and The Carpenter's are hands down in my top five of cooked, or "quality added," oysters.  But hey, why not have a little fun and explore the possibility of oysters fried in different ways.  As I near 30 years of age I find myself in very different circumstances on a warm Saturday evening than I had less than a decade ago.  Eight years past it was tequila shots, Natty Light, beer pong, and power hour Kanye mix tapes.  Now, it's canola oil, buttermilk, AP flour, and a macro lens.  Oh, and Tecate, the West Coast version of Natty Light.  Never forget where you came from.

So, with three dozen wrist-breaking Hog Island Sweetwater mediums shucked and ready to go, let the frying begin. 

Be wary of the self-proclaimed oyster 'ficianado who says "I only like the small ones"

Potato Starch Fried Oysters (Kaki Karage)

Chicken karage is a dish of fairly high repute these days.  Savory, flavor-filled chicken thighs soaked in a soy mirin marinade, dredged in potato starch and deep fried.  The dredge is the key.  Potato starch is a curious thing in the canola crisped world.  It only requires a light dusting and straight in to the oil.  It has a certain stickiness to it, requiring a chopstick separation of individual pieces once dropped, but beyond that it is all one can hope for in a fried product.  It's a clean, club-handless prep, absorbs very little oil, and stays crispy for days.  If you've ever wondered why that Korean or Japanese fried chicken you love is so good, potato starch is often the answer.

As a huge fan of potato starch frying, oysters karage was one of the first things to come to mind.  I actually had made them before for my buddy's Vice Munchies video on the life of an oyster shucker.  Best to start out with a tried and true winner.

They turned out great.  Served alongside a spicy, bright yuzukosho aioli and garnished with quick fried keffir lime leaves and scallions, the oysters karage were as tasty as we remembered.  I over coated a few, which led to a crispy outside but a little potato starch stickiness remained under the crust.  A lesson well learned.  Always dredge lightly when doing karage. The crispy keffir lime leaves were a nice find, though.  Seriously, they taste exactly like Froot Loops when fried.  Unfortunately, I couldn't come up with a clever spin on the "follow your nose" slogan.  Ideas?

 Chicken-Fried Oysters

Put "chicken-fried" next to anything on a menu and it's going to sell.  Yet there are so many different and well respected approaches to the arguably national dish.  Without running the thesis deserving gamut that defines chicken-fried, I'll give you my understanding of the traditional.  

1) Marinate product in seasoned buttermilk for an extended period of time.
2) Strain product and dredge in seasoned AP flour.
3) Dip product in a mix of egg and buttermilk.
4) Dredge product, once more, in seasoned AP flour.
5) Fry

That's the exact process we did.  Three hours or so in seasoned buttermilk, the three tier dredge process, and right into rippin' hot oil.

They ended up with a pleasantly crunchy, craggily exterior and a fluffy interior that lead into the briny oyster.  They did "die" quickly, though, as several fried foods do, and lost that desired crunch.  I think the high moisture content of oysters softens the breading quickly.  Be sure to serve them immediately out of the fryer.  Topped with chives and served alongside a maple bourbon cayenne sauce, they could easily be an excuse to get out of Sunday morning church.  "Sorry, mom.  I really want to go but I have to prep the chicken-fried oysters everyone loves to have for brunch."  Oh, and topped with bacon bits, which obviously makes everything better.

Buffalo Oysters

I always get really excited when I see something "buffalo" flavored.  Spicy Buffalo Wheat Thins, Blazin' Buffalo & Ranch Doritos, Frank's Red Hot Buffalo sunflower seeds.  A big part of me really wants these products to be good and hopes they are, as the buffalo wing flavor is so incredible.  Every time I see a new one, I have to buy it.  However, they always end up tasting awful.  And yet, like a vicious buffalo seasoned Groundhog Day, I keep buying them, optimistically thinking "this one just might be good."  I now know why people call "hope" a four letter word.

I find the same to be true of buffalo style seafood.  Shrimp and oysters seem to be the most common.  Often simply breaded and tossed in buffalo sauce, they both come out okay, but never smack me as amazing.  To figure out a solution to this problem, I think we need to go back to what makes the actual hot wing so good in the first place.

What's everyone's favorite part of the bird?  Let's be honest, your most base instincts never say "go straight for the white breast meat" while the Thanksgiving turkey is being carved.  That skin that falls right off, however, is awfully convenient, and, in your heart of hearts, the most delicious bite of the whole meal.  It's true of all poultry.  From the decadent peking duck to the humble buffalo wing, rich crispy skin is the common denominator of deliciousness.

So, why not bring chicken skin and oyster together?

Hog Island Sweetwaters wrapped in chicken thigh skin
This was by far the craziest and most ambitious of fries.  Would the skin stay on?  Will the oyster over cook before the skin gets crispy?  Will the "franken-oysters" even taste good?  

I also decided to make my own ranch to go with them, seeing as I already had buttermilk and several different herbs for garnish.  All ranch really is is thickened buttermilk with seasoning and herbs.  I figured, why not throw it all in a mason jar and shake the shit out of it, just like homemade butter is made from cream?  Maybe throw an egg and oil in to help?  How hipsterly cool would it be to say "Hey, guys, I made my own ranch dressing.  Did it all by hand in a mason jar.  No big deal.  Also, do you know any typewriters that have Helvetica? I want to write a blog about writing a blog on a typewriter.  So meta."

But yea, turns out that doesn't work.  I was an idiot for thinking buttermilk would thicken.  It is, after all, the left over product from when the butter has already separated from the cream.  Hence, buttermilk.  Oh, and oil and egg yolks don't emulsify into mayo when shaken in a mason jar, either.  Duly noted.  I did end up busting out the Cuisinart to make mayo, added buttermilk, herbs, and seasoning: it was homemade ranch, but was certainly no Hidden Valley. 

With oysters wrapped, ranch made, and a butter, vinegar, Frank's Red Hot sauce simmering in a bowl, it was go time.

Surprisingly, the oysters and skin stayed together in the fryer.  No toothpick needed, they just stuck to one another.  After about 4 minutes, the skin crisped up and into the bowl they went for coating.

Were they good?  The most memorable quote of the night by far was after the first bite:  "Anthony...I've gone too far..."  Understandably, it was just me and my buddy, and we had already downed several beers and had a dozen fried oysters each.  And chicken thigh skin is significantly fattier than chicken drumette skin.  Though it appeared to be crisped up, the skin still held a world of rich poultry fat waiting to burst on the first bite.  I can say the first one was delicious, but anymore than that and you could feel the butter, ranch, and chicken skin slowing your heart.

At the end of the day, any excuse to break out both my shucker and deep fryer is a good time.  Not all my fried oyster ideas came out perfectly, but they were certainly fun to make and insightful into the abounding possibilities of deep fried shellfish.  Though I do claim to be an oyster purist, I think Julie Andrews should have thrown "fried oysters" between "raindrops on roses" and "warm woolen mittens," cause they're certainly one of my favorite things. 

The SF Oyster Nerd


Low Country Oyster Trip

Southeastern U.S. oysters don't get much love.  I've even heard people speak of Gulf oysters with an air of disdain.  Rarely do they enter the conversation when people are talking about their favorite oysters, in my experience.  In modern oyster culture, Massachusetts, Washington, both Canadian coasts, and Kumamotos from anywhere are what most raw bars across the country are talking about.  "The colder the waters, the better the oysters" is a phrase haphazardly thrown around these days.  "I only like the small ones" is another disappointing expression frequently heard.  And, unfortunately, the coastal Carolinas and Georgia don't have or produce either.  It's a shame, because the Low Country has a lot more to offer in terms of seafood than just shrimp'n'grits.

Green gilled Topsail Sound from North Carolina.
The green color comes from the type of algae it feeds on. 
The oyster culture in these parts is different, though.  First, it's one of the last areas in the country where the vast majority of oysters are wild harvested.  Farming oysters and aquaculture, in general, is something relatively new and practiced by a few visionaries.  It's unfortunate as the area is full of high salinity, nutrient rich, marshy waters.  I see it coming soon, though, but more on that later.  Most oysters are currently raked as clusters from wild reefs or grown in clusters and sold in 100-count bushels for $40 retail, a notable difference from the $1 a piece Kusshis or Kumamotos at wholesale.  Oysters are very abundant and available when in season.  Shit, in Charleston they even line the streets and make chandeliers out of them.

Oyster chandeliers at Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar
This means that oysters aren't really marketed by farm or appellation but as locally harvested oysters.  It is certainly something that has existed and is becoming more and more popular as you see Stump Sounds, Coosaw Cups, or Caper's Blades on menus.  And, there is definitely a familiarity and appreciation of subtle differences in oysters, I just wouldn't say it's nearly as common or popular as it is in the northern states.  Traditionally, oysters are oysters and eaten raw on crackers with hot sauce, steamed and dipped in butter, and roasted or barbecued in various styles.  They're not particularly parsed apart for their illusive raw flavor differences varying by where they are grown. 

I found this quite refreshing compared to the almost oyster-snobbery that I've become accustomed to in the Bay Area.  I wouldn't be comfortable calling it snobbery if I weren't one of those snobs.  But my experience in the Low Country eating oysters really made me appreciate quality added oysters.  I'm slowly starting to accept the fact that oysters don't have to be "raw or bust."  "No lemon, no sauce, and especially, no cooking" used to be my mantra, but I'm slowly coming around.  And the Low Country certainly solidified that.

My first introduction to the Southeast style was with my very gracious host, Kim, of Harbor Island Oyster Company, who gave me a Wilmington, NC oyster tour for the day.  She spoke of steamed oysters, something which I had never really considered.  In my experience, oysters are not like clams and mussels when you cook them.  By the time they pop open, they are dramatically over cooked.  But, Kim proved I had been mistaken at Hieronymus Restaurant

Hieronymus is an old school seafood house serving up your classic crab cakes, shrimp'n'grits, and daily fish specials that come fried, blackened, or pan roasted in a sauce of your choosing.  It feels like the kind of place my grandma always wanted to go for the clam strips or where a bunch of old salty dogs would be at the bar chain-smoking and pounding Miller Lites.  The kind of place I grew up going to and first discovered my love of seafood.  The steamed oysters were pretty bad ass too.  Not many establishments provide customers with a knife to drive directly at their hands through brittle, steamed oyster shell, and it certainly added to the charm.  Personally popping open these delicious little brine bombs was a pleasure.  And the steaming enhanced the brininess, just as Kim had said.  Tough to beat a dozen of those, drawn garlic butter, and an ice cold bitter ale.  

Husk in Charleston was next on the list. Chef Sean Brock is a local culinary legend and gaining lots of international praise too.  He, and others, have helped to farm and reestablish the use of Low Country heirloom produce like Sea Island Red Peas and Jimmy Red Corn and to bring back "antebellum cuisine."  Husk even has a farm in McClellanville dedicated to promoting local produce and educating future generations of sustainable agriculture's benefits.  You know Brock luv da' kids.

And nothing screams coastal antebellum cuisine quite like local oysters.  Wood oven roasted Caper's Blades oysters with herbed chicken fat and aji pepper mash.  Yea.  Don't think I need to say much more than that.  The presentation was great, too.  The oysters were shucked, roasted with seasonings, and had the top shell placed back on for serving.  Each one was like opening an aromatic culinary-Christmas present.  Sorry, but no pictures.  Fancy dining with the parents and I didn't want to embarrass anyone, at least before we'd finished off the first bottle of wine.  Your kindergarten teacher would be so proud of you for using your imagination.

Final culinary stop: The Ordinary in Charleston.  Honestly, this place blew me away unlike any dining experience I've had in a long time.  The space is an old, converted bank.  All marble, two story ceilings, and the kitchen is even visible through the bank's original vault door.  The bar has an impressive selection of cocktails based on Caribbean rums, paying homage to Charleston's history as a colonial Triangle Trade post and a Prohibition era rum-runners' hub.

But what topped all else was the restaurant's focus and execution of creative shellfish preparations.  Pangea Pearl Oysters with chives, caviar and crème fraîche.  Low Country style barbecued prawns, the sauce being more of a brown roux type gravy rather than traditional BBQ sauce.  Crispy oysters with beef tartare.  Maine lobster minute ceviche.  Cumin and coriander pickled white shrimp.  The only thing I regret was not trying everything.  However, far and above the rest, were the smoked oysters. 

Humbly and simply presented, they were probably the best bite of my entire East Coast road trip from Philadelphia to Savannah.  They barely smoke the oysters, only 15 minutes or so at 150 degrees.  This imparts a mild smokey flavor while keeping the oyster pretty much raw.  The oysters are then placed in a mason jar with lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, and a few other seasonings.  Served with old bay buttered saltines, crème fraîche, and house hot sauce, they were awesome, as in actually deserving of reverence.  A trip to Charleston for these alone is justified, seriously. 

Lastly, I visited the UNCW Shellfish Research Hatchery on my trip there.  It was a really interesting and informative experience to see the very start of farmed oysters.  Ami Wilbur is heading the project to breed local, disease resistant virginicas to supply to Carolina watermen.  It's relatively new and she is only supplying four farmers with seed, but it's still in its beginnings.  They take broodstock (basically oysters studs and mares), spawn it, collect and set the spat (oyster larvae), and raise the oysters with "house-made" algae.  After they reach appropriate seed size, they are passed on to the farmers or grown out in the sound off Masonboro Island by the hatchery.  

Broodstock being analyzed for selected spawning

Algae growing tanks at the hatchery

Hopefully, a few years down the road, not only will more people be growing sustainable oysters in the area but we may all be able to enjoy full flavored and well cultivated Carolina appellations, as long as all those amazing steamed and smoked oysters don't stop coming, of course.  I highly recommend taking a trip to Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah, or anywhere in between and checking out the amazing seafood and oyster culture yourself.  There's plenty more to be had than just vinegar based BBQ in these parts.

The SF Oysternerd


Washington Oyster Weekend

I was recently in Seattle and Shelton, Washington for the West Coast Oyster Festival.  And by recently, I mean October.  New job, new apartment, apologies for not posting more frequently.  I'd read and heard that Washington is the Mecca for oyster lovers, but I had no idea to such a degree.  Sorry Boston, New York, Virginia, and San Francisco, but the first thing I noticed is that Seattle takes their oysters seriously, very seriously.  It was not only the oyster's ubiquity throughout the city and comprehensive, detailed menus at each locale, but also the conversations that I had with shuckers, diners, and servers.  Everyone I spoke with either at Elliot's Oyster House, The Walrus and The Carpenter, or at the Shelton Oyster Festival really knew their oysters.  People discussed everything from the differing flavors of Hood Canal oysters depending on how they're grown to varying copper notes of Olympias from Hammersley Inlet versus Totten Inlet.  Admittedly, I was surrounding myself with the oyster-junkie crowd, but there most certainly was a tangible oyster culture in Washington that I've found nowhere else.

I believe there are a several strong reasons for this.  First, Washington has arguably one of the most abundant oyster grounds in the world today.  Puget Sound alone is oyster heaven, not to mention the north-neighboring Hood Canal.

Puget Sound is a massive open hand of sprawling inlets and brackish, marshy waters providing some of the most nutrient rich oyster grounds in the world.  Totten, Hammersley, Eld, Harstine, Skookum, Case.  All are most likely familiar names to raw bar enthusiasts, and all eponymous oysters to their respective Southern Puget Sound areas.  Oysters from these areas certainly have a common trait in earthy, mushroom, almost musky flavor.  They are also the fattest and plumpest you'll find. 

Hood Canal, on the other hand is a deep, brackish water glacial fjord influenced by fresh, oxygenated water from the Olympic Mountains.  Oysters love to be beach cultured in this area, and examples such as Hama Hama and Dabob Bay are noticeably brinier, firmer, and more vegetal flavored.

Map of Taylor Shellfish's Operations in the Pacific Northwest.  Puget Sound at the Bottom
I was talking with the GM of Taylor Shellfish at Melrose Market and he spoke of oyster spawn being so rich in Totten Inlet that you could stick a ruler in the water, let it sit for 10 seconds, remove it and it would be absolutely covered in oyster spat.  Let's put it this way: according to Robb Walsh's Sex, Death, & Oysters, Washington produces the second most oysters in the country at 9.3 million pounds.  It is only beaten by Louisiana at 13 million pounds.  California produces a meager 1 million and New York a miniscule 0.5 million pounds.  And yes, this includes shucked meats and un-shucked oysters, before those of you who I know will beg to argue the statistics' validity and representative accuracy.

Not only is the production in the area massive, but the variety of oysters to be had is unprecedented.  Each inlet, bay and bend has a unique flavor to it.  Phytoplankton and algae in Totten Inlet can vary greatly compared to Eld Inlet or any other micro-ecosystem.  Hood Canal oysters from the mouth of the Hamma Hamma River versus the mouth of the Dosewallips River can taste completely different.  A true Washington flight of oysters is something to behold in how many different varieties are cultivated within one state.  Any area producing that many oysters and with such diversity has to have a respectable oyster culture surrounding it.  Any thing less would be a disservice to the hardworking farmers.

Floating Tanks of Oysters at Taylor Shellfish at Melrose Market

Second, much of the West Coast history of oysters is Washington based.  I know I've spoken of the abundant native Olympias that were all over San Francisco Bay, but they were quickly over-fished in a matter of decades.  So, when the local San Franciscan oysters were exhausted, where do you think the 49ers got their oyster fix?  By shipping them down from Willapa Bay, Washington of course.  The frenetic oyster fiends of the West Coast were well supplied by native Willapa Bay Olympias into the early 20th century.  When the Olympias were wiped out, they started carting in East coast virginicas.  They held, for a while, but didn't thrive well enough and soon died off.  West Coast oystering was basically shucked, until two Japanese business men more-or-less accidentally brought in Pacific oyster seed (c. gigas) in 1919.  They dumped useless and valueless dead oysters into Samish Bay, but the oyster larvae on them were still alive:  they took and spawned like crazy.  What nowadays is 90% of West Coast oysters or more all started from this Samish Bay dump.  The modern day Pacific oyster that we all know and love by various names first set its Japanese "foot" (brilliant oyster anatomy joke) on the Continental U.S. in Washington waters.

Finally, Washington has some of the most innovative and creative oyster growers in the world.  As the native species of oyster died off so quickly, the West Coast has been open grounds for growing all sorts of foreign oysters.  While the East Coast can basically only grow the native Atlantic Oyster (c. virginica), the West Coast is open ground to oyster diversification. Virginicas, Pacifics, Kumamotos, European Flats.  Even Australian and New Zealand oysters were tried as the new saviors for this crumbling West Coast oyster industry.  Ideologically, the native oyster species would still be the standard.  But as that has not ecologically or economically been possible, the West Coast is a veritable laboratory for all sorts of oyster experiments.

This means styles of oyster farming as well.  Beach grown has always been Washington's style.  Matter of fact, there are still enough wild oysters growing on beaches in Hood Canal and Puget Sound that people can go out and recreationally harvest.  Living in a city as I do, can you imagine a licensed but basically free oyster and clam dinner only a 20 minute drive away?

Anyway, the farming methods in the state are always inventively growing as well.  Seeding, growing, and finishing oysters in different waters for that perfect flavor, size, and texture is very common.  It's much like viticulture up there.  Tide-tumbling of oysters, also, partly lays its claim in Washington.  Keith Reid was the first to physically pull and tumble oysters to manicure them in British Columbia.  But the origin of using the tides to do the work is a bit of a debate.  I've heard some say Australians developed it in the late 90's.  I've also heard Chelsea Farms in Washington discovered it by accident.  Whatever the origin of tide-tumbling oysters is, it certainly is one of the best things ever to happen to bivalve aquaculture.  It creates a deep-cupped, juicy, plump oyster by being thrashed around in a bag by tidal changes.  This chips off excess and brittle oyster growth, toughens the shell, and even forces the oyster to build up stronger glycogen reserves.  Shigoku, Chelsea Gem, Kodomo, Church Point, Blue Pool, Sea Cow.  The list of tide-tumbled oysters coming from Washington is certainly one of the largest, and they're all signatures of Washington growers who take their trade seriously.

Beautifully tide-tumbled and well-cupped Blue Pool oyster on my visit to Hama Hama.   "But don't say my car's topless...say the" (any Nas fans out there)?

In the end, geologically, historically, experimentally, and culturally, Washington has all things oyster going for it.

So, how did all this oyster antiquity and bivalve abundance manifest itself over my brief three day stint in Washington?  It started with eating.  And, well, was pretty much just eating...and drinking, of course.  Elliot's was my first stop.  As a West Coast oyster institution, Elliot's has a borderline obnoxious selection of 20-some oysters.  The selection was primarily Puget Sound and Hood Canal, with a few British Columbias mixed in.  The best thing was that they had Olympias from Lopez Island.  Olympias are cultured few and far between.  The only ones that I've eaten have been from Hammersley Inlet or Totten Inlet.  The Lopez Island olys were noticeably brinier and crisper as they were grown closer to the open ocean.  Super iron and copper flavored as olys always are, but a fresh sautéed greens minerality rather than a musky old penny copper.  Best Olympias I've ever had.

Displayed selection at Elliot's Oyster House
Oyster stop two was The Walrus & The Carpenter.  It's a popular destination restaurant just north of Seattle in Ballard.  Right at the base of Hipster Street, WA, The Walrus and The Carpenter is a retro Parisian-American raw bar with contemporary takes on cuisine.  The decor reflects this sentiment completely.  Old cookbook covered shelves, wrought iron baskets, and a giant antler chandelier. The food is something else.  Walnut pesto sardines, sautéed tripe, house-smoked trout salad, and shots of Fernet (they knew we were from San Francisco).  However, the best bite was the fried oysters.

Fried Hama Hama oysters at The Walrus and The Carpenter
O' my good god were they delicious.  Crispy, well seasoned cornmeal breading leading into a juicy, salty, ocean oyster bite.  They were incredibly meaty too, like oyster tenders.  All this heat, salt, and flavor was perfectly complimented by a refreshing cilantro aioli.  I'd make the trip back to Seattle for these guys alone.

My final stop was the West Coast Oyster Festival in Shelton, about a two hour drive southwest of Seattle.  It's an annual oyster party in which all proceeds go to charity.  Wine tasting, bouncy castles, beer gardens, funnel cake,  and all sorts of oyster preparations abound.  The focus of the festival, however, is the oyster shucking competition.

Contestants are divided into six different heats with six competitors in each round.  They're given 24 oysters to open as quickly as they can, but also as cleanly as they can.  Judges then review the shuckers' oysters and penalize based on mistakes.  +3 seconds for a stabbed belly, +1 second for excess shell, +1 second for a ripped mantle and so on.  The final time is then calculated and the top 6 best times compete in the final.

I competed, of course, though I don't believe you can actually call my participation "competing."  Some of these guys were real pros who work in shuck houses, getting paid based on the final weight of all the oysters they shuck.  Speed, to say the least, is their goal.  The Léon Brothers of Goose Point Oysters based out of Willapa Bay were most notably oyster shucking beasts.  Many of them had won previous years competitions and were clearly local legends.  I'm certainly not a slow oyster shucker, but these guys crushed me.  My final time before penalties was 3:40, and after the judging was completed I was up to 4:37.  Bad, but not horribly embarrassing.  The winner of the contest posted a final time, after penalties, of 2:59.  That's some serious shucking.  I did shuck early enough in the competition to make it, briefly mind you, on the leader board.

Look at my shit-eating grin.  I'm happier than a kid on Christmas morning.  The beer garden helped a bit.  I considered it a victory to just have made it on the board.

All in all it was an amazing weekend.  If you're really looking for the full oyster experience, Seattle and its surrounding oystering areas have to be on your bucket list.  I plan on returning for the Shelton Oysterfest and competition again this fall.  Ten months of oyster training here I come.

The SF Oysternerd 


Marin County Oyster Crawl

The Bay Area has a long and rich half-shell history.  Native Coast Miwoks survived off hunting and gathering fish, shrimp, and oysters in the various bays and coves for centuries.  Mark Twain raved of the succulent shellfish he enjoyed at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, calling it "heaven on the half shell." San Francisco Bay, or San Francisco Estuary, to be more accurate, was one of largest shellfish producers in North America in the late 1800s, providing an abundance of mussels and native Olympia oysters.  As the area grew and native oysters dwindled, Eastern Oysters and Washington Oysters were shipped in and finished in the Bay to meet the growing demand.  And sadly, soon to follow, hydraulic mining, industrial pollution, and over-harvesting quickly led to SF Bay's oystering collapse.  

Yet, while San Francisco Bay could no longer support any bivalve breath at the beginning of the 20th century, Tomales Bay's oyster production began to burgeon.  Modern day oyster harvesting started in Tomales Bay in the 1860s, but didn't fully take off until Tomales Bay Oyster Company, in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Game, introduced the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea Gigas) in the 1930s.  These oysters soon became the Bay Area standard, and are now familiarly known to raw bar enthusiasts as Preston Points, Hog Island Sweetwaters, or Marin Miyagis.  Surprisingly, as large as California is, it does not enjoy many oyster growing areas.  Aside from a few farms in Humboldt Bay, Morro Bay, and off Carlsbad, the main focus of oyster growing in California is in Marin County between Tomales Bay and Drakes Estero.

Luckily, San Francisco is only a scenic hour and half drive away from California's greatest oyster grounds.  Being the oyster junkie I am, I try to make it up there as often as I can. I decided to spend my most recent sunny Monday off traversing the beautiful Tomales coast in search of the best oyster preparations Marin County has to offer.

I immediately knew where to start: Tomales Bay Oyster Company.  Not only do they produce delicious Preston Points, Golden Nuggets, and now their very own Kumamotos, they are also the oldest continually operating oyster farm in California, beginning in 1909.  This, plus the fact that they established the Pacific oyster in the Bay Area.  As it was Monday, I had the picnic area and knowledgeable staff all to myself.  I suppose "industry" weekends do have their perks.

So, with cash in hand and a single 22 oz. Tecate, I set out to purchase a half dozen Kumamotos and a half dozen Golden Nuggets.  There's something great about pulling into the rustic Tomales Bay Oyster Company.  Just tables, grills, and oysters.  No bells and whistles.  Beers, barbeques, and bivalves.  It's all you need.

Each oyster was not only brimming with Tomales Bay's flavorful finest, but a pleasure to shuck.  Any accoutrements other than the beaming sun and salty fresh air would have been nothing short of blasphemy.   I'd had the Golden Nuggets a few times before, but they were especially amazing on this occasion.  Perfectly tide-tumbled (the method of growing), well manicured, deep cupped, plump, and rich.  They started with that familiar Tomales briny punch, but mellowed out into a rich, buttery finish, almost like dipping artichoke leaves in bernaise sauce.  The Kumamotos (Crassoastrea sikamea) were equally as tasty.  They were less salty that their gigas counterparts, but definitely brinier than Kumamotos from Humboldt Bay or Puget Sound.  At four years to market size, it was a complex roller coaster of flavors from bitter herb to that familiar cucumber melon that most Kumos deliver.  Unfortunately, the only place to find the Golden Nuggets and TBOC Kumamotos is at the namesake establishment.  However, the trip is absolutely worth it.

After my raw oyster appetizer, I headed a little more than a mile up Highway 1 to The Marshall Store.  Established overy a century ago, The Marshall Store long served as the general store for Marshall and the surrounding Tomales Bay area.  Now, under the same ownership as TBOC, it's a humble but amazing seafood shanty sitting right on the town of Marshall's boat harbor.

I know that I always talk about being an oyster purist.  No sauces, no lemons, and especially, no cooking.  Raw or bust.  However, I'd be lying if I said I didn't like barbequed oysters just as much as the next guy.  In fact, I don't know anybody that doesn't like them.  "Nope, I don't like barbequed oysters.  I don't like sunshine, sex, or Bob Marley either."  It just doesn't make any sense.  They're delicious.  And at the Marshall Store they're about as good as they get.

There is one simple rule to barbequed oysters and that is DO NOT OVERCOOK them.  As soon as the liquor starts to bubble and the oysters start to curl at the edges, they're done.  Just enough to incorporate all the flavorful toppings but not to the lose the natural juiciness and freshness of the oyster. The Marshall Store certainly knows this rule well.

Classic BBQ Sauce and Garlic Butter; Chorizo Butter and Cilantro; Oysters Rockafeller.

All three styles were delicious, especially the chorizo butter.  Shellfish and salty pig parts never fail to deliver, nor does the view from the Marshall Store while enjoying a cold beer and these tasty bites.

So, with two excellent preparations under my belt, I had one more to go.  Two constitutes a good time, but no less than three equals an "oyster crawl."  There are several places in Marin County offering great preparations of oyster po'boys and hangtown frys, but I knew I was setting out for something special offered at Osteria Stellina in Point Reyes Station.

Run by Chef-Owner Christian Caiazzo, Osteria Stellina offers up hyper-local fair dubbed as "Point Reyes Italian."  The restaurant was inspired by his lengthy travels around Italy where he noticed that each little country-side town had its own unique flavors and styles of cuisine.  To his amazement, this stemmed from the cooks using only local, fresh ingredients from the immediate surrounding farms.  Not because it was trendy or the "in" thing in the food scene, but simply because that was how it's always been.  The cooks' parents used local ingredients, their parents' parents used local ingredients, and so on.  It was just the way things were.  No all white meat Tyson chicken breasts or Chinese grown brocolli on their tables.

In trying to replicate this style of restuarant in the U.S., Chef Caiazzo realized that Marin County was the perfect setting.  All of Osteria Stellina's cheeses, meats, produce, and many libations come from West Marin, demonstrating the seasonal bounty the region has to offer.  And with this as the restaurant's credo, you know they have to use local oysters.

Enter Osteria Stellina's famed Drakes Bay Oyster Pizza.

Oysters on pizza right off the bat doesn't sound like it would work.  Perhaps if you called it a flat bread or something people wouldn't be as taken aback.  However, it is pretty spot on.

Straus Family cream braised leeks, crispy yet toothesome crust, parsley, lemon thyme, and generous portions of slightly warmed Drakes Bay oysters made for a delightful culmination to my Marin County Oyster Crawl.  The buttery cream was perfectly cut by each little salty, herbaceous pop of the oysters.  It was like an oyster chowder with ample amounts of crusty bread for dipping, but already put together for you.

In the end, I realized that Marin County not only grows some of the best oysters in the country, but goes the full nine in serving them up in simple, classic, and innovative ways.  The long and rich half shell history of Northern California has not only endured in Tomales Bay but continues to grow as more and more recognize what a true treasure the area is.  Take a day off work and check it out for yourself. 

The SF Oyster Nerd


The Watershed Project's Living Shoreline

"Oysters are more beautiful than any religion...there's nothing in Christianity or Buddhism that quite matches the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster" - Saki

Native Oyster from Point Pinole Regional Park

Perhaps a bit dramatic quote to begin a post, but I can say that oysters are the closest thing I have to a religion.  I live, breath, and of course, eat all things oyster.  It first started as a simple matter of taste.  Oysters are delicious.  But the further I delved into the world of oysters, the deeper the rabbit hole went (points for a Lewis Carroll/Walrus & The Carpenter reference? Maybe a little obvious.). 

Oysters have been “unshellfishly” giving to mankind since our beginning.  They have immensely impacted human culture, cuisine, and economy.  Tribes of the Chesapeake relied on them as a staple food source, so much so that “Chesapeake” is derived from an Algonquin word meaning “Great Shellfish.”  Romans notoriously feasted on dozen after dozen at their gluttonous culinary orgies.  Native Americans in Ecuador and Peru used Spondylus, known as spiny oyster shells, as currency.  Early English colonists often built their homes with tabby, a mixture of sand, water, lime, and crushed oyster shells.  Whether denoting wealth with their nacre-covered pebbles adorning the necks of Victorian high society or giving Casanova his famed vivacity, oysters have been on the ends of our forks, close to our pockets, and in our hearts for some time now.

However, the true generosity of the oyster is best demonstrated in what they are naturally made to do: be the ecological lynchpins of the oceans.  A single oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water daily.  They remove harmful phytoplankton from the water, increase oxygen levels, water clarity, and accelarate dentrification.  This allows aquatic plant life such as eel grass to thrive with more sunlight and oxygen.  Several other species such as crabs and smaller fish depend on oyster reefs for habitat, smiliar to coral in the tropics.  The presence of this healthy marine life trickles up to all the larger, predatory fish we are familiar with such as salmon and bass.  Oyster reefs also serve as important breakwater barriers for our shores, preventing waves from washing away vital coastline.  Basically, if you were building a healthy marine ecosystem, an oyster reef would be your foundation.

But, as history has taught us, humans really have a knack for destroying ecosystems, and oyster reefs have been one of the biggest victims.  Worldwide, wild oyster beds are nearly extinct (note that this doesn't mean stop eating them, as most oysters we consume today are farmed or closely monitored at wild harvest).  For us, specifically, the Bay Area once teemed with the native oyster, the Olympia, or Ostrea lurida.  However, when the 49ers arrived, they quickly over fished the native oyster in a matter of decades.  By the early 1900s, Olympia oyster beds were completely decimated.  Mining in the surrounding areas of the SF Bay also lead to silt build up on the ocean floor, covering existing oyster reefs and destroying any feasible substrate for new oysters to grow.  All this, plus the obvious industrial era water pollution that the oysters couldn't stave off led to their demise.   Thus, what you see today is a cloudy, murky, polluted shell of what once was a bountiful, healthy San Francisco Bay. 

Luckily, oyster restoration programs have sprung up all around the country in hopes of revival, including in our very own Bay Area.  The Living Shoreline, run by The Watershed Project, is one of our local oyster restoration programs, and was kind enough to let me tag along on one of their field trips to Point Pinole.

Point Pinole Regional Park Oyster Grounds at Low Tide

  Chris Lim, the program director, has teamed up with a few local high schools to educate kids on the importance of oysters in the Bay.  The students have a few in class lectures followed by a few field trips to the oyster monitoring grounds.  The trip I partook in was measuring the already existing populations of oysters and other sea life.  First, we measured all things water quality.  Temperature, salinity, pH, and my favorite, turbiditiy.  It sounds fancy, but it's just a fun way of saying cloudiness of the water.  It's even more fun when you get to use a "Secchi disc" to measure the "turbidity."  Fucking smart.  

After we assessed all things water, we moved on to the actual Living Shoreline.  The amount of creatures that exist under a single rock was overwhelingly abundant.  Sea lettuce, limpets, hermit crabs, tar spot algae, sufrgrass, stunted tutkish towels, and especially, Olympia oysters.  A single rock turned over unveiled a veritable rain forest of life.  The students would randomly toss a cross section onto the shore and measure what was present.

All gnarly sea life was accounted for, and then to be extrapolated in to a larger graph of what the aquatic residents more or less are.  This would provide an accuarate assessment of what the current oyster poplulation of the area is.  Human intervention is to follow with the placement of "reef balls" in the area to encourage more oyster growth.

These oyster ball reefs will provide a comfortable substrate for more oysters to attach to and grow on.  Hopefully, with time, these reef balls will hold more and more oysters, leading to more and more healthy marine life.

Oysters have continued to give and give to both us and the oceans.  They've unselfishly been keystones of our marine environments for millenia.  It's now our responsibility to return them to what they once were.  Perhaps, in a few decades, the San Francisco Bay may once teem again with Olympia oysters and all the bountiful sea life that comes with.

The SF Oyster Nerd


Oyster and Hard Cider Pairings

I was recently watching the Botany of Desire again, since Netflix sucks at updating its streaming service with new material.  Not a major issue as it's a great PBS documentary based on Michael Pollan's book about the co-evolution of plants and people.  He explores the idea that it's been in several plants' best interest to become domesticated and evolve characteristics that humans desire. This, in turn, caused humans to be the "bumblebees" of these plants, spreading their seed around the world and ensuring their successful propagation.  Perhaps you've seen it or even read it (which I shamefully have yet to do).  It's very identifiable seeing as how Pollan  anthropomorphizes the plants, almost claiming they purposefully become more and more desirable.

The apple, for example, was widely cultivated throughout North America in the early 1800's.  These apples were not as we know them today, though.  They were mostly bitter, astringent crab apples, used for making hard cider.  These inedible apples are actually said to make the best cider.  But, every once in a while, a rare seed-to-tree would produce a delectably sweet apple.  By the 1900's, farmers began singling out these trees and grafting them to produce more and more sweet apples.  Today we know them as the Red Delicious, Green Delicious,  Baldwin, etc.  So, we now all enjoy this tasty fruit and the apple has secured its global proliferation.

All good and interesting.  However, what most fascinated me was Pollan's discussion of the 1830's cider scourge in the US.  Cider was the drink of the age, much like wine or beer today.  It was even consumed more than water, since rampant cholera and typhoid epidemics were known to come from contaminated drinking water.  It's popularity grew which lead to saloons and countrysides full of drunkards.  The apple became demonized and was seen as evil, intoxicating the masses.  It only recovered once the grafting of sweet apples became the standard.

The Tree of Intemperance with Hard Cider at its Roots

But, during this time, I think quite a few flagons of cider were downed with quite a few dozen oysters.  They paired so well together, in flavor and in culture.  Both slightly taboo, earmarks of poverty, and akin to debauchery.  I'm sure that Manhattan's Five Points had plenty of Dickensian oyster cellars full of cider and unsavory patrons consuming both.

And the characteristics of a good sparkling cider seem to be the precise qualities one looks for in an oyster drink pairing.  Crisp, tart, dry or semi-dry, slightly acidic, effervescent.  The basic production of them is the same as wine.  Press the apples for their juice and ferment the juice with added or naturally occurring yeast, turning its sugars into alcohol.  This also means that ciders, like wines and oysters, have terroir.  The same apples may be grown in different areas producing different biochemical components in them leading to very different ciders. 


So, to explore further, I found myself biking around SF on a chilly Monday looking for some nice ciders.  Considering that I really didn't know much about the drink, I went to Healthy Spirits , a Castro beer/bourbon store with an incredibly knowledgeable staff that has no problem talking spirits for an hour.  Though they have a limited selection, the owner provided me with some great recommendations and information.  I wanted to get a four different ciders, varying in style, region, and level of production to try with four different oysters. 


Aspall English Demi-Sec Draft Cider
Pretty widely available cider produced in Suffolk, England since 1728. It did not specify any apple varietal, so I assumed it was a blend.  It was floral, crisp, dry, and very champagne-esque.  It had a decent ripe apple sweetness to it, as well.

Tieton Cider Works - Wild Washington Semi-Dry
Tieton seemed to be one of the other widely available ciders.  It was made out of a blend of apples in the namesake town of Tieton, Washington.  Washington is famous for its apples and oysters, so I had to get one.  In comparison to the other three, this was a very mellow, low-carbonated, smooth cider.  It also had a very muddy, disagreeable after taste.     

West County Cider - Redfield
A smaller production where the owners both grow the apples and make the cider out of Shelburne, Massachusetts.  They also ferment with the natural apple skin yeast and not champagne yeast like most sparkling ciders do.  Being 75% Redfield apple, it had a rose color from the scarlet fleshed variety.  It was grassy on the nose, had a strong barnyard flavor with tartness and an alkaline finish.

N Cider  
I had to get a local cider, right?  Made by Murray Ciders out of Petaluma, California, it's a blend of organic Sonoma County apples and twice fermented, giving it a champagne carbonation.  It was cloudy, had an extremely harsh citrus nose, was astringent, overly tart, and tasted like lemon juice.  In hindsight, I wish I had gone with Murray's Cyder, the company's primary cider.  I even bought a second bottle of N Cider, just to make sure the one I had wasn't oxidized.  But, sure enough, same characteristics.


Church Point
This Pacific oyster is intertidal beach grown and partly tumbled by the Sea Fresh Farms cooperative out of Hammersly Inlet, Washington.  It's a medium-cupped, fluted oyster with a very high liquor (oyster juice) content and has a nice artichoke/cucumber finish.  It's also a triploid oyster, meaning it never gets spawny or creamy.

Drakes Bay
Local Pacific oyster bag-to-beach grown by the Lunny Family in Drakes Estero in Point Reyes, California.  I had to use it, not only because it's a great oyster but may not be around much longer because of the damn National Park Service and a misguided Ken Salazar.  Hopefully you're familiar and hopefully the Lunny's litigation fight turns the decision around.  It is very briny, a little creamy and has a great bitter-herb finish.

Another Pacific oyster grown in suspension trays and partly tumbled by Northwest Aquaculture in Barkley Sound, Vancouver Island.  The Effingham is larger, plump, has a cream colored flesh and a subtle watermelon finish.

Village Bay
The only Atlantic oyster in my selection, Village Bays are suspension tray grown in Bedec Bay, New Brunswick.  They are very similar to the famous Beausoleil oyster from the same region.  They're medium sized, snappy, mild with a fresh baked bread aroma and a gamier clam-like finish.

Now, to the pairings.  Two ciders immediately eliminated: Tieton and N Cider.  If it's not a good cider to start with, it's not going to pair well with anything.  Perhaps not dogma, but I tried them and they didn't work.  I was left with four oysters and two ciders.  What immediately became apparent was that a strongly flavored oyster was needed to stand up to the pungency of even the dryer, less tart ciders.  Effinghams and Church Points were completely overwhelmed by both the Aspall and the West County.

Two wonderful pairings did come out of the tasting, though, and they were the Drakes with the Aspall and the Village Bay with the West County.  Quite the opposite of what I had expected, actually.  I imagined the barnyard flavored West County would go nicely with the more vegetal Pacific oyster and the Aspall with the minerally Atlantic oysters.

However, the Aspall and Drakes went great together.  None of the Drakes celebrated qualities were lost while drinking the Aspall.  Slight fruitiness to begin cut by the strong salinity in the Drakes, finished with the refreshing effervescence of another sip.  Certainly a pairing I'd love to enjoy while sitting bayside in San Francisco.

The real magic happened with the Village Bay and West County, though.  The dry, alkaline finish of the West County made me yearn for the mild yet savory hit of a Virginica oyster.  I took in the fresh yeasty aroma of the Village Bay, slurped, and was entranced by the accentuated gaminess that the cider brought out.  The West County made the Village Bay taste more "oystery" in a great way, almost like an Olympia.

Though this experiment had not gone as I had expected in proving that ciders and oysters pair brilliantly, it did confirm that a few ciders and a few stronger oysters do work amazingly in tandem.  In my eyes, this is just the beginning to a long and "fruitful" adventure.

 The Village Bay with the West County Redfield and the Aspall with the Drakes Bay

Naturally, after having drunk nearly three bottles of cider mostly to myself on a Monday afternoon (it's tough doing blog research, man) I got a little audacious.  I figured brunoise some shallots and apples, add equal parts of the Aspall and apple cider vinegar, and you've got yourself a spot-on mignonette.  It proved true.  I had my brother try it for confirmation.  It definitely worked, and it wasn't just the cider talking.

Apple Cider Mignonette

My cider and oyster pairing was an amazing experience.  It lead me to do everything I try to achieve in a post.  Explore and learn about new things, enjoy the process of trying out new ideas, and sharing those ideas and their end results with others.  Hopefully you too get the chance, soon, to try sparkling hard ciders and oysters together.

The SF Oysternerd