Thursday, April 3, 2014

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

Sunday, January 19, 2014

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 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

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

Monday, March 18, 2013

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

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Japanese Fugu: 日本のふぐ

Spending two weeks in Japan was quite the trip.  It’s hard to know where to even begin.  Flashing lights that put Vegas to shame, eight story arcades, bullet trains, incomprable politeness, and plutonium powered 1.21 gigawatt toilets.  The differences are indescribable, but the similarities in our shared regard for good food, drink, sport, fashion, literature, etc. are ever prevalent.  We’re all the same at the end of the day with the same appreciation of quality and attention to detail, the latter being especially Japanese.

Unfortunately, to my dismay, it was not exactly Oyster season (poorly planned on my part, but job transitions happen when they happen, giving me two weeks for a vacation).  All of the Japanese Oysters I had were straight spawn bombs, but there were a few nice Australian Rock Oysters I tried, namely the Coffin Bay.

However, out of all the nigiri, kaki, izakayas, ramen, and wagyu, one particular dining experience stood out above all others.  It was the perfect blend of refined product and execution mixed with genuine “mom’n’pop” hospitality.

As soon as a decided I was going to Japan, I knew I was going to find a solid Fugu dinner.  Fugu is the infamous poisonous blowfish that if not prepared correctly, can kill you within 24-48 hours from tetrodotoxin.  You may be familiar with it from the Simpsons Episode, among other media, of course.  Just one drop is enough to kill three people.  The poison lies primarily in the fish’s skin and liver.  One must be properly trained and licensed to serve it.  The final examination actually consists of the trainee preparing his own Fugu and eating all by himself.  Some eat to live, others live to eat, but in Japan, they go as far to eat that which may kill you.

Yet, nowadays, much Fugu is farm-raised and thus not poisonous, seeing as how their poison is derived from the coral and creatures they eat in the wild.  I wanted the proper thing.  So, I did my research, headed to Kyoto, and went to a small place named Fukushin. It’s basically one 70-something-year-old master who’s been preparing Fugu since the 60’s along side his wife.  His son/apprentice is now licensed as well and prepared my meal.

When I walked in on a cloudy Wednesday, I was the only customer.  A bit nerve-wrecking at first, but nothing a few sakes and Asahis couldn’t handle. Keeping in mind that I spoke no Japanese and they knew no English, I did my best to get right into it.

“Tennen Fugu A Course, shite kudasai”

He first pulled out the entire broken down blowfish and presented to me, upon my hand-gestured/written request.  Then, he proceeded to break it down piece-by-piece, setting aside specific pieces for different cooking methods.

Tepi Fugu Kawa: First course was the blowfish subdermis collagen served with finely shredded daikon radish and wakame.  The most incredible thing about this course is that a little bit of the tetrodotoxin from the skin stays in the gelatinous subdermis, making your lips a little numb as you eat it.  Quite the savory, crunchy, and mildly frightening experience all wrapped into one.

Fugu Tesa: Second course was Fugu sashimi, which was the only course the 70-year-old master stepped up for.  Thinly sliced pieces of Fugu loin with pickled daikon and chives meant to be dipped into ponzu.  

Honestly, it wasn’t the most memorable portion of the meal.  It makes sense, though, if you think about it.  White meat vs. dark meat.  Which tastes better?  Let’s all try and steer clear of those flavorless filet mignons and all-white-meat chicken breasts and opt for the more flavorful bone-in cuts.

Yakifugu: Third course.  This portion was straight bad ass I don’t mind saying.  A cinder block sized grill was placed directly in front of me with white-hot charcoal searing away.  The kind cook placed one collar and one tailpiece on the grill for my enjoyment.  Salt, pepper, char, and a little lemon was all the accoutrement necessary for these delectable bites.  I felt a little bit embarrassed as I was gnawing on the bones, but I saw their appreciation of how much I was enjoying it.

Torafugu Karage: Fourth Course.  Anything deep fried is good, naturally.  But the potato starch breaded Japanese style of deep-frying called karage is especially delightful.  Sweet and succulent bone-in collar and loin cuts with fried shitake mushrooms and shishito peppers are tough to beat.  Aside from the delciousness, it was at this point I accidentally dropped my chopsticks (poor form) on to the table only to be followed by terrified gasps by my hosts.  It took me a few minutes to realize why they were so scared….poisoned!  In the broader sense, yes.  Inebriated by delicious bottles of Asahi lager and sake, but no tetrodotoxin.

Tecchiri Fugu Nabe: Fifth Course.  Claypot Nabe style.  Definitely the heartiest, rib-sticking part of the meal.  Enoki mushroom, tofu, napa cabbage, chewy potato noodles, and the meatier cuts of fugu, all cooked in piping hot dashi broth with pickled ginger on the side.  Rich and well-seasoned.  The best bit was the boiled mochi.  A simple glutinous rice cake boiled in dashi stock ended up being one of the tastiest parts of the meal.

I also invited the lovely family to join me in a friendly libation at the fifth course, as they were so gracious and kind to me.  We all had a few sips of beer and what minimal
conversation could be had broadened.  The most hilarious point was when my server, the son’s wife, managed to ask me where I was from.  I said “California” and she chuckled, paused, and said in her best Austrian accent “I’ll be back.”  Arguably the most adorable part of the entire evening. 

Hirezake and Andes Melon:  Final course. Few people might think fish flavored alcohol sounds good, but believe me, it’s incredible.  Hirezake is the dorsal fin of Fugu grilled super hot and dried for five days.  It’s then placed in hot sake, lit on fire, and capped to seal in the flavor.  Opening any less then thirty seconds later would be blasphemy.  The abounding aromatics stun you upon opening.  This, followed by a delicious and world-renowned Hokkaido melon capped off the evening as the perfect desert. 

People have argued that Fugu is too pricey for too little flavor.  You’re paying for the thrill of the bite, not the taste.  However, when enjoying proper wild Fugu at Fukushin in Kyoto, it’s worth every yen.  Incomparable succulence and service.  The family was even kind enough to give me a gift of a tea cup and Fugu poster when I left.  If you ever find yourself in Kyoto, Fukushin is certainly my main recommendation. It reminded that while food may help to identify race, creed, or culture, its base is blind in good times with great people.

The SF Oysternerd

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Cannery Row

I recently spent a wonderful couple days with my family down in Pebble Beach.  Ironically, none of us golf.  However, that doesn't mean there weren't plenty of things to do, namely a visit to Cannery Row.  Briefly, Cannery Row in Monterey was a massive sardine fishing and canning industry back in the 1940's and 1950's.  At its peak during WWII, companies were canning 250,000 tons of sardines a season, and at its collapse in the mid 1950's a mere 1,000.  Reasons for the collapse are debated, causes being both overfishing and the natural fluctuation of sardine populations.  However, it would be undeniably foolhardy to say humans had nothing to do with it.  Nowadays, Cannery Row is a major tourist destination for its restaurants, Steinbeck history, and most especially, The Monterey Bay Aquarium.
I especially enjoy the 'juxtaposition' of the vintage canning sign with the high-performance muscle car.  Feel free to mentally punch me for having said that.

Visiting the aquarium was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had.  Endless exhibits of psychedelic jellyfish, humbly terrifying sharks, and whimsical sea otters.  Tidal pools where you can pet sting rays. Dolphin shows. Model set ups of Edward Rickett's laboratory famed by Steinbeck's namesake novel.  Puffins, star fish, tuna, anemones.  Seeing everything in one day is impossible.

 Turns out taking pictures of moving fish with an iPhone is quite the challenge.  This was the best I got, a small school of anchovies.  Sorry everyone.  Photography is not my specialty.

However, while wandering through the Open Sea exhibit, I couldn't help but over hear a conversation to my right.  I was enjoying massive schools of sardines shoot by, only to be followed by enormous Hammerhead sharks and Pacific Bluefin Tuna.  All of the sudden I hear, "Man, I'd love to eat that."  Here we are, not only looking at this majestic two-decade-old bluefin tuna, but surrounded by demonstrable depletion of fisheries in the Cannery Row history, and all this dick can think is "mmm, Kuro Maguro."  I didn't say anything, seeing as how it would have ruined both mine and his day, but I would have loved to.  It certainly got me thinking, though.    

Our culture is full of all these buzzwords nowadays.  Locavore, grass-fed, free-range, sustainably-grown, and the completely exhausted organic.  No, I’m not going to delve into the entire Michael Pollan industrial food complex discussion, but there is something endemic to our dietary culture that's not good.  It both pains and excites me to see so many inquisitive diners these days (at least in my current hometown of San Francisco…enter reader eye-roll).  “Excuse me, miss.  Is this beef local and grass-fed?  Is this chicken cage-free raised?  Is this gluten-free?  I don’t have celiac’s disease, but Anderson Cooper told me gluten is bad so I don’t want it.  Do you think the chicken had friends?”  Maybe the last one’s a bit Portlandia-esque and unfair.

Yet, I've witnessed these very same customers become giddy as hell when they see Hamachi, Monkfish, or King Crab on a menu.  Put Black Rhino on your menu and people will lose their shit.  "How dare you serve an endangered species."  But put Bluefin Tuna on your menu and people will go ape shit with excitement.  In reality, Black Rhino might be the more responsible choice, given how few breeding Bluefins there are left in the world.  Why does everyone care so much about gavaged ducks, so much that it's banned in California, but nobody seems to care about the ever-dwindling populations of the sea?  People have wholeheartedly fought for legistlation against foie gras production, in which there are still questions of adverse effects on the animal to be debated, yet don't blink twice for entire species of fish being decimated beyond recovery.

It's the panda effect.  If it's cuddly or seems to have a personality, it's worth saving.  Furry means friend, fish means food.  But does veal really deserve our attention so much more than the diseased, concentrated salmon in farms off the Chilean coast?  What if I were to say that octopuses are highly intelligent?  They problem solve, have discernable long-term memories, and have even been observed "playing."  Would you still be comfortable eating your poulpe provencal?  It's a personal choice that each individual has to decide on his or her own.  But it doesn't detract from the point that our oceans are being heavily overfished.

Take the Grand Banks off of Newfoundland and its cod fishery collapse, for example.  In 1968, the total cod catch was 800,000 tons.  By 1975, it was down to 35,000.  The reason for this enormous change was more effective means of fishing leading to larger catches.  With these large catches, no of-age cod were being left in the sea to breed.  In 1992, the Canadian government put a moratorium on cod fishing in the Grand Banks and the cod population has yet to recover.  Many scientists argue that it never will.  Too many fish have been pulled out of the gene pool for it to recover to what it once was.  This same tragedy is happening world wide.  Thousands of boats are pulling 10-times the amount of fish they're allowed by their quota daily out of the sea.  Entire schools of pollock, meaning entire genetic stocks, are being pulled out of the Bering Strait to make those Filet'o'Fish sandwiches.  20 pounds of bycatch (undesirable fish, coral, sea turtles, etc) are caught in shrimp trawlers for every single pound of shrimp.

So why not just eat farmed fish?  Unfortunately, this is not the answer either.  There are many reputable fish farms out there, and particularly Oyster farms that are environmentally friendly and sustainable.  However, many farmed fish such as salmon require a 4 to 1 ratio of feed.  Every pound of salmon that is grown requires 4 pounds of sardines, anchovies, or other fish to be caught and fed to them.  Not exactly sustainable.  Entire regions of mangroves are being destroyed by Malaysian shrimp farming, just so we can have those easy-peel 21-25 IQF prawns.  They dump waste into one area just to move on to the next once it's reached capacity.  The transgressions are endless.

Whatever your moral dietary choices be, there is an undeniable atrocity happening in our oceans.  The ocean is not inexhaustable or ever abundant.  No matter what ethical eating choice you make, there won't be a choice left when it comes to seafood if we keep on pace.  There is a ceiling to what we can take from the sea, and it seems that we're dangerously close to that proverbial point of no return.

So please, choose your seafood responsibly and sustainably.  Nobody's perfect.  I have some Indonesian shrimp in my freezer right now.  But so long as you stay educated, spread the word, and practice what you preach as much as you can, things should get better.  Follow the The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watchlist for your area.  Eat sardines, local fish, and farmed Oysters.  Follow seasonal guidelines for fish like those provided by TwoXSea.  Frequent and support transparent establishments that provide you with all pertinent seafood information.  Be that asshole who questions where and how your seafood was sourced!   It's the only way to make things change.  Plus, I'd like my little niece and nephew to be able to enjoy the bounty of the sea just as we have.


The SF Oyster Nerd