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. 

Cheers,
The SF Oyster Nerd

2 comments:

  1. Great post! This makes me really want to return to SF for a visit. Perhaps this fall...

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  2. Where do you work? I want to come by the Oyster Bar, as I"m told your restaurant is called, but am having trouble locating it!

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