What’s on your locavore’s barbecue this Labor Day weekend? A slab of beef tri-tip, our favorite regional cut, sliced and nestled up to a stack of red torpedo onions and dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes sounds mighty tasty. If you prefer fish, try a side of grilled sockeye or king salmon topped with this easy corn relish. And to start, what captures the taste of our unique coastal landscape than a a platter of oysters plucked from the salt-sweet estuaries of Tomales Bay or Point Reyes?
You can shuck and serve them raw, with nothing more than a squirt of lemon and a shake of hot sauce, or get a little more fancy with a saucer of mignonette sauce. Mignonette may sound lah-di-dah, but it’s nothing more than a tart dunk of minced shallot, black pepper, and champagne vinegar. At its popular restaurant and oyster bar in the Ferry Building, the Hog Island Oyster Company has California-ized this French classic into a “Hog Wash” of shallot, minced jalapeno, cilantro, and both seasoned and plain rice vinegar. Or you can raise a toast to a particularly local tradition and barbecue them right on the grill. No shucking required; just place oysters, flat side up, on a hot grill until the shells pop open. Off the heat, remove the top shell, loosen the oyster within with a quick swipe of an oyster knife, and top with your favorite barbecue sauce. You can return the oysters to the grill for a minute or two to heat the sauce through. Whatever you do, the oysters will be sexy and succulent, with a clean ocean taste like the first fresh slap of a wave against your face.
Once your appetite is whetted, you might want to know more about these intriguing little bivalves, so rich in history and lore. Oyster Culture by Gwendolyn Meyer and Doreen Schmid, is a great place to start. Illustrated with Meyer’s beautiful, evocative black-and-white and color photographs as well as historical documents and pictures, the book, published by Petaluma’s Cameron Press, delves into the history and ecology of the local oyster industry. How did the book happen? Via email, Meyer told us,
“The book evolved from a photo essay on how oysters are farmed on one farm into the bigger story of oyster farming out here in West Marin. I started shooting grainy black and white film images back in 2001 out on the water and the gritty grainy look captured the hard working farmers on the bay on its foggy overcast cold windy days. The Tomales Bay is a special and unique place, one of the few clean estuariane systems left in California. The water-based farms fascinated me, and being out on the bay was captivating. Getting to know some of the people involved with oysters here and the history of the east shore– I realized that there was a story that hadn’t been told.
Photos from Oyster Culture copyright Gwendolyn Meyer
People in California have been eating oysters for centuries. Archaeological digs at Coast Miwok campsites have revealed piles of oyster, mussel, and clam shells. The native oyster of California’s indigenous peoples and first settlers was the small, coppery-tasting Olympia oyster, Ostreo lurida. It has since been replaced, first by Atlantic varieties shipped in from the East Coast, then, since the 1930s, by Japanese Pacific varieties like the Miyagi and the Kumamoto. At first, commercial oyster farming was concentrated in San Francisco Bay, but as silt and pollution threatened the beds, the oyster companies looked north, to the more pristine estuaries of Tomales Bay and the Point Reyes peninsula. Oysters thrive in flat tidal estuaries where the river meets the sea, as part of a very particular coastal ecology. Once railways were established, linking the once-remote hamlets of West Marin to San Francisco and the surrounding towns, local aquaculture took off. As Oyster Culture notes, “For a brief moment in the 1950s, Tomales Bay was the largest oyster producer in California. Today, it is the state’s smallest production area, but home of its oldest oyster farm and last oyster-canning factory, at Drakes Bay Estero.”
Using an attractive and inviting layout, Oyster Culture explores both the natural and cultural histories of oysters, oyster farming, and oyster-eating around the Bay Area. At an early age, left to its own devices, an oyster attaches itself permanently to whatever solid surface it can find. Raising oysters is more like farming, or raising livestock, than fishing, since the oysters stay where they’re planted. Marin’s oyster companies, including Hog Island, Tomales Bay Oyster Company, Point Reyes Oyster Company, Cove Mussel Company, the Marin Oyster Company, and Drakes Bay Oyster Company (formerly Johnson’s Oyster Farm), have evolved their own systems for raising and growing their oysters, each producing slightly different results. Along with ranching and farming, the oyster industry makes up a significant part of Marin’s agricultural history and current agricultural and aquaculture-based economy. As Meyer told us,
“What was striking to me was how involved and familiar with every aspect of oysters everyone who works with them is, from the oyster bar shuckers to the farmers. There is a wealth of information about the oyster, and people who work with oysters know so much. Everyone in the industry has a particular philosophy about how they grow. Their understanding of the bay and the water and the environment they work in is impressive. I think a memorable story comes from Jorge out at Drakes Bay. Jorge has worked on the water for 30-plus years at Drakes Bay, for the Lunny family and the Johnsons before them. One early morning, he and Kevin Lunny got disoriented in the fog out on the estero. The fog blanketed out any recognizable features and they got didn’t know which way was home. They mistook the light on shore for that of a boat and headed away from it towards the ocean, which could have been disastrous. Fortunately, they managed to figure it out and didn’t head out to sea.
The story reminded me how even experienced [oyster] farmers with years of working on the same body of water are at the mercy of changing conditions. It may look calm and protected out there on the bay and estero, but it’s a landscape very much affected by many influences, both natural and man-made. I think the environment keeps farmers constantly on their toes.
Eat a local oyster, and you’re supporting local jobs, something that makes putting oysters on the menu particularly appropriate for Labor Day. It’s cold, wet work, tending to the rough-shelled babies out in the Bay, scrubbing and shucking, but it’s an industry with deep roots, one that both provides jobs and presents a model for how for-profit agricultural businesses can work within protected parklands. “Because Tomales Bay is part of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, the farm [Hog Island], like all those within this sanctuary, works with over twenty agencies that manage land use and water quality in and around the Bay,” the authors write. Says Hog Island co-owner Terry Sawyer, “None of this would be here without the Point Reyes National Seashore–we all owe a huge debt to its creation.”
Now that she’s an oyster expert, what oyster does Meyer prefer?
“Lately I’m particularly fond of the Tomales Bay Oyster Company’s golden nuggets. They are beautiful oysters that are tumbled, not grown on the bottom, and because of this their shells are really pretty. The oyster itself is a deep-cupped, plump, rich tasting and perfect-looking oyster — really a delicacy. I believe TBOC is the only farm doing tumbled bags on the bays. I prefer them freshly shucked, on the half shell with a squeeze of lemon. I like their briny taste of the ocean and want the full flavor of that, especially as we come into the winter months when they are at their prime.
Recipe: Oysters with Chorizo Sauce
Summary: This recipe, adapted from the book Oyster Culture by Gwendolyn Marks and Doreen Schmid, comes from the kitchen of The Marshall Store, a popular seafood restaurant on the eastern side of Tomales Bay.
From the Marshall Store
Prep time: 10 minutes, plus 1 hour’s chilling time
Cook time: 5 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes, plus 1 hour’s chilling time
Yield: 24 oysters, serves 6
1/4 lb fresh Mexican-style chorizo sausage, removed from casing
1 cup (8 oz) unsalted butter, softened
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1. Soften butter at room temperature. Saute chorizo until thoroughly cooked, then crumble. Place in refrigerator to cool.
2. Place butter in a small bowl and break up with a wooden spoon. Add cooled chorizo and mix thoroughly. Add parsley. Place the mixture in the middle of a sheet of waxed paper. Roll into a 2-inch wide log, twist ends shut, and chill in the refrigerator until firm.
3. Prepare a gas or charcoal grill. While grill is heating, shuck oysters and leave in shells. When grill is hot, top each opened oyster with a thin slice of butter cut from roll. Cover and cook just until the butter starts to bubble.
Note: If you don’t have an outdoor grill, these oysters can also be cooked under the broiler. To broil, cover an ovenproof plate or platter with a layer of slightly moistened rock salt about 1 inch deep. Set oysters, in shells, on the rock salt, making sure they are level. Top each oyster with a thin slice of chorizo butter. Broil just until the butter starts to bubble.