Oyster Touring Across Tomales Bay
Tomales Bay has been on my oyster destinations to visit list for as long as I can remember.
Wine country and oyster country make the perfect one-two punch for any food-venturer. Our haunt through Napa Valley and Tomales Bay earlier this fall was one that every oyster lover should (and can) take advantage of.
November 20th marked my four year anniversary as an aspiring ostreaphile. I have digital proof of my quest! Time certainly flies. Ever since I experienced my very first Hog Island Sweetwater at the Hog Island Oyster Bar in the Ferry Building back in 2009, I had been curious about exploring Tomales Bay and its hidden treasures. So when B and I made plans to hit up Napa for a weekend of wine and unwinding, it was a no brainer to also drive out to see California's most picturesque oyster land for myself.
We first spent a long weekend with B's old college buddies at an amazing vineyard estate near Silver Oak Winery, which was lovingly called Napafest. Everyone brought a little something to enhance the group's enjoyment. My contribution? Six dozen Hog Island Sweetwater oysters! The Hog Island Oyster Bar at the Oxbow Public Market in Napa allow customers to place orders for unshucked oysters for take-away consumption, if you do it a day or two in advance. The XS Sweetwaters were perfect for on the half shell slurping. At just $1 a piece, they were a steal! I even taught a couple of guys how to shuck oysters by the pool.
Once we had our fill of Chardonnay grapes and BBQ, we packed up our stuff and headed west. The drive from Napa to Tomales Bay took about an hour and 20 minutes. We drove past expansive camel-colored hills, scattered livestock posses, and bucolic ranches. The closer we were to the water, the greener the scenery became. Suddenly, we found ourselves on a cliff taking in this gorgeous view.
California’s Oyster Country
Driving along California State Route 1 will take you by many of the state's most iconic oyster destinations. The California Department of Fish and Game leases a portion of Tomales Bay's water acreage to five aquaculture companies. Hog Island Oyster Company and Tomales Bay Oyster Company are the largest ones, and also allow public visitors. There is also another farm worth pointing out near the bay and that is the ever-resilient Drake's Bay Oyster Company. But since we only had a few hours to spend, we decided to make the most of it at Hog Island Oyster Farm and The Marshall Store.
Hog Island Oyster Farm has been growing oysters and shellfish for over 30 years now. It's not the oldest around, nor the biggest. What makes Hog Island Oyster Farm different from most others out there is their remarkable "farm-to-table" experience, if you will. The farm has been open to the public since 1986. Oyster lovers have the opportunity to drop by, pick up fresh shellfish to go, or sit down to enjoy a little oyster picnic by the bay.
Not exactly knowing what to expect, I reserved a picnic table through the Hog Island website prior to our visit and came prepared with my own oyster shucking gear. If you are in need of a knife and glove, the farm has a bunch to lend or sell. The picnic area is separated into two tiers. The top tier consists of several umbrella-topped picnic tables that are dedicated for patrons of their oyster bar, "The Boat." The bottom tier consists of maybe six or seven picnic tables reserved for "suck for yourself" service and grill access. If you just want to drop by for a few dozen on the go, don't bother reserving a table. But if you want to turn it into an all out party, like these oyster-loving Instagrammers, then definitely book your crew a table!
We ordered a couple dozen Hog Island Sweetwaters, a dozen Kumamotos, and a bag of manila clams to shuck ourselves. But before we really dug in, we got to tour the operations with oyster farm veteran George Curth. When George isn't explaining importance of the bag tags and water sampling to curious customers, he's managing the farmers market operations. The oyster farm tour is a rather new operation for the farm and it's one that I wholeheartedly adore!
I learned that the farm works in close cooperation with the local government to monitor water quality. Mussels grown in the bay are sampled every week to test for pollutants. If results detect something off, harvesting halts until the situation resolves itself. A lot of people ask me if I have ever gotten sick from eating oysters. To this day, I haven't experienced a bad oyster yet (knock on wood). I don't think it's quite as common as people may think it is. You are much more likely to get sick from your undercooked hamburger or unwashed lettuce, but at the same time, I really believe that you have to be careful. Know where your oysters are from and buy from reliable sources.
The more people know, the better we off we all will be.
After the tour, we sat down and got back to business. It was time for a delicious sampling of raw and grilled oysters. The Hog Island Farm Style Grilled Sweetwaters with Garlic Chipotle Butter were fantastic. They have just the perfect amount of tanginess smokiness and heat. Thankfully, the guys posted their recipe online. Here's an excerpt from the experts:
Hog Island Farm Style Grilled Sweetwaters with Garlic Chipotle Butter
50 Hog Island Sweetwater Oysters
1/2 lb (two sticks) unsalted butter softened to room temp
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup bourbon
3/4 cup finely chopped garlic
Half of (10 oz) can of chipotle chilies in adobo sauce, chopped
The Butter (can be made up to one week in advance, keep refrigerated)
In a medium bowl, dissolve the brown sugar with the bourbon. In a food processor or blender, combine the softened butter with the bourbon/brown sugar mixture and add the garlic and chipotles. Mix on medium/high speed until well blended (OK if some chunks remain). Lay down a sheet of parchment paper (12" or so), scoop the butter compound onto the sheet working to form a long row. Roll the butter in the parchment, like a burrito, folding the ends as you go. Refrigerate for about two hours or until firm. The finished roll should be the dimension of a cube of butter, only longer (about a foot). When you are ready to grill, slice 1/8" pats of butter from the butter log and place on top of your shucked, raw oysters. Allowing the butter to melt as the oysters cook. *You can also skip the log-roll and leave the butter in a airtight covered bowl (refrigerate after making). Scoop a tablespoon of the mixture onto each oyster as they grill.
Fire up your grill to medium hot. Pre- shuck a few dozen oysters and remove the butter from the fridge. Place a pat of butter onto each shucked oyster and get those 'sters on the grill. Watch the butter and oysters begin to bubble. After about 2-4 minutes of bubbling and sizzling remove the oysters from the heat. The oysters will be ready when the edges of their meat begins to curl and the butter sauce is bubbling hot. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Enjoy with a frosty beverage.
Source: Hog Island Oyster Company
Here's a fun detail: each picnic table is fitted with a special basket to help collect shells. The shells are cleaned, crushed, and ready to be repurposed for a variety of projects. For example, these shells could be used as cultch—a natural substrate that oyster larvae like to settle on and grow from. Cultch is critical in the creation of new oyster reefs, so the next time you encounter an oyster shell recycling program, remember to pitch in! I've also been collecting shells for my own project... which will reveal itself next May.
The Marshall Store
Almost immediately following the Hog Island Farm tour and shucking lunch, we headed over to The Marshall Store. This little historic outpost along Route 1 serves a variety of oyster treats with one heck of a view. We ordered a plate of the Marshall Store Oyster Rockefellers and a clam chowder. Creamy, crunchy, and perfectly grilled, these were some of the finest Oyster Rockefellers I've had in a long, long time.
If you can't get your hands on them in person, you can also make them yourself. While we were at The Marshall Store, I discovered a great book called Oyster Culture by Gwendolyn Meyer and Doreen Schmid. It offers a visually-stimulating and informative look into the Tomales Bay oyster industry. Plus, they give up the original Marshall Store Oyster Rockefeller recipe in it! It's a beautiful book and one of my favorite coffee table additions this year.
Getting back to San Francisco was quite easy from Tomales Bay. You can either go the "scenic route" down Route 1 and into Point Reyes National Seashore (and possibly hit up Muir Woods too) or head back towards US Route 101. I'd recommend the scenic drive, although I do warn you that parts are quite curvy and possibly foggy. Leave the driving to an expert... aka not me.
Got any other recommendations on where to go around these parts? Leave a comment!