Last week Sage and I loaded up for a day on the coast – tidepooling, whale watching, and an exploratory visit to Tomales Bay and the Hog Island Oyster Farm. Sage is 5 and generally adores fresh fish and seafood of all kinds – grilled Baja dorado, my cider-cured and applewood smoked trout, and Bodega Bay crab are all favorites. He also eats ikura, shrimp and tako nigiri like a champ. But I wasn’t sure how oysters would go over, and I knew it would be risky to drive all the way from Bodega Bay (the whales) to Marshall (the oyster farm). But lately I have been fixating on local seafood myself, and I discovered that the Hog Island Oyster Farm was not only visitor friendly but also produces what might be the finest oysters in the Bay Area. So I took my chances and we made the drive.
The truth is I had already made my own exploratory visit to Hog Island. A week earlier I stopped by on my way to the city (a BIG detour) and took the plunge. The farm is nestled against the shores of Tomales Bay, an anomalous finger of Pacific water following a trench formed by the San Andreas fault. It was Friday, and things were pretty slow around the picnic area. The place is primarily a processing facility and there are great tanks of recirculating seawater in which bags of oysters and manila clams (another farm specialty) are stored to purge and stay clean before sale. The picnicking area itself is a bit of genius — a few tables and benches right on the water and a funky old boat sticking up vertically to form the bar. I met Garrett, a recent grad from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, and got the run down on how things worked at Hog Island. He loaded up a plastic tray with ice and oysters and showed me the basic technique for getting the good stuff out of the shell. The primal tool of oyster opening is the shucking knife, and what Garrett had done effortlessly with a flick of the wrist took me much wiggling and prying and pushing. But as I worked my way through the first dozen I got the feel for cutting through the hinge and finessing the twist-and-slide motion needed to pop the top open and cut through the adductor (the muscle that closes the shell). And with each successful opening I was rewarded with a taste that was so refreshing (ice cold), so evocative of the sea (brine and mineral), and so tangy with Hogwash (a seasoned vinegar or mignonette) that I could barely open the next fast enough. By the second dozen I was hooked. I would be back in barely a week.
When Sage and I arrived it was midday on a Saturday and the picnic area was packed. Sage took to playing on a nearby gravel pile and I haggled for a corner at one of the benches. The wonderful cowboy-hatted woman working the bar saw what I was about and got us squared away with a tray, a knife, and some Hogwash. Jose at the tanks hooked us up with a nice selection of kumamotos and extra-small Pacifics (these are varieties of oysters). Sage was, of course, fascinated by the icy mollusc heap. And to make matters more interesting Jose and one of the other guys were showing off a HUGE oyster they had just pulled from the bay – haggling over who would get to open and eat the giant. As we settled into our wooden bench the moment of truth was at hand – what would the “good lovin’ farmer Sage” (his own self-assigned moniker) make of raw oysters. As the lid popped off the first extra-small I cut the oyster in two, reserving the big, soft, meaty bit for Sage and keeping the chewy, frilly stuff for myself. Accidentally I slipped the whole thing into the Hogwash (rice wine vinegar, cilantro, shallots and other goodness) but Sage quickly grabbed his nibble out and popped it in his mouth. I could see the instant pucker from the vinegar, and then a scrunched up pause of textural uncertainty. But in the end the proclamation was made — “Mmmmm, I like oysters!” — followed by urgings to get busy shucking the next. We polished off a dozen together and I figured that was enough for Sage’s first round – even though I was tempted to keep going. We also had some nice Wild Flour bread from the bakery in Freestone, and a bit of chocolate. With this gift of good food in our bellies we headed out for the tidepools, where we fed sea anemones on bits of busted up blue mussel and watched the waves roll out with the low tide. I wish my parenting was always this good!
Postscript: I revisited my friends at Hog Island yesterday (after one of the best road rides of my life) for a light lunch and a look out over the bay. I discovered another little gem that you should all know about — their little links of homestyle Spanish chorizo. The rich, meaty-spicy taste of the sausage paired with the bright, briny taste of the oysters was just about perfect. If only I had saved some of that bread from Della Fattoria in Petaluma! If you live anywhere near Marin County go visit the Hog Island Oyster Farm. I am sure oysters in restaurants are nice. But oysters, like most great food, come from some place outside – someplace where there is wind and salt and mud. They have a natural heritage generally at odds with fine tableware and fancy napkins. For us the place to taste that heritage is Tomales Bay, sitting at a weathered picnic table, watching the shorebirds fly in over the tidal flats. I can’t wait for the next visit.