Oysters have long been a favorite indulgence, with the exception of a brief period during which an ex-boyfriend's photo landed in the Chicago Sun-Times for winning the Shaw's Crab House annual oyster-eating competition. It was a feat so revolting that I couldn't touch shellfish for months. Particularly during the cooler months, when fresh oysters are in peak season, these briny mollusks appear on more and more menus throughout Southern California restaurants, such as downtown's Water Grill and Newport Beach's Gulfstream. But for the ultimate experience, you just might have to get your hands wet.
Which is exactly what I did the day after Christmas, when, following a good, hard week of rain at my family's house in Northern California, I was sufficiently stir crazy to head for the most remote location within striking distance--Tomales Bay. Situated along pristine coastline 50 miles north of San Francisco, this national marine sanctuary is home to Hog Island Oyster Co., where 130 acres of underwater beds turn out some of the West Coast's highest quality oysters. "This is the biggest factor in quality," says Terry Sawyer, pointing to the estuary. Sawyer, an avid environmentalist, adds, "By protecting the water, we can grow a better oyster. There's no real industry around here. Howling winds for months on end during the spring have kept development at bay."
Sawyer and his two partners, John Finger and Mike Watchorn, founded the farm two decades ago, starting with five acres of marineland. The three had graduated from college with degrees in marine biology and were looking for a hands-on approach to putting their education to work. Today they produce more than 3 million oysters annually, which are distributed to restaurants and retailers. Their version of the Pacific Oyster is so rich and sweet that they've trademarked the oyster under the name "Sweetwater." The farm also produces a nuttily flavored Kumamoto, a buttery Atlantic, and a European flat (called the Hog Flat) that initially tastes mild, but ends with a metallic finish.
"Because we're control freaks, we know each harvest lot and each and every oyster out there," Sawyer says, explaining how they keep careful records of each mollusk's species, seed source and planting date. "Sorting is all done by hand," he says, reaching into one of the water tanks to remove a rounded Atlantic shell. Just as the water's microclimates will affect the oyster's quality, so will its shape. The farm uses the Australian cylinder method to coax its mollusks into round, rather than long and flat shapes. While the shells are growing, the mollusks are placed in the cylinders, in which a tumbling motion trains and forms the shells into more evenly rounded and thick shapes. That makes the meat inside plumper and easier to eat.
If you are lucky enough to be able to visit the farm, which is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., you can borrow a shucker and feast on the smoky-sweet, briny Hog Island Sweetwaters, plucked from the oyster beds right on the premises. (Buying in bulk will run you about 50 cents an oyster.) Otherwise, Santa Monica Seafood frequently stocks these varieties, or the farm will ship them to you by the dozen the same day they're harvested. I recommend getting several dozen and making a pig of yourself. Just try not to get your picture in the paper.
Makes about 1/2 cup
1/4 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1/4 cup natural rice vinegar
1 large shallot, peeled & diced fine
1 large jalapeno pepper, seeded & diced fine
1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped fine
Juice of 1 lime
3 dozen oysters, shucked
Mix vinegars, shallot, jalapeno, cilantro and lime juice together and serve with freshly shucked oysters.
Heather John is a senior Style editor at the magazine.
Hog Island Oyster Co., Marshall, (415) 663-9218; Santa Monica Seafood, Costa Mesa, (949) 574-8862.