A beautiful sight: Plates of bivalves (Hog Island Kumamoto, Skunk Island (Hama Hama), Sea Cow (Hama Hama), and Hog Island Atlantic) ready to go for the Matanzas Creek Days of Wine & Lavender oyster tasting. We paired these with four of the most extraordinary oyster-friendly Sauvignon Blancs on the planet; you can find them all on the Matanzas Creek website. And here’s the tasting mat if you want to drill deeper. Days of Wine & Lavender is an annual can’t miss event in Sonoma County for oyster lovers, wine lovers, and, of course, lavender heads.
Check back here for new oyster tastings and reviews of oyster bars and festivals.
I often hear from people who want to visit an oyster farm, to put a place to the merroir, as it were. To see how the magic happens. So far, such opportunities have been few and far between; most oyster farmers don’t quite have their operations at a level where they can go the way of the wine world, offering tours, tasting rooms, etc. They are so swamped keeping their oysters happy that they can’t really deal with visitors. In the Northeast, there’s been no one. Now I’m excited to announce that Abigail Carroll, the Nonesuch Oyster maven, has begun offering tours of her spectacular farm in Maine’s Scarborough River (just south of Portland). See her amazing spot, hear her amazing story, taste her amazing oysters. An essential Maine experience.
Classic suspension-culture (aka, “floating racks”) oysters from California’s Central Coast, a relative newcomer to the oyster game (though they were farming them back in the 30s). When you grow suspension-culture oysters in this high-energy, low-rain environment, you get thin shells and a good briny flavor. Grassy Bars are powerfully briny, with a buttery, briny, seafood veloute flavor, and a bitter finish reminiscent of asparagus and pistachios. At least these did. But as you can see in the second photo, they were pretty spawny.
That would account for the smooshy consistency. Another time of year, they would probably be crisper, and the melon and cuke I associate with Central Coast oysters might have been more apparent. One thing that was apparent was the dark, green-brown swirl on the shells, with just a hint of the pink and purple you often see in suspended Pacific oysters. These looked more…grassy. Well worth seeking out if you’re in the neighborhood. They can also be ordered online via Giovanni’s Fish Market.
You have to see and hear this song/video from Martin Murray of The Watershed Project, an amazing group devoted to restoring San Francisco Bay. Is there any doubt that it will become the anthem of oyster restos from coast to coast???
The Hog Island Oyster Bar has been an anchor of San Francisco’s Ferry Building since the building reinvented itself as a gourmet mecca with its 2003 renovation. Hard to believe now, but back then the Ferry Building Marketplace was considered such a sketchy concept that its original tenants had opt-out clauses in their contracts. Ten years and ten million oysters later, both the building and the oyster bar are looking pretty darned secure. Hog Island just closed for a few months to take over the seafood market next door (which was the exception that proved the rule of the Ferry Building’s success), doubling in size and expanding its offerings. Now more than ever, it is one of the core San Francisco experiences. When it’s spitting and windy, you sit inside, savoring the bay-facing wall of glass and the shell-embedded bar, and when it’s nice, of course, you sit out on the water, watching the Sausalito ferries come and go while the Bay Bridge soars above you and runs its seizure-inducing light shows. You drink Hog Island’s house oyster wine (a 55/45 mix of Gruner Veltliner and Albarinho from the Edna Valley, near-perfect with any oyster) and eat Hogs of all kinds, all straight out of the seawater tank, which keeps them shockingly fresh (and pushes their salinity to the Tomales Bay extreme, no matter where they originated). These are very good, if very salty, oysters.
And, I’m excited to say, there are more kinds than ever before. In addition to the flagship Hog Island Sweetwaters, HI currently has its Kumamotos and Atlantics in supply. The Atlantics are insanely good, very savory, with a hint of sweet and a slightly bitter green-tea finish. They are on the small side, but with salt levels this high, that’s all most people can handle, anyway.
The newest Hog on the block is the Cliffside, grown at HI’s new farm in Discovery Bay, Washington, which opens onto the Straits of Juan de Fuca (and thence onto the Pacific Ocean). Disco Bay has long been a favorite spot of mine, both for the Pacific Rim beauty of its hundred-foot cliffs and lonely evergreens, and for the briny flavor of its bivalves. HI Cliffsides fit the bill, adding a tannic spinach/kale note that’s very much in keeping with Tomales Bay’s herbaceous profile; the farms don’t taste worlds apart (but, should one bay or the other be shut down during a storm, it’s nice to have them worlds apart).
Hog Island also carries a select few oysters from other growers. The hits were the Chelsea Gems (crazy sweet, with a strong watermelon-rind finish and gently tumbled cups) and a new one to me: Cold Creeks, from upper Hood Canal (near Dabob Bay). Most upper Hood Canal oysters are big, meaty, and green-shelled, classic life-on-the-beach oysters, but these were Kumamoto-sized and delicate, with a deep-cupped cornucopia shape that usually comes with tumbling. They had the nice ivory color of plump, sweet, glycogen-filled shellfish, a salty-melon flavor, and a very unusual finish almost like aged beef or dried nori. As you can tell, I’m still working on that one. Guess I’ve gotta go back to Hog Island for one more round.