I love eating oysters. Any which way–raw, smoked, barbequed or fried–but I really had no idea how they were farmed or grown. So when the opportunity came up last week to visit & tour Hog Island Oyster Co. in Tomales Bay….well, I needed no convincing. Since they are one of the premier oyster farms on the west coast, and I hadn’t been there before, I grabbed my jacket and headed on out there! I’ll share what I learned during my visit, plus some food & drink pairing tips if you’re going to be tucking into this deliciously salty delicacy.
What fascinated me the most about their whole operation was how similar oyster farming is to growing wine grapes. Since my background is in wine, I suppose I’d liken the philosophy of cultivating stellar shellfish to that of a wine industry term called terroir. Check out Wine Folly for her in-depth (but very easy to understand) explanation. In summary, terroir is the combination of soil, topography, and climate from a “place” (region, vineyard, even vine row) which affects the grapes. This in turn, determines the final taste of the wine. Well, the exact same principal applies to growing world-class oysters. But with shellfish, it’s the merroir (mer meaning sea) or natural influence of tidal flows, sea beds, and aquatic culture that gives each oyster variety- and each oyster farm- a unique flavor profile. A Kumamoto variety (West Coast) from Puget Sound will taste entirely different to one grown in waters off the Northern California Coast. Who knew?
Ok, I’ll try not to bore you with too much of a nerdy oceanography lesson here, but hang in there with me for minute; it will all make sense shortly. Our friendly and incredibly knowledgeable tour guide George, shared with us why Hog Island, and a few other oyster farms, have all chosen to locate their beds in Tomales Bay. Situated 30 miles north of San Francisco Bay, this narrow stretch of state-protected estuary is shielded from the direct currents of the Pacific. It also happens to sit directly over a submerged canyon of the San Andreas Fault. This Fault Zone is the dividing line between the North American and Pacific plates. Why is this so important to growing oysters? Well it’s precisely because of the Fault Zone’s diverse oceanic plate sediment and underwater ecology being in perfect balance for shellfish cultivation, that farms have located here. Oyster shells are naturally porous, so they will absorb what’s in the waters around them. For the best tasting oysters, you need pristine, clean waters and healthy plankton for them to feed on. See, it all came together in the end….thanks for sticking with me ;>)
Out at Hog Island, they’ve been sustainably farming for over 30 years, and have become masters at working with Mother Nature’s hurdles. They adapt their growing processes and cycles to the ever-changing climatic conditions to ensure their oyster and mussels are top-notch. They’ve even cultivated a proprietary oyster variety called the Hog Island Sweetwater. This variation of a Pacific is bred to have a larger, thicker shell (better protection during growing and well-suited for grilling). They produce thousands and thousands of oysters each year which are shipped across the U.S., and a good portion stays here at the farm for picnickers and visitors (like me!) to enjoy.
Our tour consisted of a quick intro to the marine biology of the bay, then a walk-about of the processing area. Whilst I was there, their team was busily sorting oysters by size, inspecting them for imperfections, cleaning and then bagging them. All the work was done by a small crew and at lightening pace in order to keep them as fresh as possible. Then came the fun part– tasting! Our tour concluded with hands-on instruction on how to correctly (and safely!) shuck an oyster and of course, a few for us to try. The day I was there we slurped on their Sweetwaters- nothing like a fresh oyster literally straight from the sea.
Hog Island Oyster Co. | 415. 663. 9218
Farm: 20215 Shoreline Highway | Marshall, CA 94940
Oyster Bars: San Francisco (The Ferry Building) and Napa (Oxbow Market)
Tours of farm available by reservation (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Fun facts about oysters:
* There are five main varieties grown in the U.S:
1. Pacific- grown along West Coast and typically named for where they are grown (Totten Inlet, Fanny Bay, Hog Island Sweetwater, etc)
2. Kumamoto- cultivated in Japan and along West Coast
3. European Flats- native to Europe, but now cultivated on West Coast.
4. Olympia- native to West Coast. Found in Puget Sound & British Columbia
5. Atlantic (Blue Points from Long Island, Wellfleets from Cape Cod, etc)
*It takes approximately 1 1/2 years for an oyster to reach maturity and before it can be harvested
*The oyster size and age will make a difference in taste. Smaller and younger oysters will generally be more tender
*Oysters can switch genders during spawning, depending which gender is in the minority and how big their colony size needs to be
Food & Beverage Suggestions:
Kumamoto – plump, firm, rich and sweet; terrific summer oyster with a buttery taste. Serve with California Sauvignon Blanc, light-oak style Chardonnay or refreshing German Pilsner.
European Flats– flatter, rounder, meaty texture. Have a distinctive seaweed flavor. A cold Sake would be a wonderful pairing, given the inherent sea-notes. Or try a California Sparkling – citrusy and floral- a perfect foil to the saltiness from the seaweed flavor. If drinking beer, look for a wheat beer such as an imported Belgium White.
Hog Island Sweetwater –their own variation of the Pacific variety. A rich and sweet tasting oyster with a slightly smoky finish. If enjoying this raw, try a lighter style mignonette (vinegar & shallot based sauce) made from Champagne vinegar, finely diced shallots, lemon zest and hint of Thyme. Drinks deliciously with an off-dry Gewürztraminer or Pinot Grigio. If your oyster is going on the grill, then finish it with a hearty mignonette made from a tomato juice- base, shallots, horseradish and Worcester Sauce. For this pairing, try a fuller-style IPA or Brown Porter- both would be a great match.
Note: this is not a sponsored post. All costs associated with the tour were paid for by me; all opinions are my own.