All About Oysters

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.
20150331_134354-oysters before shucking-EditWhat 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?
oysters in shell 2-2
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 ;>)

Tomales Bay

HI signhi welcome sign
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.
20150331_132044- sorting oysters
20150331_132643- bagged oysters
20150331_134726-shucking oysters-Edit2
To visit:
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 (

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

oysters in shell-2Food & 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.

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Seafood Marinara & The Ocean

DSC_0023-2We’ve been having truly amazing weather here in Sonoma County this February. Many days of bright sunshine and above average temps. Although I love this warm weather, we really ought to be having more rainy days this time of year to help combat the drought. But on this particular day, I wasn’t complaining in the least! Because I was spending a wonderful afternoon in the salty fresh air and cooling breezes of Bodega Bay, California. And I had just devoured the most delicious fish tacos at the marina. It was the perfect inspiration for this quick and simple Seafood Marinara dish.

View West from Bodega Head

All you need are a few simple ingredients. And fresh is totally the key here. Get to know your fish monger at the market, or better yet, find a dedicated seafood shop in your neighborhood. One that sources local (as much as possible) and of course, fresh, fresh, fresh! We’re fortunate to live very near the coast, so the catch of the day doesn’t have to go far from the open seas to my kitchen. The beauty with this kind of recipe is you can really adapt it to make it your own. If you like more fish and less scallops, go for it, add more fish. It’s a recipe that allows you to customize the components, based on what you like, and what’s most fresh & available in the market.

Seafood Marinara
Makes 4 servings

I like to buy each of the fish & shellfish components separately (versus a mix that’s already been put together behind the counter). This way I can choose how many prawns or scallops go into each serving. I’m partial to mussels, so I get extra of those!

1 pound white prawns- use extra large (26/30) to colossal (13/15) *see note
1 pound mussels (in the shell)
1/2 pound firm white fish (halibut, sea bass, cod, snapper, rockfish; choose freshest)
1/2 pound bay scallops
1/2 pound squid, tubes and crowns
jalapeño pepper, finely choped
1 yellow hot pepper, finely chopped
2 dried bird’s eye chilis
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
olive oil & pat of butter
splash of dry white wine (I used a Torrontés)
salt & pepper to taste

Prep for Fish:
Cut the fish into 1-inch chunks. Double check to make sure all bones have been removed.

Prep for Shellfish:
Prawns: remove shell (optional) and clean/ de-vein. Your fish monger can do this for you as well.

Mussels: I cooked the mussels ahead of this dish (**see note below) and removed the meat from the shell. Then I added it back into the Seafood Marinara to warm through. I did this so I could select only the shells that had opened during cooking. But you can skip this pre-cook step and add them shell-on when cooking all the above components together. Just be sure to discard any mussels that did not open in cooking.

Squid: I was able to purchase the tubes and crowns separately. All I had to do was cut the tubes into approx. 1-inch rings. I trimmed the crowns so all tentacles were about the same length.

Add olive oil and butter to a large skillet which has been warming over med-high heat. Once pan is very hot, add fish and shellfish. Half way through cooking (about 3-4 minutes), add peppers, chili, garlic, white wine, S&P to taste. Continue cooking for another 4-5 minutes, or until prawns have turned slightly pink and seafood is cooked through. Careful not to overcook as the prawns and squid will become rubbery. Serve immediately with fresh salad, steamed veggies or crusty artisan bread. I paired this with Torrontés, a light, dry white wine from Argentina. However, a Sauvignon Blanc, Verdejo, or Pinot Gris would be nice with it as well.

*Prawn sizes: the number after the size indicates approximately how many of each prawn (in the shell without head) you can expect in one pound. So for example, with the “extra large” size, expect 26-30 individual prawns to equal one pound. Here’s a neat chart to help.
** To pre-cook the mussels: Scrub and rinse the closed mussels well and put into a large sauce pan over medium heat. Add in one chopped shallot, 1/2 cup white wine, 1/2 cup water, 2-3 cloves of garlic and 1- 1/2 tablespoons dried tarragon (or 2-3 sprigs if using fresh). Steam for 7-8 minutes or until mussel shells open. Discard any shells that did not open, you won’t want to eat those.