Visiting the oyster heaven just north of San Francisco

An hour north of downtown San Francisco, the prosperous sprawl of ranch housing and shopping malls gives way, rather suddenly, to a bucolic landscape of steep green hills spotted with gnarled trees and cows out to pasture; just beyond that, at the end of meandering two-lane roads with names like Lucas Valley and Sir Francis Drake, lies the flat, muddy ground of the Tomales Bay tidal basin and, more importantly, Hog Island Oyster.  In the eternal Atlantic vs Pacific Ocean oyster debate — which, in some quarters, is as heated and intractable as the bitter NY/LA hip-hop dispute — Hog Island Oysters have long made one of the more irrefutable arguments on behalf of the west coast: they produce sweet, brackish oysters that have just the right balance of sea-salty brine.  I figured if I was close enough to watch the oystermen bring in the harvest I’d be getting oysters as fresh as an oyster could possibly be.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the shucking.  I came to oysters late in life, avoiding them for years because of the mistaken impression (based on appearance) that they were slimy blobs of mucous that couldn’t possibly be good, but when I finally tried them again oysters proved to be a delight.  I’d even tried shucking an oyster once, in Paris with a butter knife, and survived it with my fingers attached but with a mangled bivalve and liquor that sprayed all over the dining room table; from then on, I ordered them on the half shell and let experts do the work.  But at Hog Island, I was on my own: I had a blunt, fat-knobbed knife in one hand and a blue rubber glove on the other and as guidance only the brief demonstration by an oysterman named Paco at Drakes — another oyster farm, on Drakes Bay near the southern end of Tomales Bay — who had shown me how to do it but, of course, he could do it casually in a single motion without even looking and I knew that wasn’t going to be replicated.

I stalled by asking questions.  Hog Island cultivates in a tidal basin, where the oysters start as seeds that are put in cylinders attached to floats that rise and fall with the tides; then, they are transferred to plastic beds propped on stilts, where it takes 18 months or so for an oyster to grow to edible proportions.  The size of the oyster doesn’t necessarily have to do with age but with access to nutrients, though the extra-small and small are best for eating raw and the medium and large for cooking.  And it turns out that it is the shifting of the tides that accounts for the particular briny balance of a Hog Island oyster, as fresh water and seawater alternate in the basin.

The sun was lower now over Tomales Bay and the small weathered-wood deck overlooking the tidal basin had filled with enthusiasts slurping down oysters.  Nearby, the rattle of machinery mixed with the chatter of the sorters tackling the supply that was brought in to shore, bagging the oysters in colorful nets and submerging them in the purified holding tanks that gave the oysters time to disgorge sand or other particulate matter.  And in front of me was a pile of oysters awaiting my shucking.  I grabbed one and then, against every instinct, I turned it around just as Paco had done, sticking the knife in the narrow, pointed end — the hinge, that is — rather than the wide rounded one that opens when the oyster is in its natural habitat.  It took some fiddling but suddenly the knife was in and a quick twist of the wrist brought the blade down one edge, cutting the muscle that makes an oyster so obstinate.  And it was done: I scraped the blade on the inside of the shell to detach the meat and then slurped it down, the liquor cresting in my mouth like the proverbial sea wave though I could see that there was hardly a ripple on the surface of the tidal basin.

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