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Food & Travel

Oysters are a natural on Calif. coast

Tomales Bay in northern California is a popular spot where picnickers can reserve a table and eat oysters. Tomales Bay in northern California is a popular spot where picnickers can reserve a table and eat oysters. (Annie Hsu for The Boston Globe)
By Marie Doezema
Globe Correspondent / June 9, 2010

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TOMALES BAY, Calif. — There’s something about oysters akin to astronomy or philosophy: The more you know, the more you realize there is to learn. It’s a vast, complex universe when it comes to these briny mollusks. But if there is a science to oysters, there is also poetry to them, a reason they have found their way into the pages of Steinbeck, Hemingway, and M.F.K. Fisher. The taste of the sea, alone or with a squeeze of lemon.

On a recent windy weekend, I headed north out of San Francisco on Highway 1 in search of science, poetry, and shellfish. Friends and I had picnic table reservations on the shore of Tomales Bay, a popular spot for oysters in Marin County. Our car was stocked with the necessary accoutrements, including wine, cheese, bread, and surfboards.

Oysters evoke strong reactions and memories. Terry Sawyer, co-owner of Hog Island Oyster Co., remembers his revulsion to oysters as a child growing up in Florida. He avoided them until decades later, when he moved to California and curiosity got the better of him. He tried his first Pacific oyster. “I just could not believe how good it was,’’ he says.

In 1988, a love of oysters and the ocean in general prompted Sawyer to join Hog Island Oyster Co., which was founded in 1983 by fellow marine biologists. “We all loved to be wet, all love to eat, and all were just a little bit fun-loving,’’ says Sawyer. Today, the company has a farm on Tomales Bay and branches in Napa and San Francisco.

People have been eating Tomales Bay oysters for thousands of years, dating to the Miwok Indians. In the 1800s, settlers began marketing the mollusks with reasonable success until 1899, when a typhoid epidemic, spread through the consumption of contaminated shellfish, squelched the industry.

Today, regulations on the bivalves grown in Tomales Bay are stringent. Hog Island raises Pacific, Kumamoto, and Atlantic oysters. Understanding the merroir — as those in the business call water’s version of terroir — is one of the biggest challenges of the job. “It’s very intellectual and complex,’’ says Scott Yancy, a Hog Island employee who left the newspaper industry to work in oysters. “It’s definitely the most challenging job I’ve ever had.’’

“Sensitive palates can pick up nuances from within areas of the bay,’’ says Sawyer. “I always invite people to taste and say what they sense before telling them what they might be tasting.’’

Oysters lead a busy life. In addition to filtering about four gallons of water an hour, the bivalves spawn by alternating sexes. After fertilization, larvae attach to a surface (natural or manmade) and grow into small oysters, or spat. This is only the beginning. Once oysters are harvested, they must be shucked. Labor intensive but worth it, Sawyer says. “People who like oysters, shellfish, are really dedicated to their product. It might have an addictive element in that aspect.’’

The secret to successful shucking? “Practice,’’ Yancy says. “A glove, a good tool, and practice.’’

Our group buys several dozen oysters and gets to work, with varying levels of success. Around us, fellow picnickers are eager to share recipe ideas, even nibbles. One table grills oysters next to steak-size slabs of pineapple; another group douses the shellfish with the same chili sauce smothering the chicken wings.

At our table, we are either unambitious or purists. We eat our oysters raw with just a hint of lemon. Shards of shell mingle with the cold meat, but the experience is a lesson in all it takes to make a four-star meal: a bright tablecloth spread anywhere, chilled wine, and fingers willing to get a bit bloody.

For Sawyer, the best part of the job is watching customers enjoy oysters at the source, where wind, water, and sunshine are part of the meal. “All of their senses are being activated, and I watch their eyes roll back in their head in ecstasy.’’

Oyster prices range from $10 to $15 for a dozen, depending on size and type. You can buy oysters and picnic at Hog Island Oyster Co., 20215 Highway 1, Marshall (Tomales Bay), Calif., 415-663-9218 ext. 208, www.hogislandoysters.com; and at Tomales Bay Oyster Co., 15479 Highway 1, Marshall, 415-663-1242, www.tomalesbayoysters.com.

Marie Doezema can be reached at mvdoezema@hotmail.com.