This weekend I was invited to a wonderful Northern California treat, an oyster picnic at Hog Island Oyster Company. Oysters are a perfect protein and a great example of sustainable and environmentally responsible seafood farming in California. Located along the Tomales Bay, the Hog Island Oyster Company, among others, grows over 3 million oysters a year, all Food Alliance Certified Sustainable.
My friends have an annual tradition of picnicking at Hog Island with their family and friends and I was delighted to be included this year in their wonderful picnic, which includes raw and grilled oysters fresh from the bay, plus wonderful wine and side dishes brought from our homes.
For years I have had oyster parties where we would buy a couple of boxes of medium oysters from Drake’s Bay Oysters (formerly Johnson’s Oysters) and grill them over mesquite with a variety of savory sauces or just lemon and hot sauce. Drake’s days of operation are coming to a close because the National Park Service decided to shut them down, and fabricated and misinterpreted evidence and have steadfastly ignored all scientific evidence to support their claim they operate sustainably while protecting the environment. We are continuing to hope they can get the NPS to overturn their irrational and puzzling decision and listen to Drake’s and all of the environmental and scientific groups supporting them to let their oyster farming continue.
I no longer have a place to grill at home but remember my oyster parties fondly and was very excited to have a chance to join a party of oyster lovers. My dearest friends joined me, D___, my little friend Bug and L___ are major oyster aficionados also so we packed up the car and hit the road.
The drive north and west was quite pleasant, despite a bit of traffic along Sir Francis Drake Boulevard that leads from San Rafael all the way to Highway 1. The slow pace afforded us time for a natural history lesson given by yours truly on some of the wildflowers and trees in bloom in the chaparral, riparian and redwood forest environments. We passed through Samuel P. Taylor State Park, a beloved place for creek walking, picnics and hiking, and I hope to go there soon to do some of that with my friends.
Arriving at Hog Island on a weekend is an adventure. Highway 1 is lined with cars trying to park precariously on the side of the road to access the various oyster companies and restaurants that line Tomales Bay. We were very lucky to snag the last spot along the bed of oyster shells along the shoulder near Hog Island’s spot. Each night after the oyster farm closes they dump wheelbarrows full of shells along the shoulders, where cars crunch them into pure white and rather fragrant gravel.
We trudged along, carrying our loads of picnic baskets and apparatus to the reserved group picnic tables that hug the edge of the cove. If you don’t have a reservation don’t bother going, it is so very crowded there and the lines for oysters and a spot to sit were ridiculous. Instead, buy oysters to go and find a picnic spot in Point Reyes National Seashore; there is nothing finer than slurping oysters while sitting on the beach!
The sunny sky dotted with dragon and dolphin shaped clouds was perfect, just enough sun, the wind was up but it wasn’t too strong and we didn’t need coats at all, which is a complete miracle for the unpredictable weather along the bay. As experienced picnickers in Northern California we were prepared for everything, including wool hats, thermoses of espresso and flasks of whiskey, to sunhats, SPF 30 and chilled wines. Both D___ and I have glorious picnic baskets with all the accourterments required for sophisticated picnicking.
We laid out our pre-oyster feast of savory tidbits along with L___’s batch of divine lemon meltaway cookies, bite sized lemony buttons that were egg-free (for me!) and D___’s enormous container of beignets fried up freshly that morning, just like the ones from Cafe du Monde! She even brought along a container of powdered sugar to redust the fluffy pillows of fried dough. Such evilly delicious treats and both sweet treats were the hit of the day.
L___ looked at me with a glint in her eye and said,
“Yes, I am really going to go there…. oh yeah……. I am!”
She then spread a bite of beignet with the foie pate. Oh my stars, did that ever look amazing. I had to try it too and it was true evil genius.
After a very long wait in line our oysters arrived. Oysters really are just the perfect picnic food. Contained within their rugged and ruffled shells are the perfect bite (or two) of saline, oceanic goodness. Hog Island provides each group reservation with a bag of ice, a huge bag of oysters, a tray, gloves and an oyster knife and shucking instructions if you want them, and mesquite charcoal for the grills, plus all the oysters and mignonette sauce you desire. C___’s mom brought up a pair of sauces that were sloshed on the oysters as they grilled: a red Thai curry sundried tomato sauce and a delicious garlic herb butter. I had intended to bring my amazing garlic butter for oysters but a mishap in the kitchen that morning prevented its use, next time!
Everyone got into the fun of shucking and the shucking jokes flew fast and wild. N___, D___ and I took up our knives and started prying oysters open, some to slurp just then and some to put on the grill. Even young master Bug had a go and we were soon drenched in brine and well dusted with bits of shells, miniature mussels and limpets. Oddly this year we noticed the oyster shells were really crumbly and flakey but no one seemed to mind much the bits of extra calcium in their treat. No pictures though, shucking oysters is a messy business.
My method of grilling oysters is simple. Over a bed of coals, you place the rounded side of the oyster on the grilling rack and watch them. After a few minutes liquid will start to bubble and burst out of the shell. At this point, remove them from the heat with tongs and using a towel or hot pad and an oyster knife it is quite easy to slide the knife between the two shells. Remove the top (flat) shell and discard, and cut the oyster free from its curved bottom shell. It’s much easier opening oysters this way than trying to pry them open for a raw bite. If you ever watch an oysterman or a chef at a raw bar open oysters you must understand just how physically tough they are.
Now, return the oyster in its open shell back onto the grill and dollop in a little sauce and watch them again. Remove the oyster from the grill when the sauce is bubbly. Repeat until everyone is full. If you are grilling for more than 30 minutes you will need to add a few more pieces of charcoal to the bed of coals to keep the heat going – I bank them along one side of the grill and move away the oysters from the live flame.
The 50 pound bag of oysters seemed large but it didn’t take long to go through them all. We opened more wine and sat back and watched the beautiful view and chatted with each other in a sated fashion.
We are all very excited about N___ and C___’s impending move to the Bay Area. I looked around the table and realized that these people, all so near and dear to my heart, were all friends that I found through Twitter.
L__ and I met and bonded over Massa Farm’s duck harvest one year, and she knew D___ from food blogging so the three of us had a blast one night organizing a dinner of the Bay Area Food Bloggers and have been the best of friends ever since. We are like sisters and it’s a wonderful thing.
Two years ago we had a twitter-sourced meet up of local knitters, crocheters and dyers and met N___, who is an incredible knitting designer and artist, and his husband C____, who graciously kept us company and allowed us to geek out over fiber and fun. Through the magic of Twitter and Facebook we have deepened our relationship and having them move closer is going to be fantastic.
We are planning another visit to Tomales Bay this summer for more oysters and picnicking. I shall be sure to correctly prepare my garlic butter sauce but in the interim will enjoy it on prawns and grilled fish.
Fondue of Butter for Seafood
2 cubes of unsalted butter (1/2 pound or 1 cup)
1 head of garlic, peeled and trimmed
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. sweet paprika
1/2 tsp. shallots or onion powder (if desired)
In a small saucepan over very low heat melt the butter. Add the garlic and cook very slowly without simmering for an hour or until the garlic is extremely soft and tender and yet not browned. It is very important to monitor the heat of your stove to ensure the butter does not boil and brown and the garlic stays creamy white. When the garlic is super tender use a fork or an immersion blender to puree the garlic. Add salt to taste, the paprika and the shallot/onion powder. Keep warm while grilling the oysters in a small pot on the corner of the BBQ and dollop spoonfuls into the oysters. Grill until bubbly.
Also, if you are feeling too challenged by dealing with placing the oysters on the grill to finish with the garlic butter, you can place a grill-safe skillet on a corner of the grill and fill with the butter, and plop in the oysters as you open them after their initial grilling. Your guests can use a cocktail fork or spoon to scoop up an oyster as they wish.
A few notes: Please buy your oysters and seafood from reputable, sustainable sources. On the West Coast you can gather your own shellfish but the red algae that plague our waters can cause Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), particularly in mussels, therefore a quarantine applies to our coast from Oregon to Mexico and shellfish are generally unsafe between March and October. You can phone the Biotoxin Information Line 1-800-553-4133 to get updates on current quarantines and health advisories throughout the year. Other types of shellfish, including oysters and clams, and commercially harvested mussels from certified companies are not included in the quarantine. The commercial companies test their shellfish and are certified as toxin-free.
This summer I will be writing about sustainable seafood as part of the Perfect Protein project, created by Eric Ripert and Mario Batali. The book, “The Perfect Protein: A Fish Lover’s Guide to Saving the Oceans and Feeding the World” by Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless, is a new, thought-provoking book on why and how we should and can quickly increase the amount of wild seafood in our oceans; as well as how as consumers we can shop and eat more of the right seafood to help feed the world, address hunger and improve the world’s health. I am proud to be part of this project this summer as I have long been a proponent of wild and sustainable fishing, whether fished by myself or by commercial sources. Since I was a teen I have carried a copy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch’s guide in my wallet, and now have their app on my phone. I love seafood, and feel especially lucky to live on the California coast with all the wonderful edible creatures off our doorstep.