Wednesday, January 28, 2009

In search of terroir

Oyster Shells

It was that beautiful 70F weather Sunday after a very cold streak of weather that the journey started. At the time, I didn't think I was starting a journey. I just got out of bed and saw the glorious day, and knew that I wanted to find my bit of Marin terroir! I had thought of writing again about one of Marin's great cheeses, but decided to stretch for something different and knew our oysters were second to none. That meant I could take a trip out to West Marin, were the seabed nurses these beauties.

And this is my post for the 3rd annual "A Taste of Terroir" where bloggers everywhere are invited to post about a special food that arises from and is made unique by their piece of the earth. The summaries of these with links will be at this site on January 31st, so please come back to sample and enjoy a culinary adventure!

There are three major oyster growers in Marin, Drake's Bay Oyster Company, Tomales Bay Oyster Company, and Hog Island Oyster Company. I had heard that Tomales Bay Oyster Company had a way to enjoy them on site, so they were my pick. I thought to call ahead and ask about the oysters and what the story on on-site visiting was. A very friendly man picked up the phone and explained that they weren't a restaurant, but there was a picnic area on the grounds, and they sold the oysters, oyster knife, gloves, and even jars of sauces and barbecue briquettes. He assured me that it wouldn't take long to get the hang of shucking the oysters and invited me over to the clear blue skies and matching 70F temperature (West Marin can be colder sometimes being on the coast of the Pacific Ocean).

Tomales Bay Oyster Company

It took no more prompting! In the back of the Prius I threw barbecue briquettes, tablecloth, and other tasty things from the fridge and cupboard to round out a picnic featuring fresh oysters! I made sure my father had layers and a blanket, and out the door we went. I started calling friends along the way to invite them to the picnic adventure. After a few stops, after all, it was a leisurely Sunday, we arrived at Tomales Bay Oyster Company.


It actually turned out to be lucky that friends weren't able to join for various reasons. Other people obviously woke up with the same idea! There was absolutely no room for us. Dad took one look at the crowd and said it was too much for him.


I left him in the car for a few minutes and took a walk around, to get a feel for the place, and to devise an alternate plan. It was a scenic place.


And I just loved these little boys having a conversation on the shoreline.


Despite the lack of tablespace, people were still lining up to buy oysters! And the parking lot was jammed, there were also cars lining the highway near the entrance.


So I proceeded on the alternate plan, driving up the road to a restaurant serving the local specialty, barbecued oysters. And those who read my lead up post last week know that the bottom line for that part of the adventure was that although delicious, the barbecued oysters at Tony's Seafood Restaurant, about three miles north of here, were not local, but from Washington State's Puget Sound. The story was that there aren't enough local oysters to supply the demand at the restaurant!

Tomales Bay near Tony's

Leaving Tony's Seafood Restaurant, I did make a 'back-up' stop at a well known local cheese producer in case I couldn't find any local oysters! I'll be posting about that another day.

So home we went, and what I had assumed would be an easy piece on the delicious local oysters took me on another, more mental journey. I had to come to grips with what the concepts of 'local' and 'native' really were and how 'terroir' related to these.

UC Davis, Department of Animal Science has put together a very interesting piece on California Oyster Culture. It is worth reading in its entirety. (Passages in double quotes are from this document). I came to the conclusion that although these oysters I've been searching for are 'local', they are not native! Even people in the 1850's loved oysters and as a result, "Natural occurring populations of the only native oyster, Ostrea conchaphila (Ostrea lurida), declined rapidly because of intensive fishing." Populations of native oysters are still rather low, and the Ostrea conchaphila is a protected species in California.

So what are we eating? Pacific oysters of several varieties. "Currently, over 98 percent of the oysters grown in California are Pacific oysters produced from hatcheries in Washington and Oregon and from several smaller specialty hatcheries located within the state." The water temperatures are too low here for non-native oysters to spawn on their own. Locally, Drake's Bay Oyster Company uses an advanced hatchery technique to hand spawn on site. Unfortunately, our local oysters are not self-sustainable and require our intervention. Once the oysters are at a certain stage of their growth, they are quite happy in our waters.

Although not 'native', I still consider these 'local' because once the babies are in our waters, an adult oyster can filter up to 60 gallons of water a day while gathering its food, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Oysters are very much a product of the terroir they live in. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation site also gives some reasons why oysters are our ecological friends.

Drake's Bay Oysters

So did I find 'local' oysters to eat? Yes! After all those mental musings, one evening I was still thinking about the problem of finding some to eat, but gave up it up for going to a nearby restaurant for dinner, leaving the rest of the journey for another day. And what should appear on the fresh sheet at Saylor's Restaurant & Bar in Sausalito, not more that a couple blocks from my workplace? Drake's Bay Oysters, sauteed in a lemon, garlic, shallot and cream sauce. Wow, these tiny babies are good! I personally prefer this dish over the more popularized barbecue version. In fact, I had these at Saylor's again this evening before finalizing this post just to be sure that you could get some if you drop by this week!


Catherine said...

Gorgeous photos! I'm shocked there was such a crowd on a Wednesday!

I've never eaten an oyster, but it is on my list of things to do before I die! I think it needs to be ceremonial and that I will need support.

Anna Haight said...

Thanks Catherine! I understand about the first oyster experience. I would recommend a cooked version first. The ones in the story would be a great start (find small ones in any event), and also Japanese style deep fried ones would be another good first.