Our love for oysters is very young, one that started, on a whim and a prayer, at Elliot’s Oyster House in Seattle over two years ago. I’ve never been convinced about oysters, but Seattle changed our minds, thanks to a confluence of factors: Price (it was happy hour), Location (the oysters were from Washington) and Weather (we visited on an especially sunny and warm weekend). Despite my anxieties about potentially leaving a whole platter of oysters untouched, we promptly ordered a dozen bivalves once we got two coveted seats at the bar, and prayed.
I’ll never forget that first oyster. It was unlike anything else I had ever had – cold, slippery, briny, soft and fleshy all at once, orchestrating a palatable magic that lasted long enough to baptize me into the cult of oyster lovers. I had finally seen the light.
This epiphany opened a whole new universe of recreational eating for us. One of our favorite weekend activities is driving up to Tomales Bay for a leisurely feast at The Marshall Store or the Hog Island Oyster Farm, especially when oyster-loving friends visit. A pair that came last winter provided the perfect excuse for a weekday jaunt with the sole purpose of making small dent in Hog Island’s inventory.
While Tomales Bay is the default stop for oyster-lovers in the Bay Area, there’s another oyster destination not too far away, serving up treats that are bigger, saltier and brinier than their Tomales Bay cousins. I’m talking about the Drakes Bay Oyster Company in the Point Reyes National Seashore, a designated wilderness space managed by the National Park Service. The drive itself is worth the trip – passing the small town of Inverness on the Point Reyes peninsula, the winding roads through the park leaves one with a sense of freedom and adventure that comes from abandoning civilization. Which isn’t far from the truth.
Owned by local rancher Kevin Lunny and his siblings – brothers Bob and Joe, and sister Ginny, who oversees the day-to-day operations – the farm spans over 1,000 acres of water in Drakes Estero, producing 500,000 pounds of shucked oyster meat a year, representing 40 percent of California’s shellfish production. The farm is also home to the state’s last operating oyster cannery, which began in 1935 with the first owners. It is an idyllic place to work, nestled among low rolling hills and, in the mornings, shrouded in fog. There’s a definite ambience of ‘wilderness’ here, with no other indications of human activity in sight. Apart from the boats coming back from the hanging racks, happy Mexican tunes blaring from the radio and the frenetic unloading and sorting activity that happens while the tide goes out, there is silence.
For a farm of their scale, the Lunnys run a tight ship with a team of 30, eight of whom live on the farm. Most employees have been there for years, some, for over two decades. Ginny estimates that the team represents more than 200 years of oyster farming experience combined.
Like most farmers, an oyster farmer’s role is that of a facilitator. But unlike vegetable or livestock farming, oysters require a whole new degree of involvement altogether. From seed-setting to harvesting, oysters need to be helped along the way.
At Drakes Bay, the oysters are spawned in 68F/ 20C water at the on-site hatchery as the water temperature in the Estero is too cold. Once they develop into the larvae stage, they’re moved to bags or hanging racks depending on the final product being cultivated. Individual oysters destined for restaurants and consumption on the half-shell are grown in mesh bags that protect against predators like Bat Rays.
Oysters destined for canning are grown in clusters using two ‘cultch’ methods, where a larva attaches to a material (also known as the ‘substrate’) and grows to market size. The first involves placing hollow french tubes with grooved surfaces in a tank for larvae to attach to. The second method, which is more labor-intensive, uses a single oyster shell as its substrate on which larvae attach. Each shell is then strung onto wires, separated by a five-inch plastic tube and suspended on racks in Drakes Estero.
It takes about 18 to 24 months for a seed to develop into a market-sized oyster, aided by farm workers throughout the process, from hatchery to tank, to bag or to racks. If you’ve ever wondered why oysters are so expensive, now you know why.
Like most farmers in California, the Lunnys have been dealing with their share of big challenges since acquiring the farm. Because of its location in a designated ‘wilderness’ space, the farm’s operation became subject to a “right of use” permit when Drakes Estero became a part of the Point Reyes National Seashore in 1972. With the existing permit due to expire in 2012, Kevin’s wish to renew it sparked off a clash of wills with environmentalists wanting to keep the Estero free of commercial farming activities. The National Park Service undertook a review of the farm’s environmental impact last October and are due to publish their findings this Fall.
In the meantime, the farm has had to make do with the existing structures and facilities on the site, as any improvements or construction activities require approval from the Park Service. After all these years of battling to keep the farm alive, frustration and anger have turned into a quiet, hopeful resolve.
“We, as citizens of California and the United States, we need to find a way to coexist with our environment,” Ginny shared. “We need food, there’s no doubt about that, and we need to find a way to take care of our environment. To make sure that the water’s ok, the birds are ok, the mammals are ok…we need to find a solution that works for everyone.”
As a farming family that’s been raising first, dairy cattle and now, organic, grass-fed beef on their nearby ranch for three generations, the Lunnys are no strangers to the practice of environmental stewardship. Perhaps the lesson from this dispute isn’t for them, but for us, to ask the difficult questions about food production and environmental conservation. Where do we draw the line? How much is too much?
Osteria Stellina’s Oyster Pizza
Courtesy of Chef Christian Caiazzo, reprinted with permission from Oyster Culture; makes two eight-inch pizzas
Oyster Culture is a newly-published book documenting the history and evolution of oyster farming in West Marin that was a helpful resource in the writing of this post. Apart from casting an anthropological eye on the industry and its importance to the area’s social and economic fabric, the second half of the book includes a host of recipes from local oyster farms and restaurants, like this pizza recipe from Osteria Stellina in downtown Point Reyes Station. Oysters and leeks are such a dreamy combination, but I personally found the dough in the recipe to be a little too bread-y for my liking, so try this out and feel free to substitute with your favorite pizza dough recipe if it strikes your fancy.
- 4 cups “00″ Caputo or other high-protein baker’s flour
- 1 cup cold water
- ½ ounce yeast
- 1 tablespoon salt
- Stir the yeast and water together in a mixing bowl and let it sit for five minutes. Add 1 cup of flour slowly, stirring to incorporate, and let it sit for another five minutes. Add the salt and mix quickly to incorporate, then add the rest of the flour.
- Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth (or you could beat it with the dough hook of your stand mixer at medium speed for about 10 to 15 minutes). If the dough feels too wet, add more flour in small increments until you get a smooth dough.
- Let it rest on the counter for five minutes then place in a covered plastic container. Refrigerate for 4 hours or until the dough has doubled in size.
- Remove the dough from the refrigerator and divide it into two small rounds. At this stage, you could freeze the portioned dough in a well-sealed plastic container to use for another time, just bring it back to room temperature and let it proof for another two hours before cooking.
- If using the dough immediately, roll the portioned rounds into balls and let the dough rise again for two to four hours at room temperature until it has doubled in size.
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 leeks, halved, washed and sliced into ¼-inch crescents
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 sprigs of thyme, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon of Italian parsley, washed, dried and chopped
- 2 cups of heavy cream
- Melt the butter and oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook until soft and translucent. Season with salt and pepper.
- Add the thyme and parsley then turn off the heat and add all the cream at once. Place the skillet back on low to medium heat and cook until the cream thickens to a sauce-like consistency, about ten minutes. The sauce will thicken more as it cools, so don’t worry about getting it overly thick.
- Set aside to cool.
- ¼ cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons Italian parsley, roughly chopped
- 1 teaspoon crushed chili flakes
- 16 oysters, shucked and set aside outside of their shells
- Preheat the oven to 550F.
- Flatten the pizza dough into eight-inch rounds and lightly brush each of them with olive oil, covering the entire surface area of the pizza. This helps the crust get crispy.
- Sprinkle each round with salt and pepper, 1 tablespoon parsley and chili flakes. Using the back of a spoon, gently and quickly spread the leek mixture on each pizza leaving a half-inch gap from the edge.Place eight oysters on each pizza, one for each slice.
- Slide the pizzas immediately into the oven or on a pizza stone. Bake until crispy, about 8 to 10 minutes.
- Garnish the pizza with the remaining parsley and serve immediately.