I'm glad that one thing has changed: The food is much better now. We'll be eating fresh oysters instead of sandy bologna on white bread with mayo. About the time we pass the U.S. Coast Guard training center at Two Rock, we begin to smell the fresh briny scent of the ocean, and the air becomes a little cooler. Further along, there is a "T" intersection facing Tomales Bay, where we turn left towards our destination.
Arriving at Hog Island Oyster Company, we pull in to the left of the large bluish-gray building and walk through the opening in the fence into the back yard. On our left, there's a small building from which you can buy oysters, hats, and T-shirts. They thoughtfully provide trays, oyster knives, and nice music to listen to while picnicking. Next to the little building are the oyster tanks filled with oysters for sale. Just beyond the tanks are several picnic tables, which are situated to maximize views of the water. There are wine barrels for the empty shells, and barbecues if you prefer your oysters cooked. (You bring the charcoal.) We will be eating the oysters in their most natural state, raw and mostly unembellished.
We take a moment to appreciate our surroundings, and to gaze out at the unspectacularly spectacular view of Tomales Bay. By this I mean a flat swath of calm shallow water with a couple of small boats and some guys in full-body yellow slickers. As a backdrop are the low green Marin Hills. No homes, no crashing waves, and no dramatic cliffs. A sight beautiful, but calmly spectacular, perfectly suited to concentrating on the oysters and the company.
Janette, being the acknowledged picnic expert in the group, opened her well loved basket and spread the tablecloths, and produced her selection of antique metal picnic dishes and real linen napkins. Shortly, Michael Watchhorn, one of the proprietors of Hog Island, arrived with a gigantic homemade ceramic tray piled high with oysters. He also brought a chilled bottle of Brogan Cellars Reserve Chardonnay 1998 from Russian River Valley, a bowl of lemon wedges, a bottle of hot sauce, one heavy black rubber glove and an oyster knife. We spread out our salami and olives and baguette and started on the wine. Michael Watchhorn, very nicely, shucked almost all of the oysters for us. He's quite a bit faster at the job than any of us. After a little protest (something about having to work) he sat down with us and we began the business of eating the oysters in earnest. He didn't eat too many of the oysters. (Is it possible one could tire of oysters?) He seemed to really enjoy the salami, the bread, the olives, and the Barbara's gourmet cheesepuffs I'd brought along on a whim.
At Hog Island, they raise four different kinds of oysters: Sweetwaters, Kumamotos, Atlantics, and Europeans. We had Sweetwaters and Kumamotos. The Sweetwater oyster is unique to Hog Island Oyster Farm. In the 1920's when Oyster farming began on Tomales Bay, it was said that if oyster beds were placed in the swath of a freshwater stream, the resulting oysters would be sweeter. There is a fresh water stream at the present sight, so an oyster was born. The Sweetwaters are fat and mild, but full-flavored and creamy. They have an incredibly long mouth-filling finish. The Kumamotos are smaller, brinier, and a little minerally with a very sweet finish. Eating the two types of oysters together is almost like comparing a crisp lively Chardonnay, to a rounder, grander, and creamier Chardonnay.
Speaking of Chardonnay, the Brogan cellars wine is truly lovely. The winemaker, Margi Wierenga, comes from an illustrious winemaking family. She is the daughter of Burt Williams of Williams Seleym fame. The wine is a bit unusual. It is big, and nicely oaked, and though 100 percent of the wine went through malolactic fermentation, it has lively fruit and is balanced by crisp acidity and a good dose of alcohol, making it a great match for any shellfish, and perfect for the oysters. It is also a gutsy enough wine to stand up to the garlicky salami and the olives. The catch is that the winery is a very small-production facility. They produced only 24 cases of the wine we drank (now I feel very lucky). They also make another Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir, and a Zinfandel. Their total production is only 600 cases. For an introduction to the winery and the winemaker's notes, see The Wine Tout.
While we ate, Michael told us an eerie and frightening ghost story set in the large, beautiful, now-restored Victorian house which is situated across the road from Hog Island and looks out on Tomales Bay:
One night, in the early 1980's, Michael was driving home to Sebastopol from a party in San Francisco. He was very tired, and it was very late, and he felt that he should rest a bit before continuing home. It was one of those rare nights near the coast where it is in the 80's during the day, and the fog forgets to come in, so the night stays calm and in the 70's. This probably only happens a couple of times a year. Anyway, he didn't want to drive the rest of the way home, and happened to have a key to the empty house, because he had been thinking of buying it. He also knew that the large upstairs room looking out over Tomales Bay had a cot in it. He went in, opened the windows to let in the warm breeze, and fell fast asleep. He woke up about an hour later and the room was so frigid he could see his breath. He felt a definite presence in the room with him. Outside of the open window, the night was still warm. Outside the room, the house was still warm. By then, he was completely awake, and drove home to Sebastopol.
As we looked up at the window to the very room Michael slept in, we wondered about the stories the people who eventually bought the house tell.
Soon, Michael had to go back to work, and we had to be on our way. We lingered a moment longer, reluctant to go, staring out at the bay, and happily basking in the oyster afterglow. There were two Frenchmen in black berets picnicking that day. One paused on his way back to his table, and said to us: "This is the best place on earth." We couldn't agree more.
I hope the following menu and recipes might tempt you to visit The Hog Island Oyster Farm one day. Enjoy.