The Wine Country Online

A "Figs and Pigs" Bar-B-Q at Hog Island Oyster Co.

by Jack Burton and Vanessa Barrington

The inland waters of West Marin County beckon in summer! They call us, cool and refreshing, out from the warmer inland valleys on days when the grapes are soaking up the sun. On days when it is nice to have the sunshine of a past vintage well chilled in a bottle. And our car is packed with a picnic on Tomales Bay in mind.

We would like to introduce the menu and recipes for this summer picnic excursion with a story by Chef Vanessa Barrington of Healdsburg's Jimtown Store. Vanessa describes just one way to get to the water and a fine day out with friends:

Jimtown to the Tomales Bayshore Picnic
By Vanessa Barrington

Two of the things that I love in life are a pretty drive through Sonoma County followed by a delicious picnic with Hog Island oysters. One warm Spring day, we set off from the Jimtown Store in Alexander Valley to happily combine these two activities. The participants were myself, chef at Jimtown Store, Carrie Brown, co-owner of the store, Janette Burton, store manager, and Michael Mc Laughlin, cookbook author and co-writer of the upcoming Jimtown Store Cookbook to be released in Autumn 2001 by Harper Collins. It was a dual-purpose trip: We want to feature some of our favorite local food producers in the cookbook, and it is always fun to go directly to the source to procure the goods, with which we will later develop recipes for the book. We also wanted to have a day outside the store and kitchen. Michael lives in landlocked Santa Fe, so the coast was a place he particularly wanted to visit.

We were all hungry, so we didn't get far before our first stop. The ambrosial donut muffins at the Downtown Bakery in Healdsburg are a destination themselves. The dense and barely sweet cakes, which taste of buttermilk, are coated with a crisp cinnamon sugar topping that crackles satisfyingly between one's teeth. They are truly addictive. The white painted benches outside the bakery are a great place to wake up and start the day. We sat, eating our muffins and drinking our coffee, staring sleepily at the leafy square across the street, and listening to the bakery's screen door bang softly each time a customer came or went. There were tourist couples strolling and trolling for coffee, and clusters of locals with their dogs chatting in the middle of the sidewalk and calling out greetings to one another. Across the street in the square there were the usual dozen or so day laborers standing and waiting for the chance of a day's work, and reminding us that Healdsburg really is still a farm town. We could have lingered longer, but we finished our muffins and set off.

Click to view larger map. (Map by Marsha Mello, by permission of Bored Feet Press.)

The Bodega Avenue French Laundry outside Petaluma.

We took 101 south to Petaluma and took the Washington Street exit. Washington Street goes through downtown, and then it becomes Bodega Avenue. The downtown area is thriving with antique stores, old quaint barber shops, bookstores, coffee shops, clothing stores, thrift stores, large furniture stores, restaurants, and thankfully, nary a chain store. The architecture is interesting and ranges from Victorian to California Bungalow. On this route, you will pass a building that has always intrigued me. It is a faded old funky building with a fake Western-style front and a sign that says "French Laundry." I've always thought the place would make a great Antiquarian bookstore and community gathering place.

Just beyond the downtown area, the houses become further and further apart, and we began to see a few small chicken farms dotted here and there. Then, we see dairy farms and placid black and white cows. Look for the Portuguese Hall, built in 1891, a great place to have a picnic amongst the leafy vines   perhaps another day.

Pretty soon the buildings give way green rolling hills, much of which is ranch land. Parts of the road are lined with delicious-smelling Eucalyptus trees. Though Eucalyptus is not native to California, it signifies Northern California to me. When I was growing up, we often took family trips to the coast. One sniff of those trees picks me up and drops me right into the backseat of our family's Buick station wagon. This area of the county has changed very little since the early 70's. It is still relatively undeveloped, and most of the open ranch land has not been converted to grapes.

West Marin Vista

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.


The Menu
Hog Island Oysters with Three Sauces

A salad of local mixed greens vinegarette with pancetta-wrapped figs

Wild Flour Bakery breads

Bar-b-qued Baby Back Ribs

Downtown Bakery fig newtons and iced melons

Wine: Brogan Cellars Reserve Chardonnay 1998 from Russian River Valley

Author's note: The recipes for this picnic can be prepared the day before and stored away in the refrigerator.

Vietnamese Dipping Sauce for Hog Island Oysters
by Vanessa Barrington

This sauce is also delicious with any grilled shellfish, on rice, or as a sauce for fresh or fried spring rolls.


3 tablespoons fish sauce

6 tablespoons water

2 teaspoons Vietnamese chili garlic sauce*

2 teaspoons seasoned rice wine vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

Method: Combine all ingredients, whisking until sugar is dissolved.

Makes 3/4 cup and keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator.

*I like the brand with the rooster on the label. Available at Asian markets and some grocery stores with large ethnic sections.

Spicy Sausage Dip for Hog Island Oysters
Recipe courtesy of Jimtown Store

Makes 1 cup (enough for about 2 dozen oysters)


2 tablespoons olive oil
2 links of uncooked and spicy chicken sausage, removed from casings
1/4 cup red onion, finely diced
1/2 cup canned tomatoes with juice, chopped into small pieces
2-3 teaspoons harissa sauce (depending on taste, and keeping in mind that 3 teaspoons makes for a very hot dish).
1/2 cup canned coconut milk


Heat oil over medium-high heat in a medium sized skillet. Sauté onion until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the sausage, breaking up very well with the edge of a wooden spoon, as you brown it. Cook until sausage is well browned, but not crisp (about 10 minutes). Add tomato and harissa and stir to blend. Stir in coconut milk and simmer until the liquid is evenly incorporated and reduced down, so that the mixture is completely homogenous (about 10-15 minutes). Watch carefully, and stir to prevent burning and sticking.

To serve, spoon the very hot dip on top of ice-cold Hog Island Oysters on the half shell.

This dish is quite a taste sensation because of the contrasting flavors and temperatures.

Hog Wash
Recipe courtesy of Hog Island Oyster Company

Makes enough for 2-3 dozen Hog Island Oysters


1/2 cup seasoned rice vinegar
1/2 cup unseasoned (natural) rice vinegar
Juice of two limes
2 jalapeno chilies, seeded and finely diced
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 bunch of cilantro, coarsely chopped


Mix all above ingredients and serve in a bowl with a small spoon alongside for spooning onto the raw, cold, shucked oysters.

This recipe is courtesy of the Hog Island Oyster Company, and is their take on a classic mignonette.

Pancetta Wrapped Grilled Figs
by Jack Burton

1. Prepare a basting glaze by combining:
2T Brown sugar
1TBalsalmic vinegar
1TSoy sauce or tamari
1tJuice from freshly grated ginger root
2.Wash and split a dozen ripe figs and wrap them with paper-thin pieces of pancetta (proscuitto or bacon) and secure with a toothpick or thread onto a skewer.
3.Brush with the basting glaze just before grilling.
4.Serve the grilled figs hot and crispy as an accompaniment to a salad of sweet and bitter mixed greens vinegarette.

Grill-Finished Braised Back Ribs
By Jack Burton

As an expedient to a picnic adventure away from the comfort of my backyard and the familiarity of my own barbeque gear, I have come to employ this braise-and-grill method to produce tasty "meat just falling off the bone" Bar-B-Q style ribs.

  1. Braise the ribs the day before your picnic. Brush them with some basting sauce and put them up in a well-sealed container in the fridge.
  2. Purchase one slab of ribs for each two or three guests and separate them into three- and four-bone chunks.
  3. Brown the ribs in a heavy pan and transfer them to a stock pot. Deglaze the pan with a cup of white wine and add it to the stockpot.
  4. Cover the ribs in cold water and include a judicious amount of the following ingredients to season the meat and your resulting broth.

carrots fresh ginger
onion bay leaf
celery salt
garlic black peppercorns
dried chilies (see note)

Bring to a gentle boil and skim well. Simmer covered about an hour until the meat is quite tender, but not actually "falling off the bone."

Remove the ribs from the stock to cool. Reserve the stock for soup or sauce. Reserve the chilies for the basting sauce.

Basting Sauce:

After the ribs have cooked, pour yourself a glass of something and prepare a basting sauce. Combine and reduce by one-half:

2CBraising stock
1/2CSoy sauce
1/2CRice wine vinegar
1CBrown sugar
The reserved chilies, puréed
2TTomato catsup or sauce
1TOlive oil
1tSesame oil

Any sauce left over can be frozen away to baste a chicken with later in the summer.

A note on dried chilies:

My method for using dried chilies in this braise-and-grill situation calls for you to choose the kind and amount of chilies you use. I prefer a smoky, moderately hot chipotle which I tuck into the braising pot with the vegetables and the seasonings.

Fish them out at the end of the braising and incorporate them into your grill sauce.

A great source of information on dried chilies can be found on page 173 of Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe Cookbook (1989). If you don't own a copy, check your library, or order one through our Book Shop (This title is currently out of print/out of stock, but a new edition is expected in Oct.)

Hog Island Oyster Company

Located on Tomales Bay at the town of Marshal, nine miles north of Point Reyes Station. 415-663-9218.

We recommend you call ahead on your picnic day to get a weather report and to see if oysters are available. Hog Island provides the oysters, shucking glove and oyster knive, as well as a few choice bay-side tables and Weber grills. You bring the charcoal, beverages and your picnic gear. Have fun!

Wild Flour Bakery
140 Bohemian Highway
Freestone, CA 95472

Wild Flour is a unique little operation in the sweet crossroad village of Freestone. It is just north of the junction of the Bodega Highway (Hwy 12) and the Bohemian Highway that runs back up through the town of Occidental to Monte Rio and the Russian River.

The Downtown Bakery and Creamery
308-A Center St.
Healdsburg, Ca. 95448

The Downtown Bakery is almost always our first stop on any picnic excursion. There is just a whole lot of pleasure in the coffee and conversation that accompanies your purchase of the county's very finest baked goods.