It's the best of bivalve times.
Folks flock to Inverness and the Tomales Bay area north of San Francisco to slurp beautiful and bargain-rate Olympias, Kumamotos and Miagis so furiously that local farms hustle to deal with demand. Hog Island is preparing to celebrate 30 years with big thangs like a star Cooking for Solutions slot at the Aquarium in May. The first ever all-you-can-slurp Oyster Riots go off up north in May too. And the brand-new Oyster Lover’s Tour (415-599-9222) is a dreamscape device.
And…it’s the worst of bivalve times.
The oldest and biggest farm around, family-run Drakes Bay Oyster Company (415-669-1149), faces impending doom as its lease trembles before the courts – and beneath a thundercloud of controversy. Neighboring oyster farms, who depend on DBOC for tens of thousands of reinforcements, brace for shortages. As DBOC claims it supplies 30 percent of the state’s shuckers, California considers shipping in shellfish from far away. And experts cringe at ocean acidification advances and what that means for Sweetwater survivability.
The best way to bring the complex situation to delicious life: A don’t-let-it-end day trip with the oyster tour ($150), which is super fresh itself.
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The tour starts at plank-floor Blackbird cafe with hot joe and Bovine Bakery chile-cheddar scones. The cafe is relaxed, earthy, quaint, much like the West Marin area; 30-something tour guide Elizabeth Hill’s photos of her grandma swimming at the nearby shore – with full-body dress “bathing suit” and floppy hat – fit perfectly.
We roll in her 2007 Ford Econoline, with captain’s chairs and comfy seating for eight – and no more – so groups aren’t too obnoxious upon arrival, which along with understated decals on the van keep things Marin-style modest.
Modest would be one way to describe the digs at Drakes Bay too. Another way: ramshackle. Hill greets farm manager Ginny Lunny with a hug in front of a peeling shack, Lunny points to the farmhouse on the hill where she was born and launches into an oyster education, which proves as surreal and fascinating as the setting. She shows us how they seed larvae by microscopic millions, how they coax them onto “French tubes” and hang them from rickety wooden matrixes covering a 150-acre corner of the 2,500-acre estuary. Sorry about the roof that that’s about to collapse, she says, Coastal Commission and National Parks permits make upkeep outta bounds.
Bits of the surreal-itself lease situation emerge as she adds they won’t be seeding for a bit since they don’t know that they’ll be there by spring’s end: In November, the farm’s next lease from the National Parks wasn’t renewed.
“After careful consideration of the applicable law and policy,” U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced, “I have directed the National Park Service to allow the permit to expire, and to return the Drakes Estero to the state of wilderness that Congress designated for it in 1976.”
Enviros cheered. Very rare marine wilderness – the only one of its kind on the coast – would be recaptured. No more motor boats and non-native oysters. The local community scratched its head: Oysters purify the water. What about local food? If it’s wilderness, what about the cows? (The Interior leases the park’s lands to 15 ranches nearby.) California senators Dianne Feinstein (pro-farm) and Barbara Boxer (pro-ruling) disagreed. The family sued the Interior (“They misinterpreted the law,” co-owner Kevin Lunny says), and then appealed when their suit was thrown out, earning an injunction to stay open until the lawsuit is sorted May 13.
Suddenly what could be viewed as a West Marin story becomes relevant well beyond, and not just for oyster lovers. It pits locavores versus enviros versus enviros versus foodies. After years wading through the strife, Kevin Lunny knows it as well as anyone.
“It’s important. People understandably wonder, ‘What could happen to sustainable use of the land and local food? What about commercializing wilderness?’”
And it’s contentious. National Parks Conservation Association’s Director Neal Desai says, “At some point [Drakes] needs to look in the mirror and say, ‘It’s not everyone else who’s a problem, it’s us.’ It’s a raw deal for taxpayers.”
“They’ve been able to call us names,” Lunny says. “They haven’t been able to call us wrong. They use made-up facts.”
And it’s far more complicated than that, which has me swearing I just came for the bourbon-butter oysters.
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Even politics couldn’t dull our appetite for the spread Hill lays out at Drakes: rich local bries and blues (Hill does wine, cheese and flavors-of-West-Marin tour too), nuts, earnest breads, sliced apples and cured-around-the-corner charcuterie, all flanked by oysters ranging from tiny to big-as-a-bear-claw, with house jalapeño-shallot-lime-cilantro mignonette. We grab a bag of small oysters, $10 a dozen, to go, hit Tomales Bay Oyster Company for a shucking lesson from farm heir Heidi Gregory – at her fastest she was up to 700 an hour – and more education: Pacifics are the most common at each farm – who give them personalized names like Preston Points and Sweetwaters – because they grow fastest. Kumamotos are slowest, taking four years to reach market. Tomales’ signature golden nuggets get a curvy deep cup from wind-wave-driven tumbling in the bags. So much more flavor slips out from there: At Hog Island, we pounce on bivalves with signature “hog wash” sauce and the heavenly bourbon barbecued numbers I’d be willing to eat competitively. We crack 21st Amendment’s Marooned On Hog Island Oyster Stout beers and toast the 30th coming this summer, which makes the days of its founders selling $1 dozens in S.F.’s Chinatown seem a distant dream.
Only the fact that the oyster shells used in the beer (to give yeast in the stout fuel) are threatened by increasingly acidic oceans is an onrushing nightmare.
There goes the appetite again. Fortunately a final stop at inspired Saltwater is a magic microcosm of the tour – peaceful, flavorful, homespun, with more oysters, while they last.
• Monterey Produce Market (373-5017) owner Kim Mikhail has just debuted The Market Restaurant (373-2200) 100 feet away, in the old Norma Jean’s, with a deliciously simple concept. Chef Allen Constantine hand-selects his favorite organic goodies each morning at the shop next door. Shiho Fukushima tells me the “chicken on the rocks” ($20) is perfection in a Chardonnay au jus; Mikhail says the braised shortrib ($23) and pan-seared snapper ($21) have also been hits.
• Mike Hackett and the Casa Sorrento (757-2720) gang are taking over the old Chevy’s in Salinas. Here comes Hacienda Mexican Grill. Muy bien.
• Merry Christmas. I mean, happy Pebble Beach Food & Wine (www.pbfw.com). Follow @MontereyMCA for some timely portraits of remarkable morsels and star chefs.
• Speaking of star chefs, Justin Cogley of Aubergine (624-8578) joins the likes of Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and David Chang with his selection as a Food & Wine Best New Chef for 2013.
• Bacon skydiving, Bacon Condoms and Bacon Sunscreen are real things. Hit the blog (www.mcweekly.com/edible) for proof.
• Spencer Glen and Barry White of Pizza My Heart (656-9400) and Matthew Driscoll of Whole Foods (333-1600) are back from the World Pizza Games. Glen rolled to second in largest dough stretch, Driscoll earned third in dough spinning, and White wrapped up first in box folding.
• Today (April 4) marks the latest First Thursday dinner at The Independent (394-6000, $10-$25), starring Uncie Ro’s Wood Fired Pizza (419-8191), live bluegrass and Indy Allstar vendors.
• April 11’s installment ($125) of the superlative Pacific’s Edge Winemaker Series (747-7455) spotlights Chris Weidemann of Pelerin Wines and Executive Chef Matt Bolton’s Maine lobster, stinging nettle gnocchi, pheasant and rib eye risotto.
• The Downtown Dining group (Rio Grill, Tarpy’s and Montrio) is cooking. They’ve got contests going for best poem for Administrative Assistant Month, a new rewards program for eating out and Montrio’s doing a progressive – and smart – scraps-and-compost program. Jump to the blog for more on each front.
• The new president of the Monterey Chapter of the American Culinary Federation, Tene Shake, sees a ton of Latino playmakers in local kitchens, but very few in the ACF, so he’s helping launch Hispanic Kitchen Connection with an April 8 Mariachi Mixer at Isabella’s Italian Seafood Restaurant on the Wharf (375-3956), designed to turn local Hispanic chefs onto the training and networking the ACF provides. $10; RSVP to (224-4874) for community, music and gourmet grub.
• “I do not weep at the world,” Zora Neale Hurston said. “I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”