Saturday, October 29, 2011

Hog Island Oyster Odyssey

Photographs by Robert Birnbach

“People come to this area with a specific mission if they don’t live here,” says my driver as we twist and turn up the damp coast of Marin County in Northern California. “They are either here to cycle these amazing green hills, drop in to a secret ex-hippie’s musical performance like the one Van Morrison threw in 2006 at Rancho Nicasio, or they come for the oysters. It’s mostly the oysters.”

Our mission? A car full of oyster freaks on the hunt for fresh kumamotos accompanied by acclaimed 30-year old Chef Aaron Kiefer, who promises to deliver us an on-the-spot, gonzo-style meal created from whatever ingredients we can find along the way, reflecting the region’s signature foods.

The region we are headed towards is Tomales Bay at the tip of the Point Reyes Seashore about an hour North of San Francisco—the high energy city where we’ve been engaged in long days of cookbook photography for classical creations and sophisticated meals that have left us longing for something more grassroots and simple, a true da-da inspired meal in an uncomplicated setting. 

The entire area is home to oyster farms where you can stop along the way and enjoy whatever oyster experience you crave from barbecued, down home to-go style to fancy, sit down restaurant and Rockefeller style. Our destination is Hog Island, where we hear you can picnic by the bay, hand shuck your own pleasures and eat them raw or cooked on your own private grill. 

Our first stop is at Cowgirl Creamery in a converted barn in Point Reyes Station, a small town among the rolling hills dotted with cows, sheep and goat, where we sample some of their signature, artisanal aged cheeses. Devil’s Gulch, crafted from rich Jersey cow milk, is soft and creamy, within a rind dusted with the dried rust-colored flakes from a red pepper field nearby. Mt. Tam, a few notches firmer than brie, melts on the tongue—an organic milk triple cream. Red Hawk, with its sunset colored rind tinted from a brine wash, delivers a full-bodied flavor; and the butter colored Wagon Wheel, the company’s “everyday” cheese, provides a juxtaposition of toothy bite with mild sweetness. Aaron chooses two of the Cowgirl cheeses along with two artisanal cheeses—an Italian Roccolo and Spanish Patacabra—which are bland enough to go well as a starter with the meal he has planned in his head.

“This is how everyone should eat,” says Aaron, adding a long, slim baguette to our loot for the day. “Whatever’s fresh and whatever’s available.” Our visit to the local grocery store yields multiple herb bundles and fennel.

We arrive at Hog Island Oyster Company where we have reserved a table and grill. It’s a cold, grey day with streaks of sun threatening to emerge from a dense strata of clouds—perfect for bundled jackets, rich foods and the smoke streams dotting the lawn, emanating from charcoal and communal outdoor breathing. All around us, groups of people are hovered together over sizzling meats and various types of oyster condiments. The sounds of wine corks popping, laughter, and the occasional joyous child’s shriek consistently puncture the air.

We learn that Hog Island co-owner John Finger is a Marine biologist whose commitment to creating oysters that retain the flavors and nuances of the bay from which they are produced also entails a passion for preserving the water’s cleanliness and environmental safety.

Chef Aaron, a man of few words with a no-nonsense cooking mien, gets right to work. At the outdoor oyster bar, a long basin filled with four varieties upon twinkling, diamond sharp piles of ice, he orders up several dozen oysters and netting full of clams. Back at the table, he fires up the grill.

Mindy Reed, owner of Zin American Bistro in Palm Springs, California, uncorks the white wines for our cheese plate, chosen for their ability to maintain a neutral palate as canvas for the strong and creamy cheeses, mini gherkins, garlic stuffed mushrooms, and dried figs that provide a hearty appetizer to the oysters that Chef Aaron will prepare simply and swiftly in conjunction with the stark environment, salty bay scents, and crisp winds off the dark waters. Aaron begins to hand shuck the small kumamotos, lining them up on a strip of wet wood accompanied by a quickly mixed mignonette of red wine vinegar, diced shallots and Meyer lemon juice. The small nuggets of meat are perfectly sweet and creamy, spiked with fresh, watery brine.

Once smoking hot, Aaron slaps on four strips of applewood smoked bacon to the grill next to a cobalt blue colander that holds two dozen clams, orange slices, and large broken fennel chunks. He douses white wine atop the pile every few minutes to create a steamer, clouds of fragrance wafting into the ethers. The bacon comes off and is replaced by the large variety, thin and watery oysters, which sit on the grill like little canoes, only long enough to receive a sprinkle of chopped bacon, shaved fennel and chive, a dash of vinegar and the ultimate exclamation point of a fresh, cracked quail egg. Leaving no time for the egg or oyster to overcook, the shells are quickly handed out to guests for the pleasure of one long slurp.

Next up are the clams, spiked with the fragrance of wine and with a subtle peppery zing, hand picked from the bowl, and devoured readily by the group.

A moment’s reflection follows the swift meal as we digest amongst the natural environs. Beyond the picnic area, egrets and herons walk like old men, their angular joints tip-toeing across the rocky shoals, respecting our distance as we communally watch each other, mutually sated on the fruits of the sea. Their screeches remain in our ears on the road back to the City, reminding us to visit again soon, the place where the oyster experience comes authentic and alive with fresh air. 
Producing 3 millions Kumamoto, Atlantic and Pacific oysters and Manila clams annually.
102 miles north of Pt. Reyes Station
20215 Coast Hwy One
Marshall, Ca. 94940

Cowgirl Creamery
80 Fourth Street
Point Reyes Station, CA 94956
Phone (415) 663-9335
Fax (415) 663-5418
Wednesday through Sunday, 10am - 6pm
Friday morning tours at 11:30am and 3:00pm on select summer days.


Oysters With Quail Egg
1 dozen Hog Island Oysters, Opened and Muscle Cut
4 oz. applewood smoked bacon, grilled and chopped
1 dozen quail eggs
½ cup raw fennel
1 tablespoon sliced chives
Olive oil
Sprinkle all ingredients on top of the fresh-shucked oyster halves before the final step of cracking a quail egg on top. Oysters can be made cold or thrown on grill for few minutes for slight warmth but do not cook. Serve immediately.

Steamed Clams
2 dozen Hog Island manila clams, raw
1 whole fennel, broken into chunks
1 whole shallot, sliced
6 cups white wine
1 head garlic, smashed
4 Tbs. butter, cubed

Place all ingredients except for the wine and butter, into a porous container (like a colander) directly onto a hot grill. During the cooking process, drizzle with wine to create steam. As clams begin to open, toss in bowl with remaining wine and butter. Serve immediately!

Roccolo Cheese slices
Patacabra Cheese, slices
Devil’s Gulch Cheese, wedges
Inverness Cheese, wedges
Dried figs
Garlic Stuffed Mushrooms

Courtesy of Mindy Reed, Owner of Zin American Bistro, Palm Springs, CA

Vouvray Domaine Pichot
France 2008

Argiolas Costamolino
Vermentino di Sardegna 2008

Rueda, Spain 2006

Burgans Albarino
Rias Baixas, Spain 2008

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