Bountiful Tomales Bay

North of San Francisco, the coastline is pristine and the oysters are fresh

TOMALES BAY OYSTER TASTE-OFF

Six oyster companies operate in and around Tomales Bay, and three are open to the public for tours and tasting. Oysters do well (and taste best) in a very clean environment, and Tomales Bay, one of the most pristine bodies of water on the West Coast, produces excellent oysters ― and has for centuries; the indigenous Coast Miwok were eating them thousands of years ago. A good, plump, salty-sweet oyster makes the ocean taste heavenly.

Drakes Bay Family Farms

In 2004, owner Kevin Lunny took over the oyster farm, deep in the Point Reyes National Seashore, from the Johnson family, who had operated it for 50 years. The last oyster cannery in California, it produces 60 percent of oysters consumed in the state. The fascinating tour takes you from tanks of oyster seed to an example of the growing racks, where tidal rises and drops help the mollusks develop thick, strong shells.

Lunny, who also raises beef cattle on the Point Reyes peninsula, is a big believer in the virtue of oysters. "We can produce 10 times the amount of protein per acre in the bay than we can on land," he says. He also points out that oysters, which feed on water-clouding phytoplankton, cleanse any body of water they're in. "It's fun to be producing food that in every way is positive for the environment." INFO: Shop open 8-4:30 daily (oysters roughly $10 per dozen); tour free, reservations required; 17171 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Inverness; 415/669-1149.

The oysters: Firm, meaty, clean-tasting Pacific oysters (Crassostrea gigas), harvested and shucked daily. These fast-growing oysters are the dominant species on the West Coast. At Drakes, you can buy them whole, for shucking yourself; shucked and packed in a jar; or on the half-shell, to slurp down at the outside table with some horseradish, a squeeze of lemon, or cocktail sauce. The oysters tend to be on the plump side, especially in spring, when, Lunny explains, "they grow like crazy because the sun makes the plankton boom."

Hog Island Oyster Co.

With its restaurant in San Francisco's Ferry Plaza building, Hog Island is probably the best-known oyster company on the bay and has just released a well-written cookbook: The Hog Island Oyster Lover's Cookbook: A Guide to Choosing & Savoring Oysters (Ten Speed Press, 2007; $20) by Jairemarie Pomo.

Named after a small local island ― where, according to lore, a barge once accidentally released a load of pigs ― the company was founded in 1984 by two marine biologists, Mike Watchorn and John Finger. On a tour sponsored through Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT; see " What to Do: Farm and Ranch Tours"), you can see their floating oyster beds and learn about oyster-growing techniques (like gently tumbling the oysters to even out their growth and harden their shelves).

Next to the sales area, Hog Island offers a pretty waterside picnic spot ― where the prow of a graceful old boat juts up from the sand ― with reservable wooden tables and grills to barbecue your freshly purchased oysters. INFO: Farm shop open 9-5 daily (oysters $10-$15per dozen); shucking lessons $8 Sat-Sun, $5 Mon-Fri (fee includes shucking tool), reservations required a week in advance; reservations also required for picnic area (415/663-9218, ext. 255); 20215 Coast Hwy./State 1, Marshall; 415/663-9218.

The oysters: Hog Island mainly raises and sells three species: Pacifics (called Sweetwaters here) have beautifully pleated shells, like tiny ruffled skirts. Their brininess is offset by a cucumber-melon finish. The Atlantic ( Crassostrea virginica, also known as an Eastern) is an East Coast oyster, with a flat, greenish shell and a sweet, delicate mineraliness. Kumamotos ( Crassostrea sikamea) are tiny, about the size of a quarter, with thick, deeply cupped shells that hold creamy, briny-sweet meat (one Hog Island staffer describes them as "little nuggets of joy"). All three are grown near the mouth of a creek. That sweet freshwater, combined with the nutrients in the seawater, helps create the complex, subtle flavors that Hog Island oysters are known for.

Tomales Bay Oyster Company

The oldest continuously run shellfish farm in the state, it's been in operation since 1909 with just two owners;. "When the tides are out, you can see our oyster beds," says current proprietor Drew Alden. He explains that his company grows only Pacifics, raising them both single-shell (laid out individually on racks to form pretty, sturdy oysters suitable for serving on the half-shell) and cluster-style (in clumps; cheaper to produce, but the imperfect shells mean the oysters must be sold shucked).

As at Hog Island, the waterside picnic area is equipped with tables and grills for barbecuing your own. But no reservations are needed here ― it's first come, first served. You'll need to shuck your own, but the very friendly staff is willing to show you how. INFO: Shop open 8-6 daily (oysters roughly $10 per dozen); free tours, reservations required; 15479 State 1, Marshall; 415/663-1242.

The oysters: Five different sizes of Pacifics, from extra-small to jumbo, with a clean, fresh, briny taste overlaid with the sweetness of freshwater. Plump meat, with thick, scarred shells; more straightforward in flavor than Hog Island's. The staff sells hot sauce and limes as well as shucking gloves and oyster knives.

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