Photo by Chris Leschinsky
Snick. That’s the quiet sound of Neal Maloney shucking an oyster. With the midday sun glinting off the bay around us, he pops it open as effortlessly as if he’s unlocking his own front door. He hands it, all shimmering and pearly, to me. In a second I’ve slurped it from the shell. It’s firm, cold, and briny-sweet, with a faint melon-and-cucumber finish that makes me immediately want another one.
A 29-year-old marine biologist who radiates contentment, Neal has been growing oysters in Morro Bay, on California’s Central Coast, for 7 years, first for Tomales Bay Oyster Company, now for himself. As he explained to me after I’d clambered onto his Morro Bay Oyster Company—a bobbing bunch of wooden platforms surrounded by chains of floating mesh oyster bags—his oysters, Pacific Golds, are good in part because of where they’re grown. Pacifics (Crassostrea gigas) are a mellow-tasting variety popular all over the world, and have been raised in Morro Bay since 1932. Like all oysters, they’re flavored by their home waters. That’s why a Hama Hama Pacific, from Washington, will taste different than a Pacific from Oregon’s Yaquina Bay—and why they’re often known by their place names.
How Morro oysters get good
I soak up the view as Neal describes how that very scenery matters to his oysters, much like terroir in wine. Morro Rock juts up at the far end of the bay like the brow of a submerged giant. Along with a sand spit, it helps shield the waters here, making them calm enough for oyster production. Even so, there’s an exhilarating amount of wind, enough to bring the blood to our cheeks, spray our sunglasses with briny drops, and whip up waves that tumble the oysters around in their bags. And that is a good thing. “Oysters will turn into a brick if you don’t shake them up,” he says. Left undisturbed, they’d glom onto each other and become a fortress of twisted shells. Neal hauls up a nearby bag for me to see, and every oyster in it is separate and shapely.