I stood at the sink in pajamas, my tattered white linen nightdress and leopard-print flannel pants already doused with grimy remnants of the ocean’s floor. The shitty oyster glove was nothing more than cheap rubber, which I’d already manage to puncture a handful of times. Literally. I was petrified I was going to jab a hole straight through my hand each time the knife slipped from the oyster’s hinge.
But I was determined.
These were special.
Earlier this morning, we bundled up and drove to California’s coast, stopping only for nettle tea and sesame cookies in the hip-hick town of Point Reyes. We pushed further northwards to tiny, movie-set perfect Marshall, set against the rugged beauty of Tomales Bay, a backdrop of pine-covered mountains framing the entire plein air.
We were announced by the crunch of oyster shells under tire as we pulled into the miniscule parking lot of Hog Island Oyster Company, its low slung, blue and white buildings jutting into the calm waters, the warm midday sun fortifying us against the chill of late November. A myriad of picnic tables were occupied with weekend revelers, many with large plastic tumblers of cheap Sonoma wine in hand. Swirling smoke dissipated in the sunlight, leaving behind scents of charred wood from the grilling oysters.
As we stood in line at the pick-up window, having phoned our order weeks ahead, I contemplated the oyster farm fanned out in front of me. The aroma of the bay’s low tide suggesting otherwise, the waters are relatively clean. Bivalves, including clams and oysters, are known as ‘filter feeders’, and consume plankton and other detritus from the waters, each oyster capable of filtering 50 gallons of water per day. Tomales Bay’s native oyster presence, now cultivated for more than a century, means cleaner waters with a more diverse ecosystem in which the oysters thrive for at least one full year until they’re mature.
But it wasn’t just any ol’ oyster for which we’d traveled.
Once a year, twice if incredibly fortunate, Bélon oysters are harvested in Tomales Bay. Actually, to call them Bélon is akin to referring to California sparking wine as Champagne. Bélon oysters are from the Bélon River in Brittany, France and boast their own AOC classification. So revered is this body of water that oysters harvested from other parts of France are taken to this river and finished there. Affinage, the French call it. The same species of the Bélon oyster, Ostrea edulis, is commonly known as the European Flat oyster. (Mais Bélon est tellement plus sexy, non?) Native to Europe, Flats are now farmed in both California and Maine, with extremely small productions. With a flatter, wider and more delicate shell than other oysters, they’re more reminiscent of the scallops we dug for on Nantucket in the winter.
Flats have a very tight shallow cup with little space for the oyster to grow, and they’re often shipped with a band around the shell to keep them closed, so not to lose a precious drop of their lovely liquor.
This is not to imply they are sweet.
There’s nothing delicate about Flats in the least. These oysters are thin, almost crunchy, and the flavors that linger long are deeply of this earth: minerals, salt, seaweed, metal. Jolting.
The platter was finally readied, a bed of ice slowly melting underneath a shucked baker’s dozen of these special bivalves. Horseradish root had been finely shaved onto a small wooden board, and green Meyer lemons from the tree behind the porch were sliced in half. An old Raveneau Chablis I’d been hoarding was chilled and decanted, thick pieces of dark rye were toasting, and my hand had finally stopped bleeding.
Dinner is served.