High on the Hog

Walker here.

This week we’re snapping back to our current reality; how do you counter the gravity of Month 7 of waiting for federal oyster culture permits?  Take a trip to San Francisco, mix work and play, hit the Mission, devour burritos, and aim north to Marin County and West Coast Oyster Land.

When you cross the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin County, breathtaking views of rolling hills dotted with striking modern homes immediately greet you.  However, I’d recommend you rest those eyes a bit—the real treasure of Marin County starts on CA-1 North, another hour beyond the Bridge.

Minutes after turning onto Route 1, the southern tip of Tomales Bay materializes out of seemingly nowhere.  The aquamarine Bay to my left, paired with bucolic pastureland to my right makes for spectacular vistas.  My eyes feast, leaving my empty stomach painfully self-aware.  Not for long.

An hour and forty-five minutes after leaving San Francisco, I pull into an oyster shell lot at the venerable Hog Island Oyster Company.  The familiar crunch of shell underfoot takes me right back to my days working on the Fishers Island Oyster Farm, as does the sight of neon orange Grundéns.  Within minutes I’m shaking hands with John Finger, CEO of Hog Island, as well as his son Zane, one of the farm managers.  John has other matters to attend to, so he ushers his dog into his Subaru and drives away.  A CEO driving a Subaru?  Tremendous.

For the next hour and a half, Zane and his rescue mutt Tuna show me every nook and cranny of this world-famous oyster growing operation.  Hog Island produces over four million oysters per year from their two growing sites in Tomales Bay.  They grow Crassostrea gigas, known colloquially as the Pacific or Japanese oyster.  In addition to sharing a genus with the Eastern oyster, these little guys look strikingly similar.  However, there are notable differences to be picked out by the observant connoisseur.  Pacific oysters are known for their creamy texture and sweet taste, whereas Eastern oysters are chewier and saltier.  Which you prefer is entirely up to your own predilections.

Hog Island begins their process, like most growers, by securing the year’s seed, either from their in-house hatchery or from other West Coast hatcheries.  Procuring seed on the West Coast is getting harder due to climate change.

When their seed reaches a size of roughly ¾”, workers transfer the teenage oysters to intertidal rack-and-bag systems for final grow-out.  For the remainder of their lives, Hog Island oysters are exposed to the elements twice per day as the tide goes in and out.  This exposure to air and the sun’s ultraviolet rays reduces biofouling—think algae and barnacle growth—while promoting the formation of a gorgeous, deep-cupped shell.  The growing method speaks for itself when you look at Hog Island oyster shells post-culinary enjoyment.  These deep-cupped, iridescent beauties get us torqued. 

While growing methods are something Will and I find fascinating, the real magic of Hog Island happens at their oyster bar.  Those fortunate enough to reserve a picnic table savor views of beautiful Tomales Bay dueling with the here-and-now of sweaty, Grundén-wearing workers packing oysters.  If you find this concept to be “too rustic,” hit the back button a few times.

Hog Island’s signature oyster, the Sweetwater, is a gustatory delight.

I start to draw comparisons of my own between Pacific and Eastern oysters once the farm tour concludes.  I don’t have a reservation but after Zane explained to the wait staff that I’m a fellow farmer, I’m practically dragged to a table.  In less than five minutes, I have a plate of 24 Sweetwaters, a ‘Marooned on Hog Island’ oyster stout, and six bourbon chipotle butter BBQ’ed oysters sitting in front of me.  This feast does not last more than 15 beautiful, savory minutes.  While I eat, the raw bar staff brings me complimentary goodies: a fresh trout dish and a glass of champagne.  Hog Heaven. 

They don’t need to treat this East Ender with such hospitality, but I feel so at home. 

My Hog Island trip was too short, but I came away with more than a handful of new ideas to integrate into our vision of the West Robins Oyster Company Experience.  Infinite thanks to our new friends at the Hog Island Oyster Company.  I’ll be back, and that’s a promise. 

On your next visit to the Bay Area, I urge you to make the trip up to the Hog Island farm.  And if you’re strapped for time but want to enjoy Sweetwaters within City limits, you can join the hungry throngs at Hog Island’s beautiful Ferry Building oyster bar.