Within your own backyard lies adventure that will transport you to a place that feel miles from home. So leave your passport at home and start exploring The Nearest Faraway Place, sponsored by Land Rover Discovery.
If you’re in San Francisco and you want beautiful oysters, all you have to do is brave the chaos of the Ferry Building, stand in line for anywhere from 10 minutes to a couple hours, and sidle up to a table at the recently remodeled Hog Island Oyster Company. Coupled with craft cocktails and a strong locavore menu, executive chef Chris Laramie has made a normally to-be-avoided-by-locals locale a destination that instead boasts a 50/50 split between regulars and passers-through.
But what if you don’t want the chaos of tens of thousands of commuters and tourists basking in the Bay’s aura? Easy. Hit the road and go north, through (over) the Golden Gate and up the jagged coast of Marin to Tomales Bay, where Hog Island’s own oyster farm awaits. The drive is just around an hour, but the urban excess of the city will be quickly forgotten.
Founded in 1983 in the unincorporated township of Marshall by a pair of marine biologists, Hog Island wasn’t an overnight success. The pair hustled for nearly two decades before things really took off.
“Basically they were college kids out of Santa Cruz with marine biology backgrounds,” explains Laramie. “They set up an oyster operation and pretty much lived hand to mouth for the first 20 years of it.”
Much like a pearl from one of their invertebrates, they built slowly, carefully, and polished as they went, working under a strong commitment to environmental stewardship and devoted to growing the absolute best quality oysters. Now, with three locations—there are oyster bars in Napa and at the farm in Marshall, as well as the S.F. spot—things operate at a much faster pace. Or, as Laramie puts it, “Balls to the wall, man. It’s gangbusters.”
He’s not kidding. The oyster farm alone harvests and sells over 3.5 million shellfish a year, and those are just the ones they raise. He estimates his Ferry Building spot shucks two million or more oysters annually on its own.
California’s Route 1 is legendary for breathtaking views and equally breathtaking corners, often skirting a razor’s edge of vertigo-inducing cliff side with the Pacific glistening to the left and rolling grasslands or towering forests to the right. On the way north, a stop in Point Reyes Station is mandatory, with a visit to the iconic Cowgirl Creamery’s original location for fresh cheese and a pick-me-up from the smiling faces under the awning at Toby’s coffee shop.
At the Hog Island farm site, nestled into the foggy coast, the salt air is sharper, undiluted by the city’s filter of concrete and other scents. Scattered about before the upended bow of an old ship, which serves as the on-site oyster bar’s backdrop, weathered wooden tables await. Visitors can either swing through and pick fresh shellfish from the tasting menu or order en masse for a picnic, which includes equipment, a table, access to a grill, and a quick shucking lesson, which is a must-have for the uninitiated. As an added bonus, the picnic area is dog-friendly, so be sure to bring your four legged friends. Just don’t let them eat any of the fresh horseradish you’ll be sprinkling on the oysters.
Oysters. Let’s talk about the oysters, shall we?
Hog Island grows their own supply, among which the star of the day was their small, sweet, and perfectly plump-yet-firm Kumamoto. Originally from Japan, the Kumamoto leaves much of the saltiness behind, so sweet as to border on fruity. For an East coaster like myself, it’s a departure from the norm—the earthy, sugary taste is indicative of the West coast, Laramie noted when we spoke.
“A general characteristic is ours are a touch less briny and a little more sweet.”
Also on the menu are rotating selections from trusted regional sources and, yes, the East coast. Plus, if you’re lucky, something a little more exotic.
“Sometimes we’ll get something extra special from Europe or New Zealand or somewhere like that,” Laramie says.
After loading up on bags of bivalves at the open air Hog Shack, which has the classic white with green trim clapboard vibe of a true seaside shanty, picnickers are issued a heavy rubber shuckin’ glove and the stubby metal knife required to access their delectable bounty.
If you’ve ever held an unshucked oyster, you’ll understand this is no simple task. Cracking one open is hard enough; doing it in such a way that it’s then presentable for sale is quite another. In fact, professional shuckers posses an in-demand skill set.
“It’s actually the hardest position to fill in the restaurant,” Laramie laughs. “We do take on people who want to learn, but it takes them six months to a year to start to get good at it.”
Thus, don’t despair if you find yourself spitting out a few shards of shell during your first round or two of oysters. And for those with delicate teeth or less of a work ethic when it comes to lunch, yes, they will shuck ‘em for you. But where’s the adventure in that?
The picnic area at Hog Island is available via reservation through their website, which is suggested if you’d like a tableside grill. Bring your own beverages, or visit the on site oyster bar for beer and wine. A late lunch visit will have you driving back just in time to catch an uninhibited view the sunset over the Pacific, and land you back in the Bay Area in time for a nightcap at, where else, Hog Island’s Ferry Building location.
“I think people are turned on and tickled by what we’re doing,” Laramie tells me proudly, and, as far as I’m concerned, he’s right.