I am not a complicated guy, and it doesn’t take much to make me happy. Oysters are always a good start.
Recently, I spent several days at one of the happiest places I’ve ever been — on Tomales Bay, in western Marin County, just north of San Francisco.
How happy was I? There are more oyster bars on Tomales Bay than there are gas stations. I ate oysters four out of the five days of our visit. The only one I missed was because we arrived too late and every place had closed down.
Generally, when it comes to oysters, I’m a purist. I like them raw and I like them pristine.
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As far as I’m concerned, the wedges of lemon and little bowl of mignonette that come on the plate are decorations, not intended to be consumed.
My belief is that if the good Lord had wanted us to eat oysters with sauce, he would have provided it. In fact, he did: There is no better accompaniment to a raw oyster than the final slurp of juice in the bottom of the shell.
But because I’m also broad-minded, on my trip I ate some oysters that had been cooked. Barbecued, actually.
I had an epiphany about them several years ago, on my first visit to the area, at a little place called Marshall Store. There they grill the oysters over a live fire just until the shells pop. Then they brush them with garlic butter and add a shot of a chipotle-flavored tomato sauce.
A lifetime of oyster Puritanism met its match the first time I tasted them. And, of course, I had to check in again this trip to make sure they were up to snuff. They were. Both times.
Did I mention Marshall Store also stocks Kermit Lynch wines and Cowgirl Creamery cheeses? Oysters with Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre? A little Red Hawk for dessert? Is this heaven? If it’s not, is it better stocked?
But why wait for someone else to serve you? There are few things more pleasurable than shucking a couple dozen oysters for friends before dinner.
You can get them at your favorite seafood store (like Casablanca on the Miami River) or order them online. I particularly like Taylor Shellfish in Washington (taylorshellfishfarms.com), especially if you’re ordering in quantity, which offsets the shipping costs.
And, really, ordering in quantity is the way to go. Oysters disappear quickly. A half-dozen is just enough to whet your appetite.
It doesn’t take a lot to make me happy, but more is always welcome.
Shucking oysters takes a little practice, and there are a couple of approaches to try, but soon enough you’ll find your rhythm. Here’s what works best for me:
▪ Brush the shells clean with a stiff brush under running water. This gets rid of a lot of the grit.
▪ Place the oyster, cup-side down, on a clean dish towel on the work surface and fold the towel over it.
▪ Probe with the tip of the oyster knife to find the gap in the hinge at the back of the shell.
▪ Slide the knife into the gap and give it a twist to pop the hinge.
▪ Run the blade along the top shell, severing it from the oyster.
▪ Hold the cup side and cut underneath the oyster to free it completely.
Looking for something to drink with those oysters? Keep it simple. Sure, Champagne is always festive, and if you’re in a classic mood you could go with Muscadet, Sancerre or Chablis. But you can’t really do better than a clean, solidly made West Coast white.
After almost 20 years as a judge at the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition, I’ve learned that what oysters really want in a wine is something cold and crisp, not overly fruity and definitely no oak. We’re talking about wines made from grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. And we’re usually talking about wines that cost less than $15 a bottle.