According to Neal Maloney, there's no reason you can't eat oysters in months that end with 'r'. If they're farm-raised, that is. "Wild oysters typically spawn in those months, and you want to keep the oysters in the water," says the owner of the Morro Bay Oyster Company. "But with aquaculture, it doesn't matter. We harvest year-round because the oysters we put in our farm beds in the bay aren't wild."
That's great news for us oyster lovers: Bring on those briny bivalves!
Maloney started oyster farming in Morro Bay in 2004, when he was hired to oversee the local production for Northern California's Tomales Bay Oyster Company. With his degree in Marine Biology from the University of Oregon, he was instrumental in making sure the Central Coast farm was producing high-quality oysters. He officially took over the farm in 2009, and started Morro Bay Oyster Company. Not only has he streamlined his farming process, but he also increased production: He now raises about 750,000 fantastic tasting oysters annually.
Oyster farms aren't new to Morro Bay; residents have been harvesting them in the shadow of Morro Rock since the early 1900s. And while the variety, Pacific Gold, aren't native to the Central Coast--Maloney gets his babies, no bigger than a pencil eraser, from Washington--they have been raised here since the 1930s. It's the same variety as Hama Hama from Washington, but here they take on characteristics unique to Morro Bay, much like terroir with wine.
"The water has just the right salinity, temperature and minerals to make a sweet, briny oyster," says Maloney. The minerals come from rain that flows down through volcanic rock and fills the aquifers. "In the winter, the salinity is lower in the bay, so they take on a melon flavor. In the spring and summer, they're a smooth briny flavor."
It's the way he farms the oysters, too. The tiny little morsels are placed in mesh bags that sit along floating platforms in the back bay, and Maloney and his team shake the bags every day, which helps keeps the oysters separated. This also helps the oyster grow a good deep cup so the meat develops a perfectly firm texture. The oysters take 12 to 24 month to grow the best size, and then they're hand harvested daily.
Morro Bay locals head right down to the docks to pick up their oysters almost every weekend, but Maloney also ships oysters around the state. You'll also find them at restaurants around the Central Coast and Southern California, including both Hungry Cats here in L.A.
These are really lovely oysters with a great crisp flavor and wonderful texture. When serving freshly shucked oysters on the half shell, Maloney suggests following the three Cs--cold, cut and clean. When you shuck them, make sure they are cold, that the muscle is cut, and all of the shell particles are removed. Then slurp them down. The best way to preserve unshucked oysters in the refrigerator is to keep them in single layer between damp towels.
If you're unsure of your shucking skills, consider throwing oysters on a grill. "Make sure the grill is good and hot," says Maloney "Put the oysters on flat-side down. When you see little bubbles coming out of the sides, flip them. About four or five minutes later, they'll pop open and you know they're done."
At that point, just take them off the grill (a thick towel or work glove is recommended), and using a butter knife, pop them open. Maloney likes to top them with a little garlic butter and hot sauce, and serve with a cold Firestone Double Barrel Ale.
Can't make it to Morro Bay to get them right out of the water? Order your Morro Bay oysters to be shipped right to you.
Here are more scenes from a tour of the Morro Bay Oyster Company farm:
[Photos by Lesley Balla]
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