Bread, Cheese, Sausage, Oysters, and Wine at Hog Island (Marshall)
Last Sunday, a cheery male voice on the other end of the phone roused me from my slumber with Good morning, sunshine, what would you like to do today? Its drizzling in Albany, and I bet its raining in San Francisco too. Apparently my companions had conferred the night before in my absence and decided to cancel our planned outing to Hog Island on Tomales Bay in case of showers. But with some fast talking on my part, I soon convinced them that we would enjoy the drive and still find plenty to eat along the way even in inclement weather.
Just minutes later one carload pushed off from the East Bay, packed with wine, Acme bread, and Fatted Calf sausages. Our car loaded quickly and departed from San Francisco with its precious cargo of wine glasses, cookies, homemade mushroom pate and crostini, and more wine. We rendezvousd in Point Reyes Station to put our heads together on what to do next and pick up whatever else we needed for the day. It was a nice stopping point to stretch our legs, as well as to take a look around to buy some cheeses at Cowgirl and the local market for charcoal, drinking water, and some asparagus, pears and cherry tomatoes, then we continued north.
In Marshall, the parking lot at Tonys was packed, likewise at the general store. Guess we werent the only ones not willing to change our plans because of the rain. We had considered stopping at one or the other for our indoor back-up plan, but decided to push on.
Arriving at Hog Island a little after noon, the picnic area was about half full even in wet weather. We staked out a rain-soaked picnic table with a sturdy drop cloth and covered the wet benches with thermal pads. The giant umbrella that Eileen had in the trunk came in handy. When the sprinkles returned intermittently, we propped it in the tables umbrella well to keep our bread dry and protect the wine in our glasses from dilution, and protected our own heads with rain hats and jacket hoods. Our five and six-year-olds took shelter under their red ladybug umbrella (which other picnickers eyed enviously) and a tarp and entertained themselves with card games.
While Spencer readied the grill, we laid out the first course of the cheeses with slices of pear and pan epine and the mushroom pate on crostini. At Cowgirl, it was a challenge to find cheeses with much maturity on them, until the counter clerk offered up tastes of what she described as very ripe St. Pat and SF Drake, both by Cowgirl. We felt the two were on point, enjoying the slight vegetal bitterness of the stinging nettles embedded in the rind of the St. Pat and the smooth and mellow flavors of the mature buttery Drake. The Montgomery cheddar was in the creamy and not yet crystalline stage with a bright fruity finish. Our favorite was the Minuet by Andante, a triple crème soft-ripened goat cheese enriched with crème fraiche, with a touch of goatiness and loads of character.
Max started shucking the x-small Sweetwaters (no other types available) for us, another of his hidden talents, apparently learned from an old fisherman on Prince Edward Island. Very salty and briny with crisp texture and lovely sweetness, we found we liked them best with just a squeeze of lime to balance the extra salty taste, and sometimes with a touch of Tabasco sauce to spice things up a little. These were the best oysters Ive had all season. We washed down our oysters and cheeses with Bregons Muscadet sur lie, a match made in heaven for the minerally bivalves, and Pierre Peters Blanc de Blanc Le Mesnil sur Ogier Champagne.
Without a set of barbecue tongs, the grillers improvised handily, using raw asparagus spears in chopstick fashion and also an extra pocket comb and a Swiss army knife to move the sausages around. Teds grilled asparagus were smoky and wonderful seasoned with only a squeeze of the lemon wedges on Hog Islands condiment board.
The uncooked sausages from Fatted Calf were wrapped in unmarked butcher paper, and Spencer made a contest of holding up the specimens and asking us to identify them. I think I won correctly naming the crepinettes and the kielbasa. We also had the rosso, a mild pork link flavored with red wine. This was my first taste of the charcuterie from the Fatted Calf and I was very impressed. They seemed lean to me, yet the flavor was fresher and more intense and I didnt miss the extra fatty richness. The crepinettes were my favorite with well-turned seasonings and pistachio nuts. With the meats we had the Domaine de Fontsainte Gris de Gris from Corbieres, my first sample of the Suds 2003 vintage, and it was amazingly dark in color for a pink wine, very ripe and low in acidity. We also enjoyed Truchard Carneros Syrah and Janasse Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Our next round was small Sweetwaters, too big for eating raw on the half shell. Alex took over shucking duties while sharing his tale of an idyllic time in years past living on Tomales Bay. In those simpler days, he had little more to do than grab a bag of oysters from Hog Island every few days, keeping them alive by lowering the bag over his houses deck into the sea on bungee cords, and would shuck a few whenever the mood struck him. Instead of serving this round raw, he put them on the grill until they popped open and then added a dab of hot salsa fresca. These were glorious too.
We ended our repast with Saras homemade white chocolate chip cookies. Having depleted our food rations and now more wet and cold than comfortable for our three hours on the bay, we headed home. Even on a gray and damp day, I still love the Hog Island experience. It's one of the greatest things available to us in the Bay Area. An important notice, starting May 15, advance reservations will be required for the picnic area.
R-month. In the olden days, the R month was used as a rule of thumb for safe shellfish. As a rule, the weather is cooler during an R month. Hot weather may grow bad algae, shell fish may consume the bad algae, people eat the shell fish and may get sick. This is called paralytic shell fish poisoning.
I don't think the R month holds any longer. About 10 years ago, domoic acid was discovered in North American crab, I think it was dungeness crab from Alaska or Washington. Since then, domoic acid has been found in shell fish and fin fish. Currently (in April), I believe there is a local mussel quarantine due to domoic acid. The quarantine started in May (as usual) and continued through most of the R months. I believe the quarantine is still in effect. The quarantine is for sport caught shell fish.
If our hot weather holds, and we get warm water like we had two years ago, the oysters will start their reproduction thing. Some do not like oysters when they are reproducing.
The best source of current information would be your oyster vendor. I have eaten farmed oysters and clams from Pigeon Point and Drakes Bay in the summer.
"Commercial shellfish harvesters in California must be certified by the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) and are subjected to stringent sample testing for toxins. Commercial harvesting is stopped immediately if a potentially dangerous level of toxin is found." source California Department of Fish and Game
re: jen maiser
For the chowdown in September, I had tried to make a reservation for our group and was told it was not possible. Apparently, they used to take reservations in the past but had trouble managing the process and did away with it.
The place was filled up by the time we left, even on a rainy day. In September on a spectacular Indian summer day, we saw many groups turned away for lack of space. I think advance bookings are a good idea, if they can make it work.
Hog Island is in Marshall on Hwy 1, about 10 miles north of Point Reyes Station.
From San Francisco we took Hwy 101 north, then westward on Lucas Valley Rd. This hits the coast at Point Reyes Station. Driving back, we went further south on Hwy 1 to Olema, then headed east on Sir Francis Drake which has fewer curves, to get back to 101. I'll mention that the kids were carsick both directions. Another way is to take the coast route up through Stinson, a winding drive that takes longer, but I do it perhaps once a year just for kicks and the scenery.