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Oystering and musseling around Point Reyes.

Oystering and musseling around Point Reyes

Primitive creatures of the deep: so rough outside, so tasty inside. Oysters are often expensive and difficult to find, but in ocean waters just north of San Francisco, they abound and can be bought directly from oyster farmers.

Winter used to produce the most appetizing oysters in warmer-water areas such as Tomales Bay, but with new focus on a subspecies that doesn't spawn in summer, most growers will eventually be able to sell top-quality oysters all year. Coldwater growers, such as Johnson's Oyster Company in Drakes Estero, have always harvested year-round.

With February boasting more sunny days than July along this coast, a beach barbecue is a great way to enjoy a local harvest. Point Reyes National Seashore (about 50 miles north of San Francisco) has the only public beaches in the state where you can build an open fire. Barbecuing the oysters is easy: just place them on your grill and cook them until they open slightly. Remember to build the fire within tidelines (the high tide will wash away the debris), and douse the embers with water, not sand, before you leave; sand-covered hot coals can keep their heat a long time and burn feet. The seashore's rangers also warn of falling rocks; stay a few yards away from the cliffs.

Buying from the growers

We found only two full-time retailers at oyster-growing farms in Tomales Bay and Point Reyes, but three other growers are happy to sell to the public if you call a day ahead to order. Prices vary from about 25 to 60 cents per oyster. Of the three types of oysters grown in the bay--Pacific, Kumamoto, and French Belon--Pacifics grow the biggest (best for barbecuing), Kumamotos are the mildest, and the Belons have an unusual metallic flavor. One company specializes in mussels; again, the biggest ones are best for barbecuing.

1. Tomales Bay Oyster Company. This farm has been around for years--but just this year it installed a new high-tech system for growing and purifying oysters. Open from 10 to 4 Fridays through Sundays, and by appointment, it sells Pacifics and Belons. Telephone (415) 663-1242.

2. Cove Mussel Company. Scott Zahl and Michael Matassarin harvest mussels and some oysters daily in Marconi Cove. Mussels sell for $1.75 per pound; a pound of steamed mussels per person feeds even the heartiest appetites. Call a day ahead: (415) 663-9307.

3. Pt. Reyes Oyster Company. Sells Pacifics, Kumamotos, and French Belons; call a day ahead to order, and owner Martin Strain will meet you at the Marshall Boatworks; (707) 878-2654.

4. Hog Island Oyster Company. Michael Watchorn and John Finger raise Pacifics, Kumamotos, French Belons. Call a week in advance, and they'll meet you at their Hog Island Company building in Marshall; (415) 663-9218. (They hope to be open for regular retail sales by late spring.)

5. Johnson's Oyster Company. Open 8 to 4:30 Tuesdays through Sundays for retail sales of Pacifics only; (415) 669-1149. Johnson's, the 31-year-old daddy of oyster sellers, is one of the biggest companies on the West Coast.

Photo: Oyster sellers are marked with numbers. Squares show beach fire sites you can drive to. Heart's Desire Beach prohibits open beach fires, but does have standing barbecues

Photo: Flat-bottomed boat squeezes through rows of oysters. These, at the Tomales Bay Oyster Company, grow in mesh bags on fiberglass posts

Photo: Oysters spend a day drinking purified water in cleansing tanks. Buyer samples one to decide which kind she prefers

Photo: Mussels flex on rope at right (they grow attached to buoys), while visitors at Cove Mussel Company weigh in their purchase

Photo: Barbecue brims with sizzling shellfish as experts give advice on opening oysters. At right, the rewards of a Drakes Beach picnic: sunset sparkling on the bay and a plateful of the local bounty
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Title Annotation:Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Date:Feb 1, 1988
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