For the Love of Oysters

Could a humble bivalve be the ultimate aphrodisiac? Local writer John Wilcock travels to Northern California’s Tomales Bay to filter out the truth.

By John Wilcock


hen the ancient Romans teased each other about their sexual prowess, it’s a safe bet that oyster jokes were frequent. The juicy mollusk was believed to be an aphrodisiac then, just as many believe it to be today. As early as 97 B.C. a Roman praetor, Sergius Orata, was breeding oysters on Lucrine Lake, near Naples, and his neighbor Cicero was writing about them. As were Horace and Juvenal.

The legend began with the Greek goddess Aphrodite who sprang from the sea on an oyster shell and promptly gave birth to Eros. Scientists offer a more prosaic explanation: the mollusk’s high content of the zinc required for the production of testosterone.

Point Reyes Lighthouse, oceanfront at the most exposed place on the California coast.

Oyster farmer Terry Sawyer remains skeptical: “Maybe it works if you think it does,” he suggests. Sawyer with two other marine biologists was co-founder 25 years ago of the Hog Island Oyster Company, one of several in the Tomales Bay area. Thirty miles north of San Francisco, the Bay sits beside the captivating Point Reyes National Seashore, which draws two million visitors a year and is home to owls, foxes, raccoons, bobcats deer, herons, egrets, and ducks.

Terry Sawyer of Hog Island Oyster Company in Tomales Bay.

The peninsula’s cool, moist climate is ideal for dairy ranching, and its farms, spread over 65,000 acres, have been shipping butter and cheese to San Francisco for more than a century. “The grass growing in the fields on Monday,” boasted the 1880 History of Marin County, “is butter on the city tables the following Sunday.”

Drakes Bay Oyster Company produces about half of the state’s oysters.

Hundreds of bird species nest among the dunes and in woods composed of both Douglas firs characteristic of northern California’s coast and Bishop pines, which are more typical of the southern part of the state. Wildflowers color the hillsides, and on the beaches in spring, elephant seal mothers nurse their pups. The headland on which the 1870 lighthouse sits claims to be the only place in the world where, in the early months of the year, you can sometimes watch passing whales and the basking elephant seals on a single visit.

Sunny and blue at Tomales Bay.

And just as the land is well suited to farming, so is the temperate water good for breeding oysters. Beyond the pretty town of Inverness, a side road near the lighthouse leads to Drakes Bay Oyster Farm, the only remaining company in California that still operates a cannery. Producing about half of the state’s oysters, it has been in business for 80 years, but has been ordered by the Point Reyes National Seashore to close in 2012 when the 40-year lease granted to the previous owners expires. A National Park Service report concluded the company presents “serious potential and real negative effects within Drakes Estero,” to which co-owner Nancy Lunny responds that their 20 million oysters are performing a service by filtering the estero’s waters from the effluent that pours in from the park’s ranches.

A single oyster can filter 50 gallons a day, feeding from the plankton and detritus it sucks up while its mantle assists the shell to grow from lime in the water. When exposed to the air, a strong adductor clamps the shells shut, scant protection against such predators as bat rays, green crabs, and teredos, which can drill through this sheath.

Evening at Nick’s Cove, where shelter from the fog comes with luxurious linens, a wood burning stove, and a whole lot of coastal charm.

For that reason, most farmers grow their oysters in mesh bags hanging from racks in fairly shallow water, the gentle rocking of the waves and water temperatures below 40 degrees aiding their development. “It’s like planting corn because we plant in rows,” says Scott Yancy, “and just like in corn you have to weed them out, sort by size, and rebag them.” Yancy, who manages the Tomales Bay Oyster Company, lists the occasional red tide that sweeps into the Bay as the growers’ worst enemy. “It can wipe out the entire crop,” he says. For this reason, oysters are usually harvested before the warm weather.

To the north, at tiny Marshall, the Hog Island Oyster Company ships three million oysters each year to restaurants and retailers around the country. There are daily visitors, too, many carrying coolers for takeaway but some of whom pay a small fee to lunch at the picnic tables overlooking the bay. Sawyer, one of the partners, lifts up one of the containers from the constantly bubbling brine to show the thousands of seed oysters looking like fine gravel piled in the bottom.

This seed, which comes from one of a trio of hatcheries in North America, is already several months old and matures for a few months more before being placed in sacks of fine mesh and hung in the bay. If all goes well, when the bags are harvested, not less than nine months later, they are fully grown.

The female oyster is very prolific, releasing into the water millions of eggs, which are fertilized by the male. The fertilized eggs develop into larvae, which grow for a week or two until this wandering spat seeks out a place to settle, often on shells threaded onto hanging ropes but sometimes atop cultch (a pile of old oyster shells), emitting a glue to cement its left valve in place.

“There’s safety in numbers,” says Terry Sawyer. “They form a reef, a structure, where they don’t get washed away and have a high chance of reproductive success.” Hog Island breeds many varieties of oyster, but a favorite is the exceptionally creamy Pacific, which originated in Japan.

In Marshall, the popular Nick’s Cove & Cottages offers a comfortable place to stay and a restaurant where every table has a view. Another pleasant option is located back on the highway in the one-street town of Tomales, where the nine-room Continental Inn was recently built to replicate (with updated facilities) the original turn-of-the-century hotel that stood as the cornerstone of this picturesque community.

Back in the 1850s, according to historians, the hotel was the town’s center of activity, its ballroom hosting dances and public meetings and on its steps a Sunday afternoon gathering to watch running, jumping, and wrestling contests, with an occasional horse race on the adjoining highway.

These days, of course, cars are more common than horses. But the charm remains.


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