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As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy, and to make plans. – Ernest Hemingway
Why am I living in a city? The question niggles at me for the first time when I glance up from beneath the visor of my cap and catch sight of two white pelicans flapping slowly in unison.
I watch them part company. One hovers for a moment – and then plunges, wings pulled back, torpedoing into the water just metres in front of the kayak. Seconds later the big bird is bobbing on the surface savouring its fishy victim.
The question surfaces a second time during an especially quiet moment. There is no talk to distract – just the sounds. The gentle slosh of tiny waves as one paddle slices into the water, then the other – and in between the cries of the nesting double-crested cormorants, abundant on tiny Hog Island in Tomales Bay at this time of year.
It comes again many times during a half-day kayak tour in the pristine waters of this 25km inlet that cuts through a protected coastal nature conservancy area about an hour north of San Francisco.
It comes when our guide tells us about the oyster beds we’ve paddled to. And while scanning the shoreline of the Point Reyes Peninsula for the herds of protected tule elk (we saw just four, silhouetted on the crest of a high hill) that were heading for extinction not so many years ago. And while peering over the side of the kayak into the forest of eel grass, visible because the tide is low.
The health of this eel grass (very healthy), naturalist and oyster expert Chris Starbird tells us, is a good indicator of the health of Tomales Bay.
It was a little alarming to learn that Tomales Bay – a great day trip or weekend escape from San Francisco, which is not on the mainstream tourist radar (although it should be) – runs along a submerged portion of the San Andreas Fault. That is, San Francisco’s most notorious earthquake fault line. The one that’s meant to blow the city apart one day.
But back to the magic. Because with luck, it never will.
A great thing about kayaking, especially across a gorgeous expanse of flat water on a gentle day with the faintest breeze and sunshine that’s comfortably warm, is that you can be a virgin kayaker and enjoy it as much as someone who has done it a gazillion times. And kayaking among the oyster beds is one of the more delectable sensory experiences of northern California.
But what’s even better than the paddling when you visit Tomales Bay and adjacent Point Reyes, which is a scenic and popular hiking, biking and camping spot? To feast on the freshly harvested and shucked plump mollusks (picnic on them if you like) at a local oyster farm or restaurant.
The oyster’s famed aphrodisiacal qualities have long been debated. Was Casanova really on to something when he ate 12 dozen at a sitting, presumably to fortify himself for evening pleasures?
For those who think of the fabled bivalve as the flavour of love, this relatively small area with seven oyster farms to visit (the two largest, Tomales Bay Oyster Co and Hog Island Oyster Co, both have picnic areas) is pretty much seventh heaven.
One minor problem I had on our kayak trip was I couldn’t hear all that our guide had to say about the oysters. Plus, taking notes out on the water is challenging.
When I went online to remedy this, I could find no comprehensive overview of the area’s oysters.
Fast forward a few months and a few oyster-focused visits later.
I have a date set with Gwendolyn Meyer at The Marshall Store, a seafood shack that stands on timber pylons in Tomales Bay, about a 10-minute drive from where we launched our kayaks.
Meyer is a South African living in the bay area. A graphic designer, photographer and sometime writer, she had just published what I had been looking for – a book on the region and its oysters. (Oyster Culture, Cameron & Company, 2011.)
We’re meeting to talk about how a woman from Cape Town got to live in this rarefied environment and to create a locally published book on such a delectable subject.
But first we have to eat oysters: raw, plump, succulent oysters with a squeeze of lemon and mignonettes (shallots, rice wine vinegar, jalapeño and cillantro), shucked by Bob Lundbert who, at work behind the oyster bar, looks the part of the herring, crab and salmon fisherman (now retired and helping out) he used to be.
We alternate between these and an order of yummy bite-into barbecued oysters with garlic butter and another of oysters Rockefella that come with spinach and cheese.
Turns out Meyer, now 48, left Cape Town at age 20 and travelled to California.
She fell in love with Big Sur, the famed rugged stretch of coastline south of San Francisco. She also fell in love with someone she met at Big Sur. She got jobs in restaurants there. She fell out of love. She got divorced.
“I didn’t want to be cooking at 48,” she said, so she enrolled at art school, got into graphic design and photography and moved north to this unspoiled stretch of coastline that reminds her of Knysna.
Living in the small rural community, she soon got friendly with the local oyster farmers. Someone wanted a booklet on how oysters are farmed. Meyer did the photography. One of the farmers got involved in a small-press publishing house.
The booklet evolved into the book, which is as visually seductive as a perfectly presented plate of fresh oysters.
It adds to the appreciation of the oyster-eating experience and the region to know that oysters are California’s oldest aquaculture industry.
That San Francisco’s oyster industry started during the state’s gold rush days (1848-1855) – and ended in that city when San Francisco Bay became too polluted and silted to support oyster farming.
The Tomales Bay region became an oyster supply option when the North Pacific Coast Railroad made it accessible. The first oysters were planted in Tomales Bay in 1874, the year the railroad track was completed.
By 1919 Tomales was growing 24 percent of California’s oysters. For a brief period in the 1950s, Tomales Bay was the largest oyster producer in California. Today – the quietness and rural nature of the environs can be attributed to this – it is the state’s smallest production area, while home to the oldest oyster farm (the Tomales Bay Oyster Company).
Meyer and I do a gentle meander through the Tomales Bay and Hog Island properties as the sun begins to dip.
She says she’s soon heading back to South Africa for a family visit.
“You’re going to live back in the city?” I ask her. But no. She’s sub-letting her place set on a hilltop with its bay view and short jaunt to oyster nirvana. Because who could wake up each morning to this and then leave it?
If You Go...
l To find out more about kayaking at Tomales Bay, visit the Blue Waters Kayaking website at www.bwkayak.com/.
l Eat at Nick’s Cove – and check out their overnight accommodation. www.nickscove.com/
l Check out The Marshall Store menu and directions at http://themarshallstore.com/ - Sunday Tribune