Fresh oysters, mussels and clams, straight from the source

Drive south along the winding road with gentle hills where Highway 1 traverses Valley Ford, and go past the intersection where the road turns off to Tomales. Just before you get to the town of Bloomfield, you’ll come across a stand of huge pine trees and a low grey building with wooden shutters. That’s where you’ll find the bright red sign of the Bodega Bay Oyster Company, selling oysters, mussels and clams fresh from Tomales Bay.

Just inside the doors, walk through a cleverly constructed curtain of custom-made screen panels, arranged in a semicircle from ceiling to floor, corralling any flies and keeping them outside, and enter the spotless interior of the building. A colorful chalk-paint sign created by local artist Mary Lou Shepas greets you, showing your location on a map of the coastline from Bodega Bay to Drakes Bay, with whimsical depictions of sailing vessels and the flora, fauna and water species that are integral to this part of the world. Attached to the wall below the sign is the remnant of a wooden boat. Another part of the boat forms the base of a stainless steel counter where you can select your Point Reyes Kumamoto Oysters, Bodega Miyagi Oysters, Bodega Gallo Mussels and Walker Creek Manila clams, and beverages to accompany them from a refrigerated case. The tile-floored space is decorated with antique glass bottles, and old fishing floats, and lots of shells.

Martin Strain’s ancestors were farmers and seafarers near Tomales Bay in the latter part of the 1800s. He grew up in Stockton and moved to Berkeley in the 1980s where he met his wife, Mary Dolan. In 1985, Martin left a career as a CPA in San Francisco to return to Tomales Bay with his wife to raise their children and to start a mussel farm. Their son Whitt was born in 1991 and daughter Lindsey was born in 1993. Point Reyes Oyster Company, the business they established in 1989, now farms mussels, manila clams and oysters in Tomales Bay.

Until two years ago, the Strain family’s products were only sold wholesale to Whole Foods Markets in the Bay Area and to other wholesalers at Pier 45 in San Francisco. This latest venture, Bodega Bay Oyster Company, offers their products directly to the public, through farmers’ markets in San Francisco, Alemany and Vallejo, and now at their Sonoma County retail store on Highway 1 near Bloomfield.

The retail location was, for many years, the Little Amsterdam BBQ oyster restaurant. The feature of that property that made it the perfect location was its “clean room”—a federal health department-mandated space equipped with fresh water and electricity that is bleachable and cleanable. Aside from a walk-in refrigeration room and a display case, which was too heavy to move, Martin (who had a great deal of experience building the family’s homes) completely remodeled the remaining space along with his son Whitt.

Although he never pushed the idea, Lindsey told us that Martin is very pleased that both of his children now work with him. After graduating from college, Whitt, who has a degree in philosophy from UCSB, and Lindsey, who earned a degree in Agricultural Business from Cal Poly, both joined the business full time. Lindsey also completed a post-graduate class in beverage management at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Culinary Arts Program, but her knowledge of shellfish was picked up working for the family business. “There are no shucking classes at the JC,” she laughed. Whitt works alongside his father in the production end of the business; Lindsey manages the retail store. Part of the décor of the shop is sourced from her collection of antique bottles found near the creek where she grew up in Tomales.

It takes 18 months to 3 years to grow an oyster to maturity. Point Reyes Oyster Company buys the immature oysters, which are raised from the larval stage to spat (when they form a shell), from Taylor Shellfish and Coast Seafood, both in Washington state, or from Chris Starbuck in Bodega Bay. The spat, which are the size of a red pepper seed (5 mm), are planted 2 million at a time in fine-mesh bags (one liter of spat in each bag), which are then attached to the stationary long lines, with custom-designed stainless steel clips, in the waters of their 92-acre lease in Tomales Bay. Once a month, the oysters are jostled to discourage them from becoming attached to each other. Every three months, they are removed from the long lines, taken into a tent on the beach where they are sorted for size, then placed back into bags and reattached to the lines.

Point Reyes Oyster Company farms two types of oysters—Miyagi, which have a long, thin appearance and a briny flavor, and Kumamoto, which are rounder, with a ruffled edge, and a sweeter, more buttery flavor. Each Thursday, farm workers from the Point Reyes Oyster Company take out the boats, unclip the mesh bags containing the oysters and clams from long lines in the bay, stack them in the boats and bring them to Miller Boat Launch, on the east side of Tomales Bay, where they load them into a refrigerated truck for delivery to the store. The mussels, which grow naturally in the Bay, are gleaned off the lines and bay structures where they grow clumped together. They are placed back into deeper water in bags, where they clean themselves out before they are brought in to sell. Each week the truck delivers enough product to fill three giant tubs at the retail store. During holidays, that number jumps to eight tubs.

When the truck arrives at the Bodega Bay Oyster Company, the oysters are poured out of mesh bags onto a stainless steel table in the “clean room” (so called because it has running water—the entire building is fresh-smelling and spotlessly clean). They are hand-sorted, counted and washed, then hand-stacked in tubs, flat side up. The mussels and clams are washed and sorted, then packed into bags and held in tubs and ice chests. Everything is held in the walk-in refrigerator or put in blue nylon bags for wholesale delivery. There are 10-dozen miyagi oysters per bag, ranging in size from extra-small (1-2”) to large (5”). The kumamoto oysters are one size only (1-2”).

There’s no waste in the oyster business. Since the oysters are kept alive under refrigeration, when the new batch comes in each week, any unsold oysters remaining from the previous batch (although they usually sell out) are returned to the waters in Point Reyes. Oysters remain viable for 2 to 3 weeks under refrigeration.

At the store, Bodega Bay Oyster Company oysters are sold individually, or by the dozen, or by a mixed bag of 50 oysters. Manila clams and mussels are sold by the pound. You can buy them shucked or unshucked to take out. Or you can eat them on the spot at the picnic tables provided outside on the cement patio or in the yard.

There’s a do-it-yourself BBQ stand also provided under the shade of the pine trees. Bundles of firewood, bags of charcoal, and an eclectic array of condiments are available at the store, from the traditional Tabasco sauce to Sartain’s Menu The Sauce (with a base of chipotle peppers) that is made in Petaluma and marketed by Casa Grande High School’s Entrepreneurship Students; and every flavor in between. Also, shucking knives, lemons, Kettle chips, aprons, crackers—you’ll find whatever you need for cooking and eating oysters, plus toffee from Petaluma Toffee Company, and the makings for s’mores (plain Hershey Bars, graham crackers and marshmallows) for the perfect BBQ dessert. Beer, wine, champagne, Crystal Geyser and Pellegrino water, juice beverages and Coca-Cola are all kept well-chilled. Buckets are provided outside for the empty shells, which then are recycled into road base for the driveways on the property. There’s no waste, as everything goes back to the water or back to the land.

On summer weekends a tent is set up in the picnic area, where you can buy oysters shucked and barbecued, and sold food-truck style. Three flavors are offered each weekend, plus clam chowder and an antipasto plate. You can check their Facebook page for the latest news.

They are also in the process of getting permits to open a restaurant space and catering kitchen (and already have an on-sale alcohol license). With lots of space to grow into, Lindsey has visions of turning some of the other buildings on the property, now being used for storage, into an art gallery, a beer and wine tasting venue, and a B&B. But that’s in the future. “We’re taking it slowly,” she said. For now, it’s great to know you can buy fresh oysters right here in Sonoma County direct from their source in Tomales Bay.  SD