A few years ago during a trip to South Africa, I witnessed something remarkable. I was in the community of Coffee Bay, along the aptly-named "Wild Coast" of the country's Eastern Cape, when one of the men working at my guest house asked me if I would like some oysters.
I wasn't particularly in the mood, but then again, when are oysters ever a bad idea? "Sure," I shrugged, with a smile.
Imagine my surprise, several minutes later, when he returned with a metal bowl full of oysters – and water dripping from his body and clothes.
"Where did you get those?" I asked.
He laughed. "The sea."
Now, I've never been under the illusion that this is a common way of oyster harvesting: I can count on one hand the number of people I know who can free dive, let alone in search of bivalves. Then again, I really didn't know much else about oysters, excepting that they live in salt water and, on occasion, produce pearls.
The Story of Morro Bay Oyster Company
"You are an early riser," Neal Maloney, the owner of Morro Bay Oyster Company, laughed as he approached me near the town's main boat dock just after 6 a.m.
I nodded. "Life's too short to sleep, especially when oysters are involved."
Upon learning about my drive along the Highway 1 Discovery Route, Neal had been kind enough to arrange an exclusive tour of his company's oyster farm for me. He'd even met me before sunrise – he later told me he was absolutely not a morning person – so that I might capture said farm in good light.
"I've been the boss ever since I started this company, in 2008," he explained, "so it's been a long time since I had to come to work early."
Which is to say Neal has long since done his time. After earning a B.S. in Marine Biology from the University of Oregon in 2004, Neal began working at Tomales Bay Oyster Company, located north of San Francisco.
During his four years there, he not only gained deep knowledge of oyster farming, but also the business behind it. The retirement of TBOC's owner completed the perfect storm Neal needed to start Morro Bay Oyster Company.
The farm itself resides in the shallow waters of Morro Bay's back bay area, in the shadows of the Seven Sisters volcanic caps tower over the town, its main barge proudly brandishing the MBOC logo, which looked especially handsome with wisps of orange light shooting out from behind it.
"Are you ready for breakfast?" Neal asked as he docked the boat at the barge.
Meet the Pacific Gold Oyster
I didn't answer him with words – just a gulp. "Does 'Pacific Gold' refer to this species of oyster, or is that just a name you give to this variety?"
"It's our name," he said, throwing back an oyster of his own. "The flavor and texture of these oysters are unique to this part of California, due to the variable salinity and temperature of the water, even the waves. So, we like to think of these oysters in the same way one might think of precious metal."
But Pacific Gold oysters are much a result of nurture as they are nature.
"After starting out in our nursery, the oysters are moved there," he continues, pointing to the dozens of rows of baskets extending out from the barge in concentric semi-circles.
"They float just above the bottom of the bay and devour plankton, which gives them the flavor you just enjoyed."
After 12-18 months in the so-called "growing" area, the oysters are harvested by Neal's employees, who sort them (for size) and inspect them (for quality) by hand. Once they're out of the water, they can be on ice and on their way to restaurants, both local and as far away as Santa Barbara, in a matter of hours.
How Can You Eat Morro Bay Oysters?
Neal clearly loves his job – the oyster-farming side and, apparently, the customer service side. He happily slipped on a wetsuit and got in the water so that I could get great pictures, in spite of the frigid temperature of the air, wind and, no doubt, the water.
While a Morro Bay Oyster Company restaurant might be in the cards in the future – Neal pointed out several buildings he's considered buying during our boat ride back to the town center – he doesn't anticipate running regular tours to the barge.
"You can buy our oysters directly from the barge if you want," he clarified. "And also at local farmer's markets, if you don't eat them at restaurants in town, that is."
I chuckled. "Just like fruits and vegetables."
"But better," he smiled and docked the boat.
Indeed, the "weirdest" thing about oyster farming is how much like non-oyster farming it is – you just substitute water for land, plankton for fertilizer and careful human hands for harvesting machinery.
(Then again, pearls don't have a terrestrial equivalent.)