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Fisherman Neal Maloney is growing gold in Morro Bay

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I’ve never been a zealot about oysters, but I have enjoyed them infrequently. My favorites were Kumamotos, because they’re small and delicate, easily slurped down, and complement a glass of brut or Albarino. However, my indifference toward oysters changed radically after getting to know fisherman Neal Maloney. The owner of Morro Bay Oyster Company (MBOC), he delivers his premium oysters to SLO County clients the same day he harvests them from Morro Bay.

VIVE LA DIFFERENCE :  The larger of these two oysters from the Morro Bay Oyster Company is approximately five years old. - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • VIVE LA DIFFERENCE : The larger of these two oysters from the Morro Bay Oyster Company is approximately five years old.

My interest piqued when I heard about the first Morro Bay Oyster Festival taking place Saturday, June 16 (I’ll cover it in a later column well in advance). I was excited when I learned Maloney was conducting an informative class and tasting of his Pacific Gold oysters dockside in Morro Bay last Sunday. To get invited, I called Maloney and the event leader, Margie Hurd, who created S.L.O. Fresh Catch. As the leader of a community-supported fish company, she helps local fishermen sell their catch to consumers. Hurd generously let me tag along with her group of consumers who subscribe to her newsletter.

Hurd collaborates with fishermen in SLO County and northern Santa Barbara County. On the website, under weekly specials, she informs her subscribers about the seasonal fish available and which captain caught it. She provides the status of the species population, health information (such as warnings to pregnant women and nursing moms), and recipes. The MBOC demo was typical of the special events she sets up quarterly. Hurd also provided two Spanish sparkling wines for guests to enjoy with the cooked oysters provided by Capt. Mark Tognazzini.

Now in his 40th fishing season, this veteran fishes for his Tognazzini’s Restaurant and Dockside Restaurant, which features a fish shop for retail sales. Contact information is provided at the end of this column.

Maloney started the demonstration by explaining that he farms his Pacific Golds on the south end of the estuary, a 20-mixnute cruise from his dock.

 “Originally, the 134-acre farm was created by the Tomales Bay Oyster Company (TBOC) from near San Francisco,” Maloney explained. “After graduating from the University of Oregon [earning a B.S. in marine biology], I was hired in 2004 by TBOC to manage the Morro Bay farm.”

- ‘SHERRY’D’ MELON RELISH:  Morro Bay Oyster Company’s Chef Jed Lachance noted that this recipe has great eye “catchability” and has ingredients people can identify with, which makes it easier to venture outside of their comfort zone when first trying oysters. He explained: “I love this recipe when the oysters are on the briny side. The sweet richness of the melon and crispy cucumber brings balance to the creamy texture of the oyster. The sharp, acidic Sherry vinegar keeps the creaminess in check while the sweet, delicate saffron allows a tantalizing reintroduction of the subtle yet powerful ocean.” - Lachance provided this recipe to hold you over until the oyster festival.  - • 1/8 of a cantaloupe - • 1/4 red onion - • 1/2 hot house cucumber, peeled and seeded - • 1 tarragon sprig, finely chopped - • 4 strands saffron - • 2 T. sherry vinegar, preferably Pedro Jimenez - • 1 T. grapeseed oil - • salt  - Mix saffron with sherry vinegar for 15 to 20 minutes so it blooms. Cut the cantaloupe, onion, and cucumber into brunoise (try to keep it consistent in size: 1/8-by-1/8 pieces), and mix together in non-reactive bowl. Add tarragon, grapeseed oil, and salt to taste. To serve, place about 1/4 spoon of relish over freshly shucked Pacific Gold oysters. -
  • ‘SHERRY’D’ MELON RELISH: Morro Bay Oyster Company’s Chef Jed Lachance noted that this recipe has great eye “catchability” and has ingredients people can identify with, which makes it easier to venture outside of their comfort zone when first trying oysters. He explained: “I love this recipe when the oysters are on the briny side. The sweet richness of the melon and crispy cucumber brings balance to the creamy texture of the oyster. The sharp, acidic Sherry vinegar keeps the creaminess in check while the sweet, delicate saffron allows a tantalizing reintroduction of the subtle yet powerful ocean.”

    Lachance provided this recipe to hold you over until the oyster festival.

    • 1/8 of a cantaloupe

    • 1/4 red onion

    • 1/2 hot house cucumber, peeled and seeded

    • 1 tarragon sprig, finely chopped

    • 4 strands saffron

    • 2 T. sherry vinegar, preferably Pedro Jimenez

    • 1 T. grapeseed oil

    • salt

    Mix saffron with sherry vinegar for 15 to 20 minutes so it blooms. Cut the cantaloupe, onion, and cucumber into brunoise (try to keep it consistent in size: 1/8-by-1/8 pieces), and mix together in non-reactive bowl. Add tarragon, grapeseed oil, and salt to taste. To serve, place about 1/4 spoon of relish over freshly shucked Pacific Gold oysters.
 
TO THE HORIZON :  The Morro Bay Oyster Company has a little more than 100 acres of land in its farm. Shown here are the oyster bags at low tide. - PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • TO THE HORIZON : The Morro Bay Oyster Company has a little more than 100 acres of land in its farm. Shown here are the oyster bags at low tide.

In 2008, his boss at TBOC retired, and he offered to sell the Morro Bay farm to Maloney.

“The Tognazzinis supported us and got us on our feet from the beginning,” Maloney recalled.

After hand-harvesting the oysters, he sells them directly to restaurants, at Farmers’ Markets, and from his barge in Morro Bay Estuary. MBOC brings in anywhere from three-quarters to one million baby oysters the size of a pencil eraser annually. Grown in mesh bags that float, you’ll never find mud in them, and they’re constantly tended to by staff in a protected environment. The oysters are harvested once they’re 12 to 24 months old, and vary from very small to large “cowboy” size.

Maloney demonstrated the art of shucking an oyster, and, importantly, how to avoid jabbing the oyster knife into your hand when handling those slippery little devils. We learned about the high standards by which he farms these delicious bivalves, something everyone should consider when eating anything.

“We have a certified growing area, and we send water samples in to be tested weekly,” he said. “We send in the oysters once a month to make sure there aren’t any diseases or bacteria in them.”

During the Morro Bay Oyster Festival, 10 local chefs will compete to win the “Best Oyster of the Central Coast” award. Each chef, including MBOC’s chef with his traveling oyster bar, will prepare the Pacific Golds. Every guest will enjoy oysters, too, with great local wines, ales, and cocktails at this inaugural event.

To contact the local seafood experts, it’s best to call or visit their websites: Morro Bay Oyster Company, 234-7102, morrobayoysters.com; S.L.O. Fresh Catch, 481-5827, slofreshcatch.com; and Tognazzini’s, 772-8100, BonnieMarietta.com. For advance information and tickets to the Morro Bay Oyster Festival on June 16, visit centralcoastoysterfestival.org.

Morro Bay Oyster Company is open dockside, between Stax and the Great American Fish Company, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. But you may want to call first to make sure Maloney is open. You can buy oysters of every size, and I’m sure the amicable fisherman will provide a quick and easy shucking lesson if you ask. Check out Maloney’s website to watch his shucking video and videos by Whole Foods Market and Sunset Magazine promoting Maloney and his awesome Morro Bay Pacific Golds.

After opening a few and slurping down those sweet, succulent oysters, you’ll surely want to channel Ernest Hemingway in his novel A Moveable Feast. Be prepared by picking up a bottle of a lovely dry white from Claiborne & Churchill, Tangent, or Verdad, or a Brut bubbly from Laetitia to provide the perfect refresher to chase down those delicious oysters.

Contact New Times’ Cuisine columnist at khardesty@newtimesslo.com.

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