Photos by John Rockwell

Over spring break this year, I had a sublime food experience with my daughter. Around sunset in early April, we sat on the Pismo Beach boardwalk with a loaf of Helena Avenue sourdough from Santa Barbara, a sack of some cold oysters from Morro Bay Oyster Company, and a flat clam shucker—the wrong tool for oysters, but it worked. Instead of a dinner restaurant, we walked down to the pier, sat on a sandy bench, tore off pieces of bread, and ate about eight oysters each as the sun fell behind the horizon. Like people for thousands of years past, we amassed a small midden of shells as we ate. The briny flavor of the local ocean and the fresh and deep melon-rind flavor of the meat accentuated the moment. Soon my daughter will join her sister in college, and that sort of father-daughter experience won’t happen anymore.

In my ongoing search for great oysters in Southern California, I found Morro Bay Oyster Company. It is owned by Neal Maloney, whose hospitality, kindness and passion for oysters can be found in every perfect oyster he grows—and I mean perfect. His business ethos matches the conservation-oriented free-spirit atmosphere of the small Morro Bay community. Our intense, science-heavy tour of Maloney’s facility proved to me that oyster production, like the production of all fine foods, is a blend of science and art, and most of all it is a labor of love. 

This was evident in the way Maloney handled each oyster we tasted, each one part of a lengthy process that begins with a nursery of spawned oysters until they are large enough to be held in the strong sacks where they will grow in the “farm” in the bay. “We spend a lot of time with these oysters,” says Maloney. “Sometimes it’s hard to sell them—they’re so perfect and you put so much work into them, they’re our babies and then we send them out into the world.”

Neal’s tour began by directing us into a pump room where he turned the lights off. It was a weird way to begin, but he wanted us to see the UV filters that constantly clean the temperature-controlled tanks that house the finished oysters. After pulling them in from the bay, the temperature is dropped, their metabolism slowed down, and they can be “stored” while being distributed. The tanks, which are constructed with no parts that can corrode, have drum filters and waste filters to continually clean the bay water that has been transferred there. Since oysters don’t bioaccumulate anything, they are nature’s natural filters, leaving waterways cleaner. This also means that when kept properly, domestic oysters (subject to routine checks by the EPA in the water and then FDA when they’re in the tanks) are very clean and safe to eat raw.

As one can probably imagine, owning an oyster farm involves some pretty technical practical knowledge of marine biology. Maloney found his calling during his college years at University of Oregon his sophomore and junior year where he earned his best grades in his marine biology classes. “I’m a nerd when it comes to marine biology,” relates Maloney. “I didn’t have to study—anything they said in lecture I just remembered.” He then spent his summer months in the field, which included Charleston, Oregon, close to Coos Bay, where the university has a marine biology program near the thriving shellfish industry on the southern Oregon coast. “I loved it, and went back as an undergraduate TA during the summers and ended up spending about nine months out there,” says Maloney. The program was intense, with eight hours a day in the water and the rest of the time in lecture. “The focus on marine biology was epic,” says Maloney. He eventually went on to earn a certificate of conservation Tec de Monterey in Mexico where he studied aquaculture.

In 2008 at the age of 25, Maloney started Morro Bay Oyster Company after working for Hog Island Oyster Company in Tomales Bay. The Morro Bay farm was originally owned by Hog Island and Maloney purchased it because he explains, “I saw I could use my degree and not be in the laboratory all of the time.” According to Maloney, when he started the company it was not a great time for the economy. “I felt like if I could start a business in this horrible economy and survive, I’d be battle-hardened for anything that’s going to come.” He learned that people don’t just line up for great oysters, though, and had to purchase some fancy-looking wine barrels to sling and shuck oysters at farmers markets and other special events in the area.

“The food movement’s really helped it,” says Maloney. “People really appreciate getting to know their farmers and where their food’s coming from, and farmers markets are what really kicked it off and showed me that was a possibility.” His product is also adored by chefs who know the difference between the mass-produced oysters found in the all-you-can-eat (AYCE) buffets and the ones that are worth being the centerpiece of a meal.

The result of Maloney’s passion is a unique-tasting briny oyster that is a product of its pristine environment. Even though there are creeks and natural springs feeding into the bay, the salinity of the bay is close to the ocean. “This is a small bay,” says Maloney. “It’s only about two and a half or three miles long, compared to Tomales Bay, which is ten miles long. Some studies say this bay will take 28 hours to turn over, but that depends on the tide. If the tides aren’t swinging a lot, it’ll
take longer.”

Even the seasons will slightly change the flavor profile of the oyster. When the freshwater drains into the bay, the salinity can drop slightly. “In the winter time, we’ll get a little drop in the salinity and the oyster kind of brightens up and you’ll get that green melon rind finish,” says Maloney. “And then in the summer months when they’re getting ready to spawn, you’ll get that creamier texture, and they’re saltier—it’s pretty much all oceanic influence.”

And why do Morro Bay Oysters grow so well? According to Maloney, “The plankton that comes in here is unbelievable. Right off the coast here—the shelf’s not that far—it goes from 30-40 feet and then drops down into the thousands. When it’s windy and those northwest winds prevail, it blows all that surface water off and creates upwellings, so that deep, nutrient-rich water comes up and it’s colder, it’s higher in saline and oxygen and that comes into the bay and these oysters just explode—they grow so fast.”

That growth speed is not always a good thing because a well-cultivated oyster needs to have a deep cup, and a strong seal. Maloney pulled an oyster out of the tank to explain: “Right now when this oyster is closed, it’s using its tissue like how you put your tongue against your teeth; it’s kind of doing the same thing against the back of its shell to keep all that liquid in so it doesn’t pour out, and uses its muscle to keep the shell closed. If it has a weak muscle because it’s not exposed to air enough during its life, it can’t hold its shell long. Right now, these oysters think the tide’s out, and if they’re not used to the tide being out, then we sell it to a restaurant and they put it in their walk-in, the oyster will open up and then die. So our goal is to have a nice oyster that has been so stressed out in its life that it can stay closed for over a week. This tissue has to fill in all these nooks and crannies.” 

Those nooks and crannies can be a problem, so the oysters are pulled from the water from time to time and tumbled, and they are also tumbled naturally by the tide. “We’re always pumping the brakes on Mother Nature,” says Maloney. “These guys just want to grow out of control and you don’t get a really nice product. In the end they need to have a nice tight seal around the edge with that mantle tissue.” The smooth, almost sculpted look of Maloney’s Pacific Gold Oysters, are a testament to
this care.

Although mostly working with local chefs and restaurants, and direct sales and distribution through Santa Monica Seafood, Maloney hopes to expand his operation in Morro Bay to include a retail shop with some shucking stations for visitors who want to enjoy these amazing Pacific Gold oysters at the source. If he makes improvements at his own expense to his bayside operation, which is part of a long-term land lease, he will get to keep his business in the same location for an extended time. I’ll keep you posted about when that happens, but until then, his product can be ordered through Santa Monica Seafood.

Morro Bay Oyster Company
1287 Embarcadero
Morro Bay, CA 93442
(805) 234-710
www.morrobayoysters.com
www.santamonicaseafood.com/seafood/pacific-gold-oysters