Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Foodie Friday

Last weekend, my sweetie and I headed up north to Mendocino to enjoy another long and relaxing weekend, one during which we were able to unplug from the outside world. Yep, no cell phone coverage and no internet access. It was a much needed break from the Bay Area hustle and bustle.

On the drive up, we decided to check out a couple of Marin County's many foodie destinations. Our first stop was in Point Reyes Station, where we paid a visit to the Cowgirl Creamery at Tomalas Bay Foods (80 4th Street; 415-663-9335). Founded by Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, the Cowgirl Creamery is known throughout Northern California for their handmade, artisanal cheeses. Every Friday morning, the creamery hosts a tour in the refurbished barn that houses Tomalas Bay Foods. Having gotten a late start to our morning, we arrived just in time for the tour, which led by ex-park ranger Nan Haynes.

The word 'tour' is a bit of a misnomer; the 'tour' consists of a presentation giving a brief overview of the making of cheese along with a sampling of their products. Part of the presentation involved a short demo of the cheese making process, in which Karen and I were selected to assist Nan (mainly because we sat at the end of the table closest to the demo cart due to our tardy arrival). While Karen stirred a bowl of organic milk from Straus Family Dairy, I drizzled in some rennet, which immediately coagulated the milk. It was very cool to see how quickly the milk separated into curds and whey, though admittedly we used far more rennet than would be used in practice. In the actual process, the curds are scooped up and put into perforated plastic molds, which are pressed together to force out more of the liquidy whey - you can find more details on their website.

We sampled seven different cheeses during the tasting, including four fresh cheeses and three aged ones. The first fresh cheese was their clabbered cottage cheese. I normally despise cottage cheese - it's a texture thing. But, I figured that I would give it another try. To Karen's surprise (and my own), it was actually okay, though I'm not positive that I would actually pay money for it at the grocery store. Next, we tried some fromage blanc, which is their version of cream cheese, followed by a sample of their crème fraîche. Both of these cheeses were very tasty. The final fresh cheese was a paneer, a cheese used extensively in Indian cooking. We both loved the paneer, enough to purchase a container at the end of the tour.

While the creamery's fresh cheeses were delicious, they are known better for their aged cheeses. The first aged cheese we sampled was the seasonal St. Pat, a double-cream cheese made with stinging nettles leaves, which are in season around the middle of March - hence the name. Next came the Mt. Tam, their award-winning triple-cream, which was followed by the final cheese of the day, the Red Hawk, the Best in Show winner at the 2003 American Cheese Society annual conference. All of the aged cheese were fabulous, especially the full-flavored Red Hawk. We added a round of the St. Pat to the shopping cart, as we figured that we could get either the Mt. Tam or Red Hawk year-round.

After completing our purchase, we packed the cheese into the cooler and took a short drive up California Highway 1 to our next destination, the Hog Island Oyster Company farm (20215 Coast Highway One, Marshall; 415-663-9218). Having visited the oyster farm last year, we were excited that we had the opportunity to make a return trip. The fun thing about the oyster farm is that you can purchase a variety of oysters, which have been fresh harvested from Tomalas Bay, and shuck them right there yourself in their picnic area. Shucking an oyster is pretty straightforward: hold the oyster with a gloved hand (gloves are provided), insert the oyster knife (also provided) between the top and bottom shells at the hinge at the back, and then run the knife around the oyster to cut through the muscle holding the shells together:

Then, twist the blade of the knife to separate the shells (carefully so that you don't lose any of the briny liquor inside), lift off the top shell, and voilà:

To be honest, it does take some practice to perfect the shucking technique. During our first visit, it took us a long time to open each oyster, but I guess that practice makes perfect, as we were able to shuck the oysters in rapid succession this time. You need to do trial-and-error to figure out the amount of force that you need in order to insert the blade - you definitely need to force it between the shells.

That afternoon, we started off our lunch with a dozen Sweetwater oysters (pictured above). We fired up a grill (several are available at the picnic area) and took turns shucking the oysters. After the charcoal was ready, we threw on some Beddar than Cheddar sausages that we picked up to accompany the oysters. The combination of cheese-laden sausages and fresh oysters, washed down with some Bordeaux that we picked up a few weeks ago, hit the spot.

After finishing off the first round of oysters, we were ready for some more. I went back, picked up a half-dozen Kumamotos and, after asking what went well on the grill, a couple of Cowboy oysters. The Cowboys were massive, easily several times larger than the Kumamotos and roughly the size of my hand. We put the Cowboys on the grill for about 10 minutes or so, shucked them, and slurped them down with the Kumamotos. For a size comparison, check out the Kumamoto sandwiched between the Cowboys:

After all of the sausages and oysters, we were pretty stuffed (especially after the Cowboys). Once we polished off the last Kumamoto, we packed up the cooler, loaded up the car, and proceeded on the drive up to our weekend destination. It was definitely a good way to start our restful and relaxing weekend getaway.