Stanley Moss samples some of the freshest food that the sea has to offer, and finds the perfect wines to accompany them, in two very different locations, tied by the heritage of their names: Inverness, California, and Scrabster, Scotland
photographed by Paula Sweet
Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
Back in 2012, Lucire reported to readers on the little luxuries to be discovered in Tomales Bay, California, specifically the splendour of local oysters found there. In the intervening years conditions have changed for the oysters, with a shrinking world population.
Recently, well meaning activists forced the shutdown of the retail store at Inverness’s Drake’s Bay Oyster Farm, a fixture of the community for a half-century, renowned for succulent Pacifics, and a company which furnishes 40 per cent of all the oysters produced in the state of California. A strange coalition of environmentalists, the Sierra Club, politicians and moneyed newcomers in collusion with government bureaucracies managed to cancel the farm’s lease, a decision largely unpopular with residents, not to mention the end of livelihood for a dozen families, and to the disappointment of a cadre of restauranteurs and aficionados. Subsequently an advocacy group has filed yet another lawsuit with the US Supreme Court to protest this action.
We made a visit to Drake’s Bay on the last day that their retail store was open, sampled a dozen of the half-shells opened before our very eyes, and exchanged a poignant hug with Nancy Lunny, a member of the family who owns the farm. We stood at the water’s edge, staring out at the pristine landscape, gobbling down the oysters, rich in the flavour of the sea, tender and gelatinous, garlanded with a dash of homemade mignonette. For the slowest food available you must seek out the source, and Drake’s Bay was just that. A rare opportunity which may disappear, go while you can. May they remain open, may we continue to profit from their bounty of the bay.
We had the opportunity to sleep at Osprey Peak Bed & Breakfast, a three-room zen-style inn tucked into a cypress grove on a hillside just beyond the hamlet of Inverness. Quiet, elemental, totally comfortable, with every modern convenience, the property stands far away from the main road, yet accessible to all the local landmarks. On arrival, innkeeper Nancy set out a table in a clearing, steps from the front entrance, with a platter of local cheeses, condiments and bread, accented by seasonal fruits, accompanied by glasses of Beaulieu Coastal Cabernet. The simplicity and elegance of the display and the gesture epitomize the property. This tranquil retreat may appear austere, but the breakfast table (included in room rate) features a bevy of fresh cut fruits, house-made granola, and other specialties, ordered the night before from a detailed menu. During your meal you can watch hundreds of hummingbirds zipping about the adjacent terrace sampling at suspended feeders. Their thrumming may be the only extraneous sound you hear beyond the whooshing of the pines close at hand. You’re guaranteed a deep sleep in a comfortable bed, a graceful awakening, not to mention a discreet and private refuge to return to after your day of activity. Highly recommended, but reserve early.
Nature watching, hiking, kayaking and small craft-sailing complement rich dining possibilities around Tomales Bay. We stopped back into Nick’s Cove in Marshall, intending to put away a quick dozen Kumamotos, but we couldn’t stop, and next ordered half-dozens three different ways: Mornay, BBQ and Rockefeller, washed down with a delicious New Zealand sauvignon blanc. A wonderful interlude resulting in 30 empty half-shells, after which we remembered the Walrus and the Carpenter: ‘They’d eaten every one.’ Chef Austin Perkins continues to tantalize guests with seafood offerings worthy of your attention. And Lucire also recommends a night in any of Nick’s eccentric cabins on the water.
Back in Inverness we had the distinct pleasure of a world-class meal at Saltwater, Luc Chamberland’s celebrated restaurant just across the street from the southern shoreline where the hull of a beached fishing boat can be viewed. Think Slow Food Marin-style, with a great wine list of west coast luminaries, and outstanding French and Italian bottles thrown in for good measure. We chose a bottle of classic chablis, Domaine Chantemerle, a 2010 burgundy, which paired perfectly with our dozen Hog Island Kumamotos shucked by the owner himself. Next we moved over to chef Ryan Cantwell’s rustic fare: sweet Brentwood corn soup accessorized by a refreshing and surprising mint relish. As a main course, wild Oregon coho salmon, set on a foundation of white bean ragout, accompanied by a soft farm egg (genius!), olive relish and roasted watermelon radishes. For dessert we tried the Double 8 Meyer lemon gelato, delicate and not sweet, served with a Scottish shortbread, clairvoyantly prefiguring our next destination. Hard to believe there is such a lively place out at the end of the highway, but Saltwater’s a destination restaurant deserving of its great reputation. We enjoyed the optimum of hospitality and fine preparation, and recommend adding this establishment into your travel plan. But again, reservations a must, and understandably so.
Several weeks later, we found ourselves halfway around the world, at the very top of the Scottish mainland in the harbour city of Scrabster, waiting for a ferry to take us across to the Orkney Islands for a visit to the Ring of Brodgar. Down south in the Edinburgh area you undoubtedly could locate some exciting culinary choices, but off into the hinterlands the delectability quotient drops precipitously. The one great barometer of quality might be fish and chips, the ubiquitous equivalent to fast food in the UK. Here we were at yet another shore almost 5,000 miles away from Tomales Bay, zero food miles from the source. Thus, we were fortunate to identify a compact and unmarked takeaway stand next to the Captain’s Galley seafood restaurant which faces the ferry terminal.
There we discovered owner Jim Cowie dipping freshly filleted haddock pieces in hand-made batter, delicately placing the pieces in a bubbling vat of superheated palm oil. The result was beyond reproach: the finest fish and chips ever sampled, feathery, light, flavourful, and for good reason. Jim’s a proponent of Slow Food, and had purchased the haddock that very morning at the harbour, directly from the fisherman who caught it. We learned that the adjacent restaurant he operates with wife Mary in a repurposed ice house originally constructed in the 1700s is known for the freshest, finest fish in the region.
Scrabster is the “gateway port” where fishing boats land their catches from some of the richest fishing grounds in the world. But was this pescatory discovery evidence of a consistent experience or simply a fluke? Several days later, on our return from Orkney we disembarked and headed straight back to the the Captain’s Galley for a return engagement. Again we found Jim at the same fryer, but recommending today’s catch of the day, hake: delectable, flaky, sweet to the palate. Impossible to resist! We next ordered battered Highland langoustines, and doused them with malt vinegar and sea salt. They disappeared in less than 120 seconds. It proves once again that a voyage to the source, whether here or there, pays the highest culinary dividends. Look to the shore, traveller, and rewards always follow. •
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