What Are 'Reserve Oysters,' and Why Are Chefs in Love with Them?
As far back as he can remember, Neal Maloney wanted to work in the water. At five, he recalls watching fishermen dive the tide pools near Mendocino, California; at 35, the goateed marine biologist and oyster farmer has far surpassed his childhood aspirations.
Maloney, who founded Morro Bay Oyster Company on California's Central Coast ten years ago, has since garnered a reputation for selling some of the most prized oysters on the West Coast. His Pacific Golds, reared on floating long lines in the mineral-rich, aquifer-infused cold waters of Morro Bay, have graced the menus in the dining rooms of Restaurant Daniel, Pacific Table in Texas and David LeFevre’s Fishing with Dynamite in Manhattan Beach.
Maloney has come a long way, from overseeing Tomales Bay Oyster Company’s Morro Bay operation in his early twenties, to buying the farm at just twenty-five years old, selling his shells on the side of the highway and through local farmers markets. Today, he supplies some of the best chefs across the U.S. But, like a small slew of West Coast oyster farmers, Maloney keeps pushing forward with cutting-edge technology—including the West Coast's second depuration system that filters out stormwater runoff through the rainy season—and an innovative tide-tumbling technique for his Pacific Gold Reserves.
Maloney is newer to this tide-tumbling, or self-tipping, game than some other West Coast farmers. Chelsea Farms released its tumbled Chelsea Gems a decade ago, Hama Hama’s Blue Pools have been around for about five years, and Hog Island has been selling its seasonally-available tumbled Earthquakes for around three. But Maloney has managed to forge a marriage between the latest growing technology while remaining unusually small and boutique.
“It’s really hard for small farms to make the transition,” says Hog Island Oyster Co. co-founder John Finger, who has been buying stock from Maloney for about a decade. “Neal saw the writing on the wall.”
Maloney just started releasing batches of his Reserves in the past few months. Kind of like the premium bottles produced by wineries around the world, these tide-tumbled oysters are a step above Maloney’s usual crop. The Bay’s natural currents are used to flip and jostle the bags of bivalves to create a more dependable size and shape with deeper cups and more flavorful meat, offering the level of quality and consistently chefs and diners often seek.
Many of his longtime customers have been clamoring for more. "I feel like a drug dealer," says the marine biologist. "It's like, 'Hey, man, when can I get some more?'"
Those deep cuts are more aesthetically pleasing and the plump, meaty oysters they hold offer a substantial but not overpowering bite. “I don’t want much more than half a mouthful [of oyster],” says Australian-born celebrity chef Curtis Stone, who received his first batch of Pacific Gold Reserves in the past couple weeks. “That’s why I love what Neal’s done. He’s grown this deep cup with a small, delicate oyster.”.
At Gwen, Stone’s Hollywood fire-based fine-dining concept, he’s serving those shell au naturel with just mignonette and lemon. For his new Central Coast-inspired tasting menu at Maude in Beverly Hills, Stone and executive chef Justin Hilbert are offering the Reserves in a shellfish platter along with Santa Barbara uni and California spot prawns with little to no adornments to mimic the experience of eating oysters on Maloney’s barge in Morro Bay.
Just last week, Daniel Boulud suggested that several of his chefs feature Maloney’s Pacific Gold Reserves on Dinex Group menus from New York City to Washington D.C. and Florida.
To understand why these oysters are getting such rave reviews from chefs, you’ve got to look at the technology behind them. When oysters are allowed to grow on their own, they have a tendency to clump together in clusters, growing outward in a linear fashion. That habit of fanning out creates a shallower cup with a new layer of crinkly shell around the edges as each layer forms, what’s known as frill in the industry.
Starting in the 1980s, West Coast operations, like Hog Island, began raising single-seed oysters, smaller bivalves with higher quality meat. Those shells would be placed in a tray or bag set on the floor of tidal bays, where they’d be covered by water for most of the day, exposed to air for a period of time. (Eighty percent underwater, twenty percent air is the ideal formula, according to research Maloney saw early in his career.)
This old bottom culture method is still the predominant means of oyster farming on the West Coast. That’s how Maloney’s Morro Bay neighbors at Grassy Bar Oyster Co. rear their excellent mineral-rich crop. It’s how Tomales Bay Oyster Company grow many of theirs. But this system is physically arduous for farmers, and it’s difficult to grow the consistent size and shape that many chefs and customers have come to favor.
The bivalves on the side of the bag where the tide comes in have better access to the plankton on which they feed, helping them to grow faster and creating a discrepancy in size. Farmers have to manually flip the bags, generally filled with 60 meat-filled shells, to counteract variance. Maloney injured his back flipping bags at the ripe age of 24.
Tide tumbling or self-tipping, while more expensive to set up and requiring diligent oversight (floats can easily drift away), allows the tides to do the back-breaking work for farmers.
But the benefits of self-tipping go well beyond the ease of labor and more consistent size and shape. The float system allowed Taylor Shellfish Farms and Hog Island Oyster Co. to grow oysters on their tidelines that were previously deemed unusable due to overly soft mudflats and protected sea grasses. Maloney’s expansion into tide tumbling gave him the ability to expand his acreage into an area that has mud so soft, you sink in to your knees within seconds. He’s currently in the process of getting another five acres approved for tumbling by the California Coastal Commission.
Most importantly, tide tumbling has shown a huge improvement in the flavor of the meat that is widely admired for its propensity to take on the flavors and nuance of the surrounding aquatic environment, known as "merroir."
“I used to say how you grow your oysters makes very little difference,” says Finger. “The idea of tipping has totally changed the equation: the farming technique now can have as big of a difference on the flavor as the place.”
The theory is that, like wine grapes, a bit of stress improves the quality. These oysters develop a sweeter flavor and denser texture because they are forced to put their energy into building a better shell. “The more you stress an oyster, the more you reserve its glycogen,” says Maloney. “That’s why they turn out to be a little bit sweeter.”
Maloney’s Reserves possess stronger aromas of green melon and an overall cleaner ocean-like flavor than his original Pacific Golds, which get their unique sweet and briny aromas from the rain that trickles through the surrounding volcanic rock into nearby aquifers.
Each farm uses its own tide-tumbling system suited to the individual area. Maloney spent countless hours surveying his farm to figure out the best way to construct a tide tumbling system. He uses steel clips to attach his bags along a high-tension wire fastened to floats that rise up and down with the current.
“A good part of what’s amazing about these oysters is Neal himself,” says longtime customer David Lefevre, chef-owner at Fishing With Dynamite, M.B. Post and The Arthur J. in Manhattan Beach, California. “He’s trying to create a higher quality, more consistent oyster without taking away from the soulfulness of it.”