Baja Part I

About a year ago I took a trip to southern Baja to surf and begin my investigation into the Baja oyster industry. I have been captivated by the region since first discovering the story of two guys named Mark and The Jolly Oyster. While most of the oyster culture is located in Bays in the middle of Baja, there is some interesting oyster-related history and industry in Baja California Sur as well.

First evidence of oysters came on the beaches around Todos Santos, about 75 km north of Cabo San Lucas on the Pacific coast. While unable to find any live samples, shells were plentiful, ranging in size from about 3’’-6’’. With little local information available, I headed to La Paz, the economic hub of the region, for more information.

I was told these wild oysters were probably Pteria sterna, locally referred to as ostiones de piedra. Traditionally harvested and cultured for pearls, they belong to a different order of bivalve, Pterioida, than the “true” oysters usually available in the U.S. These oysters are generally much larger and do not lend themselves very well to any restaurant applications. They are also highly seasonal. During my recent visit to a large seafood purveyor in La Paz they offered only cultured Pacific oysters on the half shell or cooked. I was told they were from San Carlos in Magdalena Bay.

Gigas  in La Paz, B.C.S.

Gigas in La Paz, B.C.S.

I had one, but was a little put off by the preparation. The oysters looked beautiful before they were shucked, heavy and cold. The oysters were shucked with a small machete-style knife. The shucker held the oyster by the hinge, and smacked the thin bill with the back of the knife. This produced an opening into which he inserted the knife and detached the top shell. He then cut the muscle on the bottom shell freeing the meat. This violent approach along with the unwieldiness of the knife produced a scrambled mess of oyster and shell. This was remedied by a wash under the tap, the shucked handling and cleaning the oyster meat before placing it once again in the cupped shell. Given that the liquor is the most cherished part of the experience, I was a little disappointed by the dull, chemical notes of heavily chlorinated tap water.

Shucked, scrambled, and rinsed. Magdalena Bay  gigs  in La Paz, B.C.S.

Shucked, scrambled, and rinsed. Magdalena Bay gigs in La Paz, B.C.S.

Pearls were a major draw since the beginning of European contact when Cortes arrived on the peninsula in 1535. Some credit the native pearl oysters were the initial draw for Europeans to relocating to southern Baja. While the wild stocks have long since been decimated by overharvesting and disease, a robust aquaculture industry in La Paz and the surrounding bays has developed to satisfy a global demand for black pearls.

For related aquaculture interest, La Paz is also home to several tuna ranching operations. These consist of large (300-400m across) submarine geodesic domes used to contain tuna of various sizes after they have been removed from the wild. According to a 2005 report from Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi, “Waters in the Bay of La Paz are considered the best in the world for tuna ranching.” Much of this investment has come from Donshui, a Japanese subsidiary of Mitsubishi. Thus, nearly all of the tuna goes straight to Japan.  Quite controversial given the environmental toll of containing tuna and the destination of the product. Yet another unfortunate example of the polarizing nature the globalized seafood industry, which takes advantage of resources in developed countries to satisfy insatiable demand in wealthy countries..

Another popular item in La Paz were large clams, later discovered to be almejas chocolatas or chocolate clams, so named for their uniform brown color. They are completely diver harvested in coastal lagoons on boths sides of Baja and further down the Pacific coast. They are pretty versatile given their large size and I saw them served raw, stuffed, roasted, or grilled.

Finally, I didn’t get to see any, but I was talking with a chef from San Diego who told me about rumors of geoduck in or around Magdalena Bay in the middle of Baja’s Pacific coast. Whether anyone is currently culturing them was unclear. Subject for further investigation. Mexico Part II coming soon to feature Ensenada and some of the large growing bays to the south.