Oyster Drive

FEATURE-March 2011
Written by Sandy Lang
Photographs by Peter Frank Edwards

Take a flight into Portland, and power directly north on some combination of Route 1 and I-95 to the cabin near Bucksport. That’s what we typically do—but not this time. It was a mid-December morning, snow was coming, and it was just days before many of the oystermen would be hauling in their boats and gear for the season. (Some harvest year-round. Others are typically back out on the water in March or April.) That’s how our “Oyster Drive” was born.

 

Weather and season made it suddenly more than a fleeting idea. Finding oysters was elevated to a personal mission—something necessary, even urgent. As winter crept up from the floorboards of the rented Toyota, every oyster we could find would be that much more precious. We mapped out a plan to skip I-95 and stick to the coast, seeking roadside views of the tidal beds and washes where the oysters grow, and making stops along the way at towns, coves, rivers, islands. We wanted to taste again the salt and quiver of the Maine oyster, and get our fill as close as possible to the chilled tides. The gas tank was full, we had the Maine Atlas and Gazetteer by our side, and we had a starter list of oyster destinations in hand. Check. Check. Check. Off we went.

 

day one: edgecomb to spruce head

An hour or so north of Portland, if you hang a right off of Route 1 at Newcastle (love a town with a beer name), you’ll eventually find the Glidden Point Oyster Sea Farm. It’s on the southern end of River Road, past five rolling miles of woods, barns, and short side roads that end at the Damariscotta River below. The primary feature at Glidden Point is a tidy walk-in shed where oysters and clams are arrayed in bins in glass-door coolers, and payment is by cash or check (on the honor system). Sometimes wetsuits are drip-drying on the porch rail. Owner Barb Scully’s teenaged children help her harvest the oysters, which can involve diving ten to forty feet below the surface of the Damariscotta. On that day of bare-limbed trees and fast-falling snow, Barb was in the yard dressed in a black Grunden’s jacket, blue jeans, and suede boots. She has a degree in zoology and has been oystering on the Damariscotta for more than two decades. “It’s a very productive estuary,” she says.
I’ve tasted the oysters she harvests, thick shelled and heavy after growing in cold water. Maine oysters like Glidden Points are known for their complex flavor—sweet and briny—that Barb says comes from the oysters’ storing energy as glycogen to adapt to wintertime. I’m interested in this bit of science, since I’ve lived much of my life on the South Carolina coast where the oysters grow much faster in warm, silty creeks. Southern oysters are deliciously familiar to me, but an experience very different from the crisp and clean, firmer-textured oysters of Maine.

It was time for lunch. We drove back up the five miles toward Route 1, where the Damariscotta River cuts between the towns of Damariscotta and Newcastle. Oysters are literally part of the landscape here, with massive heaps of oyster shells—built up over the centuries by Native Americans—still lining the river’s banks. Jed Weiss mentioned the middens at some point in our conversation at cozy King Eider’s Pub, where we had slid into a narrow room upstairs to sit at the two-stool raw bar. Weiss is one of the pub’s owners and was opening Dodge Cove oysters one by one using a built-in shucking tool created by the restaurant’s founders. As he worked with the glistening oysters, the legendary Damariscotta could be seen out the window. “On a good day,” he said, “you can almost see the lease where these oysters come from, just a mile down the river.”

That first dozen went down easy. Back outside, flurries blew, passing cars braked and slipped, and the snow blanket was getting thicker on Main Street, which is lined with brick-façade stores and cafes. I thought of the nearby midden banks, now certainly covered in white. We ducked into the original Reny’s for some road-trip gear, and the sixty-one-year-old department store didn’t fail us. In Reny’s Underground we picked up American-made wool caps for $3.99 and cotton utility gloves for $1.14 a pair—perfect for oyster shucking. Next stop would be the Newcastle Publick House, where two watermen sat at the bar with not-so-faint diesel fumes lingering on their coats. While tourists love this slice of midcoast Maine, it’s also still a fishing town. I like that. We sat at a table by the fireplace and ordered a plate of  “Angry Al’s” Oysters—baked jumbo Pemaquid singles topped with bacon, spinach, Gorgonzola cheese, and hot sauce.

Then, like it was destiny, oysterman and musician Jeff “Smokey” McKeen walked in, ruddy faced and in a red-plaid wool coat, his wild silver hair blown tall by the wind. Smokey plays button accordion and banjo with the Celtic folk band Old Grey Goose, and would be difficult to miss on his travels up and down the coast delivering the Pemaquid Oyster Company oysters he harvests from the Damariscotta River. He says they’re “the best, most plump, and sweetest.” And the taste of the Angry Al’s version? The house-made hot sauce gave it a good kick, and the blue cheese added twang. But beneath the preparation, Smokey’s oysters held their own.

We talked some more of music and oysters and then needed to keep moving. I called ahead to Barrett Lynde of Gay Island Oysters, and we agreed to meet at a dock past Maple Juice Cove, near the end of the Cushing peninsula. “The bridge at Salt Pond is closed,” he’d told me, “so you’ll have to come a different way.” (Fitting to talk of directions…Lynde was formerly a cartographer.) We found him waiting near the dock he uses to ferry his oysters from Gay Island, where his parents built a house and boathouse years ago, and where he says he can harvest all year because the oysters are grown with ocean water continually flowing past, never freezing. Gay Island oysters are known for a pure ocean taste. We walked down to the boat to see some of his oysters in different ages and sizes, and to select some to take on the road. The shells of the oldest, at least three years and older, are naturally tinted green and purple. As the sun began setting over the cove, conversation turned to the years and patience needed for a life of oystering. And we started to shiver.

One more peninsula up the coast was the last destination of the day. When we pulled in to the Craignair Inn and Restaurant, we could see through the window a fire in the fireplace. We would sleep well tonight, but first we would dine on a few more oysters. The chef, Chris Seiler, was more than game to serve up some Pemaquids. (An admitted oyster fan, he says he saves the tag from every bushel of oysters he uses.) He went all out: oyster stew, oysters Bienville, oysters Rockefeller, and oysters on the half shell with a mignonette. It was a feast in small courses. Oysters Rockefeller is a house specialty, and reportedly one summer guest said Seiler’s Pernod-drenched version is so good that she wanted “to bathe in it.”

 


day two: spruce head to north haven

In the morning, we were back in the Craignair dining room bright and early for blueberry pancakes and bacon, and then we picked up the quest again with vigor, continuing on down the St. George peninsula. If I were an oyster, I would happily live in the rocky environs of Tenants Harbor and Port Clyde, but we found no oyster action there. (We remembered seeing a handmade OYSTERS sign in a yard on the peninsula a few years ago, but when we asked around, folks said they didn’t know of anyone harvesting anymore.) After stopping for a good cup of coffee at the Port Clyde General Store, we drove on to Rockland. Primo wasn’t open yet for the evening, and although the renowned restaurant typically closes from January through May, in peak season the upstairs bar has a following for its dollar oyster nights. Sometimes they even have Belons, the flatter, rounder European oysters that Julia Child wrote of eating in Provence and that were introduced to Maine waters in the 1950s. I’ve seen more than one local make a sour face and say they taste “just like a penny,” but the last time I had Belons I remember liking the striking metallic flavor. And the shells were so pretty I couldn’t throw them out.

I remembered something else too…having tasted North Haven oysters on a recent visit to the Oyster Bar, underground at Grand Central Station in New York. That memory led to our next move: buying tickets for the last ferry of the day to the island, due east in Penobscot Bay. With tickets in hand, we spent a couple hours doing a bit more oyster research. At RAYR, a wine shop and espresso bar in Rockport that is also a gallery for local fine furniture, I asked for a bottle that would go well with fresh oysters. Owner Jason Haynes walked straight to a 2009 Muscadet-Sevre et Maine. I liked his decisiveness—and his fishermen’s sweater. We bought the bottle and saved it for later. Our next stop was snug Rockport Harbor, with its wooden boat builders and iconic red boathouse over the water. Shepherd’s Pie is in a tall brick building above, and I had heard good things about the restaurant, which was opened last year by chef Brian Hill of Francine Bistro in Camden. At a few minutes past 4 p.m., we were the first customers inside and took up stools at the long bar, not far from the flames of the wood-fired oven. They serve roasted oysters at Shepherd’s Pie, something I hadn’t yet seen in Maine. (Oyster roasts are a winter tradition in South Carolina.) That’s our order, please. In a few minutes, out they came, roasted not in their shells but each in its own cup in an escargot plate, drenched in garlic butter and white wine. It was a bubbling hot mix of Paris and Pemaquids, and I loved every bite.

No second rounds, though. The ferry would be chugging off from Rockland Harbor soon. We drove back to the terminal, parked the car for the night, and filed aboard for the seventy-minute crossing. While sitting in the molded-plastic seats, we met Adam Williams, whose tan Carhartt jacket had a mermaid embroidered on the back—the logo of the North Haven Oyster Company. The owner and founder of the business, the guy’s also a good storyteller. As the boat engine hummed, he told us the roundabout way he got into oystering: growing up on the then-polluted Hudson River in New York, seeing an ad for Maine boatbuilding, making his way to Rockport, and then getting a job on schooners instead. Eventually, Williams ended up on North Haven for work and met the woman who would become his wife, Michelle, who is a North Haven native. She’d be picking him up at the landing that night. Would we like a ride up the hill to the Nebo Lodge? With the snow and darkness settling in, we took him up on the offer.

 

day three: north haven to belfast to the cabin

Decorated in the blues and whites of clouds and surf, the Lodge was a comfortable place to rest. We had the place nearly to ourselves, and we made our own dinner and breakfast in the microwave. (When the restaurant at Nebo is open, in-season and on weekends, there’s plenty of fresh gourmet cooking—and North Haven oysters are a specialty.) By morning, several inches of new snow had fallen. Williams had told us that he and his son Caleb would be going out oystering that morning, and we wanted to check that out before catching the return ferry. Wearing chest waders, the two walked into waist-deep water and filled bags of oysters while the sun climbed higher and glinted off the snow and ice. The white of the snow, the clear light, the frigid water, and the working father-and-son team made an iconic this-is-where-oysters-come-from scene.

Still riding the North Haven high, we hit Rockland with renewed energy for our final stops. At Jess’s Market, we fell in line among the Friday afternoon rush of haddock sales, and we ordered a half-dozen each of the three kinds of oysters in the refrigerator case—Weskeags, Little Islands, and Pemaquids. “Be careful with these Weskeags” the clerk said. “The shells are brittle so you’ve got to finesse them…but they taste good.” (We’d find out later she was right.) Then we trucked up the road to Camden and the Atlantica, where owner and chef Ken Paquin was looking out at the water. He said they had just seen a harp seal—a rarity for the harbor, which buzzes with yachts all summer. At a table overlooking the water, Paquin presented a plate of chilled Pemaquid oysters on a bed of seaweed, served up in a classic peppercorn-and-shallot mignonette with a few pomegranate seeds in each shell. It was lovely. And with a few sips from a split of Prosecco, those were a particularly delicious few minutes in the waning hours of our self-paced tour.

But we couldn’t linger. With the Bucksport cabin in our sights, we continued purposefully up the Penobscot Bay coast on Route 1, past Lincolnville Beach and Ducktrap Harbor. Down on the Belfast waterfront, we made a brief libation run to the Marshall Wharf Brewing Company. I was hoping they would have some of the molasses-black Pemaquid Oyster Stout, and they did, on tap for sample cups and growler filling. The Three Tides next door wasn’t open yet for the evening, but that’s where I first tasted icy Pemaquids a few years ago, and where I have ordered them on every return trip since, often followed or preceded by a plate of their Swedish meatballs—not sure why, but it works.

Now, here’s the capper. We’ve got a good-sized Franklin stove in the center of our place near Bucksport. When we got there with our sacks of oysters in hand, we lit a fire and finally opened that bottle of Muscadet. We sliced a lemon, spooned out some biting horseradish cocktail sauce, and shucked most of the Gay Islands, Weskeags, Pemaquids, and Little Islands for final tastes. Then, when the coals were glowing hot, we roasted the rest of the unopened ones for a second course, right there on the Maine logs. Contentment filled the room. In three days we had tried oysters from at least seven different farmers or harvesters, met more good people than I could count, and expanded our grasp of midcoast geography. It was time to close the Gazetteer and seek something else: sweet sleep.

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