Maine Oyster Roundup

Feb 22, 2010

Last summer I got to taste oysters from up and down the Maine coast for a piece in Down East magazine. In case you missed the piece, here’s the scoop:

As a semi-professional oyster eater, I get asked to taste all sorts of oysters in all sorts of seasons. Generally, I would greet a request to eat a variety of oysters in July with all the enthusiasm I reserve for root canals. I’ve encountered some very bad bivalves in summer. The season is the reason: Oysters reproduce in summer, when water temperatures peak. As they convert their energy reserves to gamete, they tend to taste a little, well, gamy. In fall, however, they fatten up for hibernation, filling their bodies with savory amino acids and sweet starches. That’s why a November oyster is so firm and delicious, and a July oyster generally isn’t.

Fortunately, Maine is an exception to the rule, for summer waters in Maine are of a temperature that most of the rest of the country might consider more appropriate for November. The oysters certainly seem to. In Maine they often don’t attempt to reproduce at all, instead staying quite tasty—as I found in a sampling of the amazing oysters coming out of the chilly estuaries down east. While the flavor was full, the brine was surprisingly low—no doubt a side-effect of the soggy summer we New Englanders have been enduring. With oysters, as with wine, part of the pleasure is the novelty and surprise that every season brings.

Norumbega
A newcomer to the Maine oyster scene, though grower Eric Peters is no newbie when it comes to aquaculture. He’s been doing it for many years, and it shows in his Norumbegas, which had the perfect yin shape and deep, smooth cups every oyster grower dreams about. The salinity of Norumbegas is surprisingly light for a Damariscotta River oyster, the flavor intriguingly tangy. A good choice for those who prefer milder oysters.

Winter Point
A longtime favorite of mine, Winter Points hail from Mill Cove, near Bath. They are always sweet and very salty—in fact, these were the briniest of the twelve oysters I tasted. These  summer oysters were a little thin-bodied and thin-shelled, and noticeably tannic and astringent. In winter they are fat and firm, and available only because the growers cut through the ice of Mill Cove to retrieve them from the bottom.

Glidden Point
Glidden Points are the definitive Maine oysters, the standard bearers. Barb Scully has been keeping those standards high for more than twenty years, using sustainable harvesting methods and letting the oysters grow slowly deep in the Damariscotta River, one of the cleanest and coldest estuaries in the country. A slow-grown oyster develops a thick, heavy shell—one of the defining features of Glidden Points. Like most Damariscotta oysters, Glidden Points are always light and clean flavored. These July oysters were also a bit watery and translucent—signs of a listless summer oyster.

Pemaquids
I often have trouble telling Pemaquids and Glidden Points apart. They grow cheek-by-jowl in the Damariscotta River, and both tend to have large, strong, dapper, black-and-white shells and crisp, succulent flavor. This time, however, the Pemaquids stood out. The oyster meats were full, firm, and ivory-colored, the most like a November oyster at its zenith. The classic seashore aroma was tinged with violets.

Dodge Cove
A Maine institution, Dodge Cove was one of the first oyster farms in Maine and has been going strong for more than thirty years. Another Damariscotta River oyster, the summer Dodge Coves had a remarkable sweet-and-sour-citrus flavor and a restrained brine. The lovely shells were dappled with interesting pastel colors, which show up quite a bit in oysters from down south but are a rarity in Maine.

Gay Island
Unusual oysters grown in the open ocean south of Cushing Harbor, Gay Islands are a real treat. With no real freshwater influence, Gay Islands have a light, clean North Atlantic flavor that comes from the fully marine environment and the fact that they are grown in floating trays on the surface. They can be intensely briny, like getting buried in the surf while bodysurfing, but they also can be sweet and mouthwatering. They’d be my choice with a Maine ale. Many Maine oysters come from the same broodstock and have a notable black stripe on the top shell; Gay Islands serve as their own broodstock and are genetically unique—pale tan shells, layered like phyllo.

Wawenauk
Another Damariscotta doppelganger for Glidden Points or Pemaquids, Wawenauks are big, heavy, thick-shelled, and full-flavored, with bright lemon-zest notes. These were a touch soft and mushy, but that should go away in fall/winter.

Flying Point
Lightweights of the oyster world, these had nice flavor and perfect salinity but were small, almost transparent, and quite innocuous. They didn’t hold their liquor well and had no body at all. Another year in the water and they might be quite good indeed. The size might be good for oyster novices, but discerning eaters will move on to more robust Maine offerings.

Wiley Point
An engaging sweet-and-sour flavor in this bottom-cultured Damariscotta oyster, and surprisingly low salt; the Damariscotta was getting inundated with fresh water that summer. The small size makes them appealing to those intimidated by the burly Glidden Points, Pemaquids, and Wawenauks.

Taunton Bay
Taunton Bay is a tidal basin north of Acadia National Park with a very restricted opening to the sea. It’s also relatively shallow, meaning that at certain sun-baked times the water can warm right up and phytoplankton in the bay can really get cooking. This rich food supply is probably responsible for the yummy, buttery Chardonnay qualities of Taunton Bay oysters, as well as for the thin shells and shallow cups. These oysters are growing a little too fast for their own good, reaching market size (three inches long) before they’ve had a chance to “cup up” or reinforce their shells. I trust the growers will soon get this worked out, and I can’t wait. With such full flavor, balanced brine, and unique terroir, Taunton Bays are oysters to watch.

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