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Most serious ostreaphiles have come across Glidden Points, the standardbearer against which all eastern oysters must be measured. For more than 25 years, back before oysters were hipsters, Barb Scully has farmed perfect specimens in her enviable Damariscotta River leases in Maine. Perfect means: 3.5 inches, deep cup, strong shell, intense brine balanced by rich, savory, lingering sweetness. You can count on that from any Glidden Point Select, but few people have had the chance to differentiate between Barb’s individual leases.
Barb Scully actually farms four different lease sites on the Damariscotta, each having unique bathymetry. Some are really deep, some shallow; some warmer, some colder, and all have different currents and different bottom consistency. All of that, of course, shows up in the physicality of the oysters. Barb sells oysters from all her leases simply as Glidden Points, but she has always set aside the best of the best for friends and connoisseurs. Recently, I had the sublime pleasure of tasting through these “single-vineyard” reserves at Mine Oyster, the all-star oyster bar in Boothbay Harbor that has become the most reliable place in the country to find great Glidden Points. Below are Barb’s own descriptions of her three best sites, with my tasting notes at the end in italics. If you’re fortunate, you might be able to single some out in your next Glidden Point order. Bon app.
Grown on my most shallow lease. The substrate is clay and sand, and the depth is in the 1-12 foot range. They are fed by phytoplankton blooms in the shallow waters of the upper Damariscotta River and Great Salt Bay. The growth rate here is extremely fast, but the icing in the winter can be severe due to the shallow depths, which can push the oysters down into the clay/sand bottom and slow the growth. This makes the oysters on this lease vary greatly in their growth rates, as the ones at the surface grow quickly with easy access to food and current, and the ones pushed into the clay and sand grow slowly as all their metabolic needs must be filtered through a thick layer of clay and sand. These oysters are free of barnacles because they are usually covered with silt or clay, and super white and clean once they are purged and cleaned for market.
Notes: The daintiest of the three, in size and shell. Intense, mouth-filling umami savoriness, with a touch of katsuobushi smokiness. Extraordinary.
Grown on my deepest lease, from 20-40 feet. The substrate here varies from clay to shell hash, but the cold temperatures slow the growth rate considerably, meaning these oysters take 4-5 years to grow to market size, and usually acquire barnacles during that time. While the barnacles get scraped off post-harvest, the shells usually look dark brown to reddish-brown and retain evidence of the barnacle ‘scars.’ The Glidden Point oysters from these deep, cold waters are possibly the easiest to shuck, as the shell hardness is remarkable and unmatched. These Glidden Points have a deep cup and hardy shelf-life.
Notes: Absolutely perfect shells. Deep, deep cups. These are the mildest in flavor of the three, with full salt but less sweetness and a bit more metal.
These oysters combine the qualities and characteristics of the Newcastle shores and Bristol Shores sites. They are grown in the shallow waters of South Bristol and Edgecomb leases where the water is frigid cold during most of the year, but for a brief time in the summer it is super warm because it is shallow. This produces an oyster of slow growth rate which boasts a deep cup, superb shell hardness, and advanced age (usually 4-6 years old), but super-clean shell with a green tint. These oysters are unbelievably difficult to harvest because they are grown in high current areas, often on shallow ledges, where it is difficult for even an advanced diver to harvest safely. These are my favorite; partially because they are such a challenge to grow and harvest in these extreme conditions, and partially because no one else in the world is doing this, nor in their right mind would even try to do things this way. These are by far the most beautiful oyster I have learned to produce. My pride and joy.
Notes: Amazingly sweet, to balance the concentrated brine. Like a razor clam and corn chowder. There’s a unique brightness to the Ledge flavor. The perfect oyster.
Anyone who’s been lucky enough to attend the annual Mine Oyster oyster parties in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, over the past couple of years knows that it’s pretty much the pinnacle of oyster life. The bivalves, the dishes, the wines, the fun, all for far less money than it should be. The 2014 edition promises to be all that, with an extra kick: The first-ever side-by-side tasting of Barb Scully’s Glidden Point Private Stock. Many aficionados have known Glidden Points for years as the very peak of the oyster pyramid, but on August 16 at Mine Oyster, we’ll get a chance to taste Glidden Points from four different leases, all very different in depth, current, temperature, and nutrient density, and compare the results. Never before, and possibly never again, and that’s just one station in the free-for-all.
Poster with all details here: MineOysterEvent2014
See you there.
Back in February I wrote about a relatively new Alaskan oyster called Glacier Point. Here’s what I said:
For years, I’ve been describing the finish of certain Alaska salmon (especially Kings) as “oystery.” Now, having tasted my first Glacier Point oysters, from Alaska’s Kachemak Bay, I realize that I may have had it backward. The finish of Glacier Points is salmony. But what would you expect from an Alaska oyster? How could the sweet, savory sea essence that defines Alaska NOT get into its greatest foods? From here on out, I will simply describe the flavor of both King salmon and Glacier Point oysters as “Alasky.” And I will seek it out whenever possible, because things taste delicious when they’re Alasky. Glacier Points have a beautiful balance between sweet and salty, to go with that killer finish. They are small and light, but nice and firm inside. Their fine delicacy comes from being a product of suspended culture, and goes against the rough-and-tumble image Alaska likes to present to the world, but if you’ve ever knocked around the 49th state in midsummer, you know there is a dreamlike quality to the place, as if it was made of light instead of matter, so it seems entirely appropriate that each oyster bottles a bit of this.
Kachemak Bay is down at the end of the Kenai Peninsula, right on the edge of Cook Inlet and the Gulf of Alaska. Big country.
No water quality issues here. Kachemak Bay is surrounded by Kachemak Bay State Park, where the bears outnumber the people by a factor of about a hundred to one.
Well, I just so happened to find myself in Alaska last week, and just so happened to make my way down to Kachemak Bay to see what all the fuss was about. The oysters are farmed by Greg and Weatherly Bates:
These guys used to farm Georges River oysters in Maine. Six years ago, they lit out for the territories to have an adventure. And they have. They found one of the more perfect spots on the planet. It’s called Halibut Cove, and it has a year-round population of about 15. More in summer, all in rustic houses on huge pilings (30-foot tides) surrounding said cove, which gives the whole place a Robert-McCloskey-comes-to-Alaska kind of vibe. Ten-year-olds rowing across the cove to pick up the mail at the country’s only floating post office. That kind of thing.
But, this being Alaska, certain things happen that don’t happen in Maine. Weatherly plugged her first bear when she was nine months pregnant and has kept the freezer stocked with bruin meat ever since. Greg occasionally wrestles salmon sharks to the beach when they creep too close to shore. And just before I arrived, Weatherly and the kids were towed around Halibut Cove in their skiff by a giant sockeye salmon.
Their oyster farm is on the edge of the cove, near Glacier Spit, which was the inspiration for their name. (They thought the “spit” part might be problematic.) The massive Grewingk Glacier towers above them. And sea otters play all day around the cages, including one Greg has named Fat Rat, who looks like he’s just itching to get his mitts on their shellfish. (The otters are, in fact, doing so well that they’ve virtually cleaned out Halibut Cove’s clam population.)
The oysters are grown in suspended trays and tumbled to strengthen their shells. Greg and Weatherly are producing about 300,000 a year, which makes them the most successful Alaska oyster farmers of all time. Most people who try oysters in Alaska burn out pretty fast, but Greg is gunning for a million a year and shows no sign of flagging. PLus his oysters are sensational. Take a look at them:
Is it just me, or do they look a little more Eastern than your typical Pacifics? A little more khaki, and with a little less of the dark rim you see on Pacifics? WHatever the case, they definitely have more of that umami brine than almost any Pacifics I’ve tasted, and less of the cucumbery flavors you see in Washington State oysters. And I’ll stick with my initial judgment that there’s a touch of king salmon in them. All in all, great oysters. You can find them all over Homer’s restaurants (best dining scene in Alaska), in Anchorage, at Hog Island Oyster Bar in San Francisco, and, surprisingly, throughout the Northeast, thanks to distribution by Pangaea Shellfish. Next they plan on conquering the West and Midwest.
But wait, there’s mussels, too! After several years of watching in annoyance as native mussels set all over his oyster equipment, Greg decided if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. He now captures the wild mussel set, stuffs the seed into 25-foot-long mesh socks, and hangs them from rafts in Halibut Cove. These are wild Alaskan mussels of a species rarely farmed, and they are super buttery, a spectacular treat for us hunter-gatherer types looking for new thrills. So far, most of these are staying in the Homer-Anchorage region, but who knows? They grow so thick in Halibut Cove, they may soon be turning up in your local seafood joint.
A beautiful sight: Plates of bivalves (Hog Island Kumamoto, Skunk Island (Hama Hama), Sea Cow (Hama Hama), and Hog Island Atlantic) ready to go for the Matanzas Creek Days of Wine & Lavender oyster tasting. We paired these with four of the most extraordinary oyster-friendly Sauvignon Blancs on the planet; you can find them all on the Matanzas Creek website. And here’s the tasting mat if you want to drill deeper. Days of Wine & Lavender is an annual can’t miss event in Sonoma County for oyster lovers, wine lovers, and, of course, lavender heads.