Johns River

Mar 07, 2014

When was the last time you saw an oyster like this:

Big Johns River

For me it’s been a few years. It’s the size of my friggin’ hand. Deep, deep cup, incredibly strong shell (but easy to shuck). You see oysters this nice only when you get slow growers that are bottom-planted in a spot they like. And that spot has to be blissfully unaffected by boring sponges (which will turn the shells into swiss cheese), meaning the mid-Atlantic is out. New England is pretty much the only game in town for these kinds of oysters. But even then, most growers generally want to keep the cash flow, well, flowing quicker than it takes to grow these babies (30 months, minimum), meaning oysters like these are now very, very rare. These are Johns Rivers, grown by Dave Cheney in the Johns River estuary of Maine (near Pemaquid Point). Cheney is one tough oysterman. He’s one of the few guys in Maine who harvests year-round. When you enjoy some of his oysters in winter, you can warm yourself with the knowledge that he suffered for your pleasure.

To go with their robust physicality, these oysters possess a unique flavor, which Dave attributes to the Johns River. (His other oysters, grown in cages in the Damariscotta River, display a more traditional light brine.) Johns River oysters deliver intense fruitiness, sweetness, and brine all at the same time. My wife thought they had a note of banana/strawberry yogurt; I think it’s more like the banana/clove scent of wheat beer. Whatever the case, it’s really unusual, and it’s followed by a mouth-filling clammy umami taste. What it reminds me of most of all is Totten Inlet Virginicas, the eastern oysters farmed in Puget Sound by Taylor Shellfish (and not seen on the market in a few years). Combine all that with the oysters’ prodigious size, large adductor muscles, and firm flesh, and you’ve got an almost overwhelming experience, though an overwhelmingly positive one.

Johns Rivers

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