Consider the Oyster

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Now you can try them before they ever reach land.

No delicacy is more polarizing than the raw oyster. Some people loathe the consistency. Some can’t stand the briny flavor. Still others would rather sit before a simple platter of the iced, raw bivalves than a table groaning with just about any other dish. But indifference is not an option.

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Even those who dislike the taste should love this creature for its stewardship of our waterways — just one oyster filters more than 25 gallons of water a day. Also consider that oysters are a sustainable fishery; they’re chock-full of nutrients and are low in fat and cholesterol; and, of course, there is scientific proof that the raw oyster is an aphrodisiac.

No matter where you stand, you haven’t really tasted an oyster until you’ve had one that’s been freshly plucked from its home waters. Last fall I decided to travel to oyster regions so I could savor my favorite delicacy at its peak of freshness. Perhaps you’ve heard the wine-making term terroir, which refers to the association of a wine’s distinctive characteristics with the land where its grapes grow. In the oyster world there is the term merroir. Oysters are said to reflect traits of the waters from which they are harvested. A sensitive palate can taste the salinity of the water, the mix of grass and till on the riverbed, the effects of cold depths and more. Today, oysters are cultivated in the pristine waters of estuaries, partially enclosed by tidal marshes, in which river and seawater mix.

There’s been much hype about the oyster’s renaissance in recent years. I kicked off my tour in the charming Old Port district of Portland, Maine, and felt as if I were starting at the heart of the oyster’s comeback. Maine has a number of appellation oysters, named for the regions in which they’re grown. Malpeque (Prince Edward Island), Wellfleet (Massachusetts) and Bluepoint (Connecticut and New York) oysters are well-known appellations. Maine’s best-known are the Glidden Point — the state’s gold standard, with its deep cup and briny, succulent meat — and the Pemaquid.

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To plot my course, I consulted the Maine Oyster Trail. Catherine Schmitt and Dana Morse, of the Maine Sea Grant, created a handy map to help people find oyster farms and meet the growers — and to locate all of the restaurants and raw bars that serve Maine oysters. Created in 2011, the Maine Oyster Trail is updated annually each spring.

My first stop was a tasting tour at Nonesuch Oysters in Scarborough aboard a workboat captained by proprietor Abigail Carroll. She didn’t grow up oystering, nor is it in her blood, but she is passionate about her livelihood. Carroll led the push that changed the aquaculture laws in Maine to allow farmers to sell directly to customers. A licensed charter captain, she provides tours of her oyster farm in the pristine estuary of the Scarborough River.

Abigail Carroll shucking Nonesuch oysters on her workboat.

Carroll sources and nurses her spat — baby oysters — in a floating upweller in the river. At the grow site, Carroll’s oysters mature in floating bags. She fishes out oysters — six per guest — shucks them and serves them with a mignonette she makes on the fly, although I found that the tender, grassy and salty-sweet Nonesuch is best enjoyed as is.

On day two I toured the picturesque Damariscotta River region, 50 miles north of Portland. This 19-mile sea finger, all of it navigable, is designated an estuary and is Maine’s most fertile oystering region. The river’s sweet spot, far north near its headwaters, is the location of an ancient and gigantic shell midden, the Glidden Midden, left by Native Americans 2,000 years ago. Today it is home to Glidden Point Oyster Sea Farm in Edgecomb. It’s said that one reason for the Glidden’s superior flavor is that the oyster spends four years on the riverbed in 40 feet of cold water before it’s harvested by hand.

Ingredients for Carroll's mignonette

Cruising this river and spending time in some of the coastal villages would make for a great adventure. The towns of Damariscotta and Newcastle are lovely boating destinations. They are on the Oyster Trail and offer unique shops and galleries, as well as restaurants and raw bars that serve fresh Damariscotta River oysters.

Heading south

I made my way to Chincoteague Island, a remote barrier island off northern Virginia. Chincoteague is perhaps best known for its wild ponies, but cognoscenti also know it has one of the saltiest oysters in the world. Twenty-two miles of the island — 14,000 acres — is designated the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, and 17 miles of that is the unspoiled coastline of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. However, there’s no shortage of restaurants that serve fresh oysters in town.

My first stop was at Ballard Fish & Oyster Co. in Cheriton, Virginia, 60 miles south of Chincoteague. Ned Harris, Ballard’s outside salesman, gave me a thorough tour of the hatchery. The Ballards have been farming oysters since 1895. They grow six varieties and employ a team of biologists who produce the triploid seed, a genetically engineered oyster with a third set of chromosomes. The result is an oyster that is sterile but matures and grows deliciously fat faster than a fertile or wild oyster.

A waterman harvests Chincoteague Salts.

Harris and I spent the following day oystering. He has a remarkable grasp, at 31, of all facets of the business. Harris started on the company’s bottom rung under Mike McGee, a legend in the oyster business. McGee now cultivates the company’s signature product, the Chincoteague Cultured Salt, touted as the saltiest oyster in the world. Harris also wanted me to try one of Ballard’s Chincoteague Wild Salt oysters.

He met me at the dock in a skiff that belonged to one of his customers. I hopped aboard and we headed toward Morris Island in the heart of the Chincoteague refuge. We passed floating “watch houses.” Harris explained that watermen erected these homes — some are derelicts, some have been remodeled — so they could watch over their oysters during a time before the government managed the area. Poaching was, and still is, a problem.

Undersized oysters tagged by Ballard Fish & Oyster Co. for replanting

At both grow sites I devoured countless dozens of farmed and wild oysters. In the end I found that these were the saltiest and tastiest oysters I’d ever eaten. I spent two good days in Chincoteague, but the best was still to come.

Back up north, then home

In late October my wife and I went to Prince Edward Island. It is unique for its rolling topography, steep coastal cliffs, reddish-brown beaches and the expanse of nature that ties it all together. We spent three days exploring the oyster regions, stopping along the way to enjoy delicious bivalves such as the Conway Cup in the northeast, the Daisy Bay on the north shore and the heavenly Colville Bay in the southeast. All have a crisp, clean taste.

Like all oysters, the Prince Edward Island appellations get their characteristics from their unique environment. Cool summers, moderately cold winters, deep and frigid waters, and the dominant Atlantic environment make for a flavor that is legendary.

The highlight of our trip was an oyster safari on the Pinette River. John Gillis, owner of Pinette River Oyster Co., had just started giving aqua-farm tours. Gillis believes in putting his customers to work. He provides boots, gloves, a heavy-duty rubber apron that covers you from the neck down and traditional long-handled tongs.

Tonging is like raking and shoveling simultaneously. It took me a few attempts to catch just the bottom before I learned how to feel for the oysters, using the tool’s head. Gillis’ Pinette River oysters grow on the riverbed and take three to four years to mature. His oysters are meaty and sport an initial medium brininess, finishing with a note of copper, a taste I attributed to the reddish-brown till.

Back in my home port of Charleston, South Carolina, I tried to put my research to work. Even in a celebrated seafood town, many of the oysters served are, on average, 10 days past their harvest date. I know because I asked to see the oyster tags, a tip that Harris, from Ballard Fish and Oyster Co., gave me. When Harris orders oysters, he always asks to see the tag. It contains such information as the company and co-op names, harvest location, and the date and time the oysters were harvested. You don’t have to take your server’s word on where the oysters are from and how fresh they are; by law, restaurants must keep oyster tags for 90 days to ensure that any illness suspect oysters cause can be tracked back to the supplier and the harvesting waters.

Colville oysters with a local brew

Following these oyster trails provided an amazing adventure. I wanted to experience the merroir of my favorite oysters, and going directly to the sources was well worth the effort. If you love oysters and have a favorite, plan a trip to the region where it’s grown and get a little taste of its unique merroir.

See related article:

- Pearls of wisdom

April 2015 issue