By Paul Shoul
In Damariscotta Maine, oyster growers, foodies, chefs, travelers, and locals gathered in June for three days of total oyster culture immersion at the first ever Damariscotta Oyster Celebration.
Blessed with perfect conditions for producing this marvelous mollusk, the 19-mile long Damariscotta tidal river winds its way to the Atlantic Ocean. Along the river’s journey, millions of plump, juicy oysters are grown on the surface in floating baskets and covering the bottom.
For thousands of years, locals have been gorging on them. 2500-year-old mounds of oyster shells. “Middens” can still be seen along the banks, remnants of the original Abenaki residents. Damariscotta is the Abenaki word for “ river of many fishes.”
Today, Damariscotta is ground zero for a burgeoning commercial oyster/ aquaculture movement that is expanding along the coast of Maine.
Ponder the Oyster
What is it about this little shellfish that takes years to grow and only a second to eat that inspires such devotion?
Each one is like a Christmas present that must be opened to reveal the gift inside. Almost like gambling they hold the chance of a reward, maybe even a pearl. The ritual of eating them is similar to taking a “hit” of drugs or doing a “shot” of hard alcohol. They conjure sex and desire, imparting mythical stamina and strength to lovers.
Although oysters can be fried, chowdered and Rockefellered, it is in their raw unadorned state that one can appreciate their purest flavor. Like wine, they are wrought from their surroundings.
Merroir, the Taste of Place in the Sea
“Merroir” is the term used to describe the environment or “taste of place” that determines the subtleties of their salty-sweet briny fresh flavor. A single oyster filters up to fifty gallons of water a day.
When you eat an oyster, you are tasting the sea. An oyster is approximately 87% water according to Bill Mook, founder of Mook Sea Farm, one of the oldest and most productive oyster producers in the region.
Bill started oyster farming as a small operation in 1985. His company has since grown to over 25 employees that raise oyster ‘seed’ and ship fresh oysters 52 weeks a year.
In 1998 baby oysters in Bill’s hatchery were all dying from a mysterious cause. Suspicious of a neighbor that had started a Porta Potty business, one night Bill went out to investigate. “ I dressed completely in black head to toe crawling along the shore with a small flashlight.” It was very James Bond’. “He was dumping 100 yards or so away from our hatchery intake, and we were sucking it in. “It was the earliest life stage (the free swimming larval stage) that was affected, and it killed every single spawn we attempted “
Bill attributes this event to his continued obsession with keeping the river, and his oysters clean. Climate change is his constant adversary. As the world warms, massive storms result. That means more runoff into the river of silt and farm fertilizers.
“Warming ocean temperatures increase the risks of diseases that kill oysters and elevated levels of bacteria that can make people sick if the oysters are not handled properly during warm weather. Rising ocean acidification makes it difficult for young larval oysters to make their shells.”
Like all the oyster farmers I met, Bill’s knowledge of the environment and activism to clean it up is profound.
Damariscotta is a charming small harbor town popular with tourists but much quieter than nearby Boothbay Harbor that is packed to the gills with kitschy main attractions. It all depends on what you are looking for, but Damariscotta is much more my speed. Cafes and restaurants, small shops and a cozy little walkable main street.
Oyster Chef of the Year Competition
The competition was held at Boothbay Harbor Oceanside Resort. Seven chefs presented on the half shell oyster dishes, each paired with wine from Chemin des Vins.
The Challengers in the Oyster Competition for 2018:
The oysters ranged from; “ South in Your Mouth’, Cafe DuMond smoked Pimento Cheese, Florida citrus slaw, Jack Daniels BBQ mignonette, fried sweet onions, fresh dill.Jenny Moore | Chef de Cuisine, Hi Tide Poke and Raw Bar, Charlotte NC
Pete Smith | Owner of Otter Cove Farms. “Pistols on Horseback” Cornmeal fried oyster wrapped in Jamon Iberico and served atop a squid ink crepe with smoked aioli and pickled ramps. David Siegal | Executive Chef. Pistol Oyster Bar, New York City, NY and Tonie Simmons | Owner of both Dodge Cove Marine Farm and Muscongus Bay Aquaculture.
The winner was “Oyster of the Harbor.” Jalapeno, Rhubarb mignonette, lemon pearls, bacon stock, Osetra caviar, lemon parsley oil, shaved celery, rice puffs. By chef Nathaniel Adams | Executive Sous Chef, Boothbay Harbor Country Club – Paul’s Steakhouse and Grille 19. And Smokey Mckean, Owner of the Pemaquid Oyster Company. Wow.
Tour De Source
On board the small boat “The River Tripper” with Captain Chip, The Tour de Source is a 4-hour cruise through the oyster world. Conveniently, the boat sports an excellent little bar.
The river is pristine. Tides that surge in twice daily create a nutrient-rich, oxygenated mix of salt and fresh waters that oysters love.
Many farmers grow oysters entirely in floating baskets while others grow seed on the surface for the first year and then bottom plant for another 1.5-3 years, scuba diving to harvest by hand. Each farm boasts oysters with a distinct flavor, unique to the microenvironment of its part of the river.
Pulling up to the small floating work platforms of Otter Creek and Cove Farm we watched as they sorted and cleaned harvested oysters, popping open a few for us to try on the spot.
At Mook farm, we toured their floating farm and land-based hatchery. At the Darling Marine Center an extension of Maine University devoted to the study and promotion of aquaculture, we watched multiple presentations on new growing techniques, the history, and biology of the river and by American unagi who are farming feels like those that are so popular grilled and glazed in Japan.
If you can’t make next year’s oyster celebration,Damariscotta River Cruises offer a variety of seasonal daily oyster farm and seal watching tours as well as wine and sake/oyster pairing
Taste Main Future Dinner:
In the vast Darrows Barn at Round Top Farm in Damariscotta, this four-course dinner offered a bounty of Maine products prepared by local chefs.
There was a shucking station pumping out trays of oysters on the half shell, great wines and local beers and dishes of mackerel, local lamb, pork and scallops.
My favorite was the very inventive Green Crab Rangoon by chef Ali Waks of the Brunswick Inn. European Green crabs are an invasive species. Hordes of them are devouring local shellfish. Clams mussels and oysters are all being preyed upon. The venerable lobster population may be next.
Cold waters once kept Maine safe, but as the climate warms, their numbers are skyrocketing. Served with green crab kimchi, the Rangoon was creamy, flavorful and an excellent way to fight back against the invasion. If you can’t beat them, eat them.
Can-Am Shuck Star Competition
At some point during the Can-Am shuck star oyster party, I lost count on how many oysters I had eaten. I knew I was way past 20, but stopping was not an option. Seven local farms set up in a long line of ice filled tables shucking oysters on the half shell as fast as the crowd could eat them.
Shucking fast and clean without stabbing yourself is not easy, and the official competition was intense.
Three competitors shucked one dozen oysters each in a series of heats until a winner emerged.
Judging was as follows: “Judges will add seconds to each contestant’s shucking time according to the following penalty table: An oyster not completely severed from its shell: Add 2 seconds.
An oyster presented on a broken shell: Add 3 seconds. An oyster presented with grit or other foreign substance: Add 3 seconds. Blood in the oyster – from a cut hand – is DQ (disqualification): Add 3 seconds. An oyster not appropriately placed on the shell: Add 5 seconds. A missing oyster: Add 20 seconds.
1st Place ($700) went to James Geoghan of the West Robins Oyster Co., Southampton NY, at a blazing 56.92 seconds.
The Damariscotta Oyster celebration was one of my favorite events for 2018.
2019 promises to be even better.
For more info go to; Damariscotta Oyster Celebration.
The 2019 Celebration will be June 13-15th, 2019, and tickets can be purchased now (for this year’s prices) at www.universe.com/DOC2019
I stayed at the fantastic Russell House Bed and Breakfast.
A classic Bed and Breakfast. Rooms were spacious, the bed was comfortable, and breakfast was a delight.
Check out my full Russell House review
Paul Shoul is a Northampton, MA-based photographer who doubles as a staff writer for GoNOMAD. For thirty years he’s lived in the Pioneer Valley and chronicled life there through his work in the Valley Advocate. He’s also been seen in the Boston Globe, New York Times, BBC, the Chronicle of Higher Education and many other publications. Today as well as shooting around the world for GoNOMAD he works for local nonprofits, banks and advertising agencies.