Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Preserving Tomatoes: Salsa, Crushed, and Pureed

I feel like it's customary to start out a post about a large preserving project with something like: "I'm crazy," "OMG, what was I thinking?" or something similar. And I must admit, after processing 40 pounds of tomatoes, I was definitely sick of the endeavor. But it wasn't painful, (too) tedious, or otherwise traumatizing, because this year I used a great shortcutting tool. 

The ears of any home canner who has processed a large quantity tomatoes before are surely perked. Peeling tomatoes is one of my least favorite canning activities (peeling peaches is second), and I much prefer freezing tomatoes to canning them, since you can skip the peeling step. 

But with my new KitchenAid food grinder attachment, preparing tomatoes is so much easier. I processed 20 pounds in about 45 minutes and listened to a podcast while doing so. It's simple, mindless work that saves you hours. 

Now, before you go order one yourself, know that it produces a thin, smooth sauce and that might not be what you're after. If you want whole tomatoes or chunky sauce, you're going to have to work on your tomatoes the old fashioned way

But for those looking for a seedless, skinless, smooth sauce this attachment is the way to go. It simply attaches to the PTO of your mixer and pushes tomato quarters through a sieve, in the process separating the seeds, skins, and cores from the flesh. It's like a glorified hands-free food mill. 

I also canned some tomatoes whole in water, so I have the option of adding chunks of tomatoes to a dish down the road. But most of my tomato usage is for sauce and soups, so I'm fine with a smooth puree. I ended up with 25 pints of tomato sauce and 2 quarts and 5 pints of whole tomatoes in water. 

I made a batch of my favorite canned salsa, which yielded 15 pints, and I used yet another shortcut: a food processor. It made chopping onions and peppers a snap. I was a little skeptical, but it really works, as long as you pulse your food processor. Any extended processing is going to turn your vegetables into mush. 

I'm nearing the end of my canning agenda for 2016—aside for some applesauce for the freezer and maybe some pressure canned beets, I'm ready to pack in the canner. The shelves are groaning with cases of jars and the freezer is full of frozen fruit. Many years I feel regret that I didn't manage to do more canning, but not this one. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Harvest Dinner at Maine Huts & Trails

Fall is my camping season, the time of year when boating season is ending/winding down and there's some time before the dreaded s-word flies. I haven't done much (any?) backpacking in Maine—my camping adventures have lately become more of the car camping and day hiking variety. 

But I've found the perfect compromise between experiencing secluded wilderness spots and the comfort of staying at a campground: the Maine Huts & Trails system. I spent the weekend mountain biking in Western Maine, relaxing in a beautiful lodge, admiring vistas of the Bigelow Preserve, and stuffing myself with a gourmet meal complete with wine pairings. 

Maine Huts & Trails is a system of 4 eco-huts connected by over 80 miles of multiuse trails. That means you can hike, bike, snowshoe, or ski into the woods and there will be beer, a shower, and a heated bunkroom waiting for you. Pretty awesome.

And before you dismiss this experience based on the word "eco-hut," just know that the level of comfort provided while creating a low environmental footprint is impressive. The only indicator that you're "eco"-ing at all is the composting toilets, which fortunately are like regular toilets that flush with special foamy soap instead of water. No smell, no ick factor. There's running water, electricity, and even heat. At Maine Huts & Trails, you can have your hiking and your creature comforts too. 

A. and I spent the night at Stratton Brook hut, the newest hut in the MH&T family. All of the huts are within a few miles of each other in Western Maine, near Sugarloaf ski resort. Stratton Brook is best for mountain bikers and hikers (you can see the hut overview and best activities from each hut in the hut overview). 

Stratton Brook hut is a 3 to 4 mile ride in, depending on which trailhead you leave from, and there are several trails great for mountain biking that are accessible from the hut. A. and I rode in on the Maine Hut Trail, which wasn't the best trail to come in on, apparently, as it's a long, gradual ascent to the hut. It would have been a pleasant hike. The better option would have been to take the Gauge Trail, which parallels a river (thus flatter) and then take a steeper trail with lots of switchbacks up to the hut. 

We arrived at the top of the knoll on which Stratton Brook hut is located mid-afternoon, gasping and sweaty. We sort of staggered into the hut in a post-exertion haze. The staff was very friendly while they checked us in, told us where everything was located, and encouraged us to relax and enjoy ourselves before dinner that evening. We were there for a special event, Harvest at the Hut, an annual celebration of local food prepared by hut staff and guest chefs. 

Above, you can see the lodge on the left, with a dining room, armchairs and a wood stove, the kitchen, and the bathrooms. The huts are on the right, 10 bunkrooms in total, some shared and some private. They consist of platform bunk beds (ours had a double bed on the bottom and a twin up top), with dorm-style mattresses and pillows. The floors are heated and the room is lit with a single overhead light. It's spartan, but certainly all you need for a good night's sleep after a day of biking or hiking. 

When we arrived, there were some guests who had spent the night before and several people stopping by on a hike or a bike. Lunch is served at the huts and some people were making a pit stop on a day trip. 

We spent the afternoon settling in: we took showers, strolled up to the overlook nearby with a spectacular view of the entire Bigelow Preserve, and then read and rested in our room until dinner time. 

Dinner was served in the lodge at 5:30 PM, so we rousted ourselves from our cozy nook and prepared to dive into the more extroverted experience of dinner with 50 people. We ordered a beer from the kitchen to help ease the transition. 

We found available seats at a table with some very nice folks—a couple who comes to the Harvest every year and 4 men from around the country who went to grad school together and now make an annual men's trip in the fall. 

We started to get to know our tablemates while enjoying appetizers like the fall harvest samosas, filled with butternut squash and cranberries, and topped with a blueberry chutney, and lobster nori rolls, served with local horseradish. 

Our menu for the evening had an international flare, but made with Maine ingredients. Our appetizers were even paired with a local wine, the junmai sake from Blue Current Brewery in Kittery. 

Next came a shared board of with rye toast, bread and butter pickles, Crooked Face creamery cheeses, smoked salmon, sliced apples, housemade tater tots, and beet and chevre raviolis. We passed the boards family-style, and enjoyed our next pouring of wine: the Winterport Winery Taxi Cab. 

Courses two and three were a wild-foraged Maine take on pho—Vietnamese noodle soup. The vegetables may not have been traditional (but local instead!) and the broth was what you would expect, rich with anise spice notes. 

The "wild woman" salad was spicy greens with local tomatoes, pickled red onions, and ricotta. We enjoyed a Nuda Pinot Grigio with this course, and I was feeling pretty good about my ability to pace myself—no overstuffed feelings yet. 

My resolve weakened with the entree, a Korean barbecue-inspired beef in lettuce wraps with peppers, onions, and ssamjang. The wheat berry salad and a tangy slaw were great accompaniments. Beef with salad veggies is one of my favorite things, so it was no surprise I loved this course. 

Dessert also wowed with an apple tatin, surrounded by a pool of creme anglaise and served with two slices of Cabot cheddar. The richness of the dessert was cut by the sharp cheese and lightened by the Winterport Winery apple wine topped with Prosecco. 

Everyone was full and a little tipsy by this point, so after a few enthusiastic rounds of applause for the chefs and the staff, we made our way to tuck ourselves into our cabin. I read a bit from a book borrowed from the communal bookshelves and drifted into a dreamless sleep. Others stayed up and enjoyed a fire in the campfire ring. When I woke a few hours later, the trip to the bathroom was far less fear-inducing than the much-dreaded one while camping in the woods! 

The next morning, we woke early to pack our bags to have them ready for the gear shuttle (much recommended when mountain biking) and to enjoy breakfast. The fresh eggs with herbs and tomatoes, blueberry pecan muffins, sausages, and copious cups of coffee fueled us up for another day of biking. 

Because were were up and out so early, we spent the day exploring a longer trail through the Bigelow Preserve, with a great connecting trial built specifically for biking. We then biked over to a beautiful (if not sparse due to the drought) waterfall very close to the Poplar Hut, which has an easier hike in than the Stratton Brook hut. 

Maine Huts & Trails are open year round, and a one-night stay includes dinner, breakfast, and a packed lunch the following day. Check the website for special events like the Harvest at the Hut or Brews & Views, a dinner with craft beer pairings, held in August.

Based on what I experienced, the food at the hut will be delicious, especially after a day of hiking or snowshoeing, and craft beer and wine are always available for purchase. Add a stay at Maine Huts & Trails to your Maine bucket list—I know I'll be back.

Disclosure: I received tickets to this event free of charge, but the opinions and words expressed in this post are my own. 

Friday, September 2, 2016

Preserving Peaches: Jam, Canned in Juice, and Frozen

Peaches are easily one of my favorite fruits and certainly symbolic of summer: something that you have to get a lot of while it's available and have a certain amount of anxiety about its end (NOT THAT THAT'S HAPPENING). Ahem. 

I'd heard the peach season was going to be bad in New England—late frost? drought? something—and I didn't want to take any chances of missing my annual preserving haul. So I stocked up on Virginia peaches on my way back from the Outer Banks of North Carolina. (I meant to get Carolina peaches, but we have the hardest time stopping right after we've hit the road for a day's worth of driving, so we missed the large produce stands just north of the Outer Banks). 

To start, I quartered and peeled all of my peaches, using the method details in this post by Marisa McClellan at Food in Jars. It involves boiling water and pouring it over quartered peaches, letting them sit for a while, then peeling the skins off. It worked relatively well and was a lot less hassle than the blanching method. Ultimately, I think the biggest key to peeling peaches easily is ensuring that they've fully ripened before you begin. 

I started with low-sugar peach jam using SureJell pectin. I used to exclusively use Pomona's Pectin, but I've come to dislike the hard sets of the jam that often results. SureJell always gives me a nice texture, and if we're being honest, I like the sugary sweetness of it (it's still much less than a full-sugar jam). This recipe calls for 3 cups of sugar for 4-1/2 cups of peaches and yields 5 half-pints of jam. 

Four and a half cups of peaches didn't even dent the amount I had, so I sliced up the rest for freezing, but then realized I could just as easily can a few pints. Again, I consulted Food in Jars about canning using apple juice, since in the past, I've used a light syrup. (Note: syrup or juice is recommended over water when canning fruit to help preserve the sweetness of the fruit). 

I diluted the juice as recommended on the package, in a 3:1 of juice to water. Then I filled some pints and processed them for 20 minutes. One didn't seal (frown), so I used it in a blueberry peach crisp the next day—not all bad. 

I filled six quart freezer bags with the remaining peach slices and juice. I should say I filled the bags about halfway, since I wanted to have small portions of peaches to thaw. I couldn't really see a way to freeze peaches individually, so you can use only a few at a time, rather than thawing the whole bag. 

Peaches: check! Now on to tomatoes...*rolls up sleeves*

Friday, August 26, 2016

Map of Maine Distilleries

Craft distilling is expanding in Maine, spurred by the farm-to-table and craft cocktail movements. Our state now boasts 14 craft distilleries, which, while the state does not have an official "craft" designation, it does distinguish a small distillery, which is defined by production volume, making less than 50,000 gallons a year. 

This map will help you keep track of local distilleries, noting its products, whether tours and tastings are offered at the distillery, and if so, what its hours are. Note: there are, at times, multiple locations listed, creating more than 14 map points. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Vegan Bacun (Yes, Really)

Just like my Blue Apron experience, I did something else seemingly out of character last month: I made vegan bacon. It started when I read a review of a restaurant in which someone was complaining of a lack of vegetarian options at a breakfast cafĂ©, something like, "and there weren't even any vegan pancakes or bacon on the menu!" The oxymoron within that statement at first attracted my ridicule: vegan bacon, psssh. And then I was like, wait, what is vegan bacon? And thus down the rabbit hole I went. 

sliced bacun

The first hit on Google for "vegan bacon" (OK, the second, but I'm not visiting the PETA site) was "The Vegan Bacon Meat-Loving Foodies Can't Get Enough Of," which like, the author must know their SEO, because I was instantly curious. The post is an ode to a particular chef's vegan bacon, claiming that many former flesh-lovers find this bacon "virtually indistinguishable" from the meat version. Excuse me, the hipster death-flesh-fetish du jour (and you wonder why vegans receive a lot of ridicule?). 

Anyway, the bottom line is, I've been known to enjoy a good soy-based meat substitute, like Boca burgers, Quorn Chik'n, and Trader Joe's meatless breakfast patties. These products taste different than their meat counterparts, of course, but I enjoy that taste and feel good about reducing the amount of meat in my diet (animal rights politics aside, I think it's pretty universally accepted that raising animals for meat is terrible for the planet). So this vegan bacon recipe piqued my curiosity. Was this version (virtually) indistinguishable from meat? 

Spoiler alert: of course not. But at least it was easy to make, despite the lengthy list of ingredients and some questionable dough texture. I doubt I'll make it again though, since it's currently languishing in my fridge, my dreams of crunchy, salty bacon bits or filling for BLTs left unfulfilled. Once my friend identified its flavor as reminiscent of barbecue chips, the jig was up. 

bacun ingredients on counter
I initially was skeptical of the ingredient list, thinking vegan bacon was surely made up of tons of artificial and processed substances. But aside from the vital wheat gluten (aka seitan) and garbanzo bean flour, I was able to source all the other ingredients easily. I had many of them already too. It's basically every umami ingredient in your pantry mushed together. 

The assembly requires you to make two different doughs, one dark and one light, then layering them together to create the marbled look of pork fat. 

bacun dough ingredients in bowls
On the left is the ingredients for a larger batch of dark dough, made from vital wheat gluten, nutritional yeast, onion powder, smoked paprika, ground white pepper, water, maple syrup, Bragg's liquid aminos, liquid smoke, miso paste, Worcestershire sauce (I used regular, not vegan, so actually this is not even vegan bacon, gahhhhh), and olive oil. 

The lighter colored dough is made from vital wheat gluten, garbanzo bean flour, garlic powder, water, salt, and olive oil. 

2 bacun doughs
Stir together the ingredients, then lay the two doughs out on a large piece of aluminum foil. Separate the dark dough into three equal size pieces and the light dough into two. 

Do your best to roll the first layer of dark dough into a rectangular shape, then roll out a piece of light dough and lay it on top. The instructions say to roll the light dough out on top of the dark dough, but I found that impossible. The dough isn't sticky, but oddly springy, so it doesn't stick to the foil too much. You can roll out the light dough and lay it on top of the first layer. Repeat with remaining pieces, alternating dark and light doughs. 

two layers of bacun dough

layering bacun dough

When you've finished layering the dough, shape the dough into a rectangle again, and wrap the foil up around the sides. Fold the ends under, creating a neat, sealed package. The seitan will expand to fill the size of the foil, so don't worry too much about the shape. Imperfections will only add to your ruse.

Bake the facun for 90 minutes in a 325*F oven. Let it cool completely and unwrap.

aluminum foil wrapped bacun

finished bacun

Tada! Meatloaf! Excuse me...meat substitute loaf! 

Now, I attempted to slice the bacun thinly, because I was promised crispy facun. Even with my recently sharpened knives, I wasn't able to cut it much thinner than a 1/4-inch. In the world of bacon (fake or otherwise), that's a thick slice. 

I'd advise partially freezing your facun loaf before slicing in order to aid with creating thin slices. I think the crispiness would really aid in fooling your senses. 

sliced bacun on cutting board

So while it was pretty, my facon didn't crisp up and still kept its springy seitan texture. The texture is the most disappointing part. You can see above the holes in the strips that indicate how spongy the stuff is. But writing this post has made me want to try the facun in more applications, like BLTs and bacun bits. I wanted so much to like it! 

Ultimately, I must conclude that vegetarians and vegans are fooling themselves. If you haven't had pork bacon in years, these savory, spongy strips may very well scratch that itch. I'll continue to enjoy my meat substitutes, but this one doesn't make the cut. 

slice of bacun frying in a pan

Friday, August 12, 2016

First Look at Stroudwater Distillery

Stroudwater Distillery, the last beverage-related business to join booze row at Thompson's Point, is now open. As is seemingly the trend, the distillery's tasting room feels more like a bar, with multiple types of seating, two bars, and a full cocktail list. 

Portland's newest distillery joins Cellardoor Winery and Bissell Brothers Brewing, creating a perfect pre-game setting for the point's summer concert series. Even if you have no plans to attend a show, the area makes for a nice afternoon spent soaking up the sunshine and entertaining out-of-town guests. 

Stroudwater Distillery is comfortably appointed, with high top chairs around a bar, cushioned booth seating, picnic tables, and standing tables. John Myers oversees the bar program, and the menu reflects his considerable experience behind the bar. 

On my first visit, I had an Eastern Sour, made with Stroudwater's bourbon, orange juice, lime juice, orgeat, and sugar. It was sweet and spiced, but balanced by the tart juices. A. tried the Kentucky Buck, with bourbon, lemon, sugar, strawberry, ginger beer, and bitters. It was also sweet, but the ginger provided a nice kick to keep it interesting. 

During our ladies' happy hour, I enjoyed a Blinker: rye, grapefruit, and raspberry syrup. The full menu of cocktails had over 20 made from bourbon, rye, vodka, and gin. The cocktails are unique, but approachable, and contain many housemade or local ingredients, like Royal Rose cocktail syrups and Owl and Whale syrups and shrubs. 

But cocktails, of course, hide a lot of the spirit's flavor, so I had to try a sampler ($8, included a souvenir rocks glass) of the spirits. I tried the vodka, bourbon, and rye, but the gin is now available, so the sampler would come with all four. The vodka, a corn-based spirit, retains a lot of character, and we thought we could detect the chocolate and toffee notes at the finish that the tasting notes describe (or perhaps just the power of suggestion). 

The bourbon, a blend of 2-year old bourbons (I assume purchased from other distilleries, a common practice in new distilleries), was sweet, as you'd expect, with plenty of heat. The owner said, this is the worst whiskey we'll make, meaning the batches will only get better as they age. 

The rye had less pronounced sweetness than the bourbon, and I didn't detect much spiciness from the rye grains. I was annoyed (and this may seem petty, but it's indicative of a larger problematic attitude) to read the description of the spirit: "...it also speaks to the boldness and derring-do that made you write your initials, intertwined with hers on the side of the YMCA." I said, why is this written as if speaking to a man? (because it's safe to assume they're not talking to gay women). This assumption of male drinkers was off-putting. The work of the Portland Spirits Society continues! 

Inadvertent sexism aside, there's something for everyone at Stroudwater Distillery, whether you prefer your brown liquors straight up or lighter spirits mixed into a fruity cocktail. The tasting room is open Monday through Thursday from 12 to 6PM, Friday from 12 to 8PM, Saturday 11AM to 8PM, and Sunday 11AM to 5PM. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

Blue Apron Meal Delivery Service Review

So I signed up for a week of Blue Apron. If you know me at all, this may seem out of character. In fact, I was staunchly anti-Blue Apron for a while (for me personally, not for other people). I know how to cook—I even enjoy it—and it's important to me to support my local farmers. Blue Apron brings pre-portioned ingredients from across the country to the inexperienced home cook, complete with step-by-step instructions for making a meal. 

It's hard to say why I tried it then; I just received a flyer in the mail and signed up for a week on a whim. Mostly, I was curious, the price was right (the first week is half off), and I thought it'd be fun. 

First, the online portion: I signed up for three meals for two people, which is regularly $60. I could preview my menu, switch out meals, and change which proteins I wanted. There's plenty of wiggle room for skipping weeks and changing which day of the week your delivery arrives on. I did make sure that the 3 days after my delivery were free so I could cook at home, concerned that if we waited to long to prepare a meal, the ingredients would spoil or deteriorate.

My delivery arrived a day early, which confused me, but wasn't a problem. I came home one hot day to find a huge box on my stoop. Fortunately, the box contained an insulated foil-lined bag and large ice packs, so the food wasn't in any danger of spoiling. 

I unpacked my ingredients; in the top of the bag was the produce and non-refrigerated items for three meals. Below a cardboard divider was three portions of meat and seafood, sandwiched between two large ice packs. Full size, color instructions accompany each meal—the front of the card featuring a picture of your finished meal and the back containing step-by-step instructions for prepping and cooking the ingredients. 

First up was Serrano Pepper and Goat Cheese Burgers with a Zucchini-Cilantro Slaw. As you can see, each ingredient is perfectly portioned, which is very convenient, but of course creates tons of waste. While much of the packaging is recyclable or compostable (but some of it is not in the Portland area), it's obviously better to reduce waste in the first place than it is to rely on recycling. 

While I was tempted to jazz up this meal a little bit, I stuck with the original prep, so as to be able to accurately judge the final meal. And it was tasty! The slaw wasn't my favorite—just raw zucchini sliced up, marinated in sherry vinegar, and sprinkled with chopped cilantro. It was good, but rather plain. The burgers, while unseasoned, were also good, topped with crumbled goat cheese, Dijonnaise, and sliced peppers, briefly marinated in agave syrup. (Note, I did swap out a yellow zucchini from my CSA and some candied jalapenos in for the serranos, since the agave nectar broke during shipping). 

I noticed after cooking all three meals that Blue Apron's signature move seems to be incorporating the fond leftover after pan frying. In the burger recipe, I was instructed to heat my buns in the burger fond and both the chicken and the shrimp pasta recipes used the fond in the pan sauces. 

Next up, Lemon Chicken and Green Beans with Parmesan-Roasted Summer Squash and Potatoes. For this recipe, I cooked chicken breasts on the stove top, then created a pan sauce with lemon juice, butter, and flour. I lightly blanched the green beans and tossed them in the pan sauce, while rounds of the summer squash topped with parmesan roasted in the oven alongside cubed Yukon potatoes. 

This recipe would probably rate as an intermediate one for a beginner cook; there were a lot of steps, multiple techniques, and used more pots and pans than the burger recipe. 

I'm definitely going to incorporate topping anything roasted with parmesan cheese in the future, and the pan sauce, while a little heavy for a hot summer night, was certainly delicious paired with the chicken and green beans. 

Lastly, I had Shrimp and Squid Ink Spaghetti with Summer Vegetables and Mint. This dish was my favorite, since it brought me a recipe I wouldn't have thought up on my own. 

I froze the shrimp when I first received the food, and then transferred the shrimp from the freezer to the fridge to thaw the day I planned to cook this meal. 

This one was as simple to prepare as the burgers. The shrimp was briefly grilled in a pan, then removed, then the chopped tomato, corn, and garlic went in. Butter and reserved pasta water made the sauce, then I added the shrimp back in. I cooked the sauce for a few minutes to thicken it, then added the cooked pasta and chopped mint. 

All in all, I enjoyed my week of Blue Apron, but don't regret canceling my subscription. The service is great for people who don't want to meal plan or shop and have their evenings free to cook at home. The recipes I prepared are pretty accessible for beginner cooks, and the pre-portioned ingredients helps to reduce food waste (although the benefits of that are probably negated by the excess packaging required). 

Blue Apron conflicted with my CSA subscription though, since I still needed to use up my week's worth of local produce. I need more like an "everything but the vegetables" meal delivery service. I also think Blue Apron would be better in the winter, when local produce isn't as abundant. 

Coincidentally, during my week of Blue Apron, I discovered that Local Market in Brunswick offers farm box/meal kits. Each box comes with local produce and meat for a meal that feeds 2 people. It costs $30, a little bit more than Blue Apron, but is great for one night when you can't handle meal planning. I wish Portland's Rosemont Market, the Portland Food Co-op, or The Farm Stand in South Portland would do the same thing (hint, hint!). Perhaps as these meal delivery subscription services become more popular, we'll see more local models too. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Nonesuch Oyster Tours, Scarborough

Last month a friend of mine came to visit Maine, and we used that as an excuse to check out the Nonesuch Oyster aquaculture tours that owner Abigail Carroll has started offering. Carroll's farm is located in the Nonesuch River off of scenic Pine Point in Scarborough. Her oysters can be found occasionally on Portland raw bar menus and at Harbor Fish Market. They're characterized by their green shells and grassy flavors, which we learned all about why that is on our afternoon tour.

We decided to bike the 2 miles to the tour's meeting point at the Pine Point town landing from my friend's family's summer place in Old Orchard. After we packed our layers, snacks, and white wine (since the tour is BYOB), we rode off. The tour convened at the Harbor Master's office, and there we found Abigail and a couple who would be joining us on the tour. All told there were 6 of us, which is the tour's max. 

We started by learning a little bit about oysters, how they grow, and the oyster nursery process that Abigail and her team are constantly refining. When I interviewed Abigail for my book, Portland Food: the Culinary Capital of Maine, several years ago, she was using an upweller at the dock to grow her oyster spat (baby oysters). They were then transferred to floating bags, which were tied along lines in the river until the oysters reached market size a few years later. 

Now, Abigail is working to transfer her oyster nursery to trays, made from the same coated wire used in lobster traps. The trays rest on the bottom of the river, keeping the oysters contained, but more closely replicating their natural nursery habitat. Same for the adults: they're scattered about the bottom of the river, which Abigail says gives the meat a better flavor and the shells a beautiful green color. When it's harvest time and water temperature allows it, the Nonesuch crew harvests the oysters by hand, hence the "free range" oyster tagline. 

After learning the nuts and bolts of the operation, we hoped in Abigail's skiff to motor out to the oyster farm and see for ourselves. The oyster farm is about 10 minutes from the dock and very close to shore in shallow water (for anyone who may be balking at the idea of a boat tour). 

At the farm, Abigail tied up to the harvest line and set up for what we were all anticipating most: the oyster tasting. She harvested oysters right from the bottom of the river for us, shucked them, and served them with nothing more than the optional squeeze of lemon or a scoop of shallot mignonette she whipped up before shucking. 

Eating oysters directly from the river they're grown in is a different experience than those served super cold at a raw bar. The oyster is closer to room temperature, about 60*F, which allows you to taste the full range of flavors that the cold would otherwise mask. 

We tasted that distinct grassiness, a slight brininess, and sweetness. Abigail shucked several dozen, and due to some polite eaters, there were plenty to go round. We also enjoyed a pleasant white wine from Maine and Loire, Portland's natural wine shop, where the ever-helpful owner Peter recommended an Austrian white. 

After our Nonesuch oyster feast, I remembered that Abigail had told me she was attempting to grow Belons, a different species of oyster, native to Brittany, France. Scientists experimented with seeding them in Maine in the 1950s, seeing that the conditions in Maine's rivers were similar to the Brittany region's. Abigail actually had some in her bin of interesting things, so she pulled one out for each of us that wanted one. She did caution that they have a very intense flavor and can be very polarizing.

I'm not afraid to say they were not for me! They just tasted bad and then finished with an aluminum flavor (some say copper, I got aluminum). A few weeks ago, I saw ZEST magazine quoting Fore Street chef Sam Hayward extolling the virtues of these oysters. The myth is perpetuated! If you see them, try one out and see what you think.

Our tour was about an hour and a half, and for $50 includes half a dozen oysters and is BYOB. The tours are offered Thursday through Monday at 1PM and 3:30PM (not every day though; the schedule varies). If you're looking for a pleasant afternoon on the water, with some education and oyster tasting thrown in, check out Nonesuch Oysters tours.