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 hopped 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.
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.