by Robert Haas
I began my love affair with oysters on the half shell when I first went to France in 1954. Sure, I had eaten the ubiquitous Blue Points in New York restaurants (with cocktail sauce of course) but I discovered then the flavors really fresh cold water oysters, served with just lemon and fresh ground pepper and accompanied by a Chablis or a Sancerre, could bring to the table.
I was unaware of the availability of terrific oysters at retail for home delivery here until Glidden Point Oyster Sea Farm, owned by Barbara Scully (right), was brought to my attention a few years ago at a wine and oyster tasting in Peacham, VT by Ed Behr, the Vermont-based food and wine devotee best known as publisher of The Art of Eating. Home for the Glidden Points is the Damariscotta River, which flows with some of the cleanest water on the East Coast. It is an excellent place to farm because it produces oysters with a rich buttery-yet-briny taste. Ever since that tasting, my family, friends, and winery neighbors have often profited from that discovery. A few days after our tasting I called Barbara for the first time to order some oysters to enjoy at home. I was intrigued by the idea of “estate grown” oysters with “terroir.” Not only estate grown but hand planted and harvested by diving rather than dragging. Barbara’s terrific web site is a must visit for any who love these hard-shell bivalves and would like to learn more about them, their culture and their history.
Whereas oysters on the half shell were rare in restaurants and even rarer at retail in their shells in the U.S., they were offered frequently in France from simple bistros to the Michelin three-star elites back in the fifties. I really do not know why that was. Perhaps we had lost the art of eating during prohibition, when of course, the emphasis was on high proof drinking; or perhaps a lack of refrigeration or commercial airfreight for shipping. It was not always so. Colonists gobbled up the then-abundant oysters in the river estuaries on the East Coast, and oysters are often mentioned in literature describing fine meals back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Judging from the piles of oyster shells from Native American feasts -- for example, the Glidden Midden on the Damariscotta shore -- oysters were a favorite American fare as long as two thousand years ago.
Last week my wife and I were renting a small house in Rockland, about half an hour away from Edgecomb, where Barbara Scully and her two teenage children tend the retail shop and the wet storage landing dock on the Damariscotta River where the oysters await shipping. We went to visit, bought two dozen oysters (of course) and persuaded Barbara to take us on a tour later that week of one of her farm sites up river. Seedling oysters (below, left) mature in plastic cages (below, right) for their first year before they are planted on the bottom to grow four more years.
Only then does Barbara dive to harvest them using nets like the one below.
We asked her kids if they ever dived to harvest. The quick answer was "No, only mom dives". The farm is a tough, exacting and sometimes dangerous business that "mom" has been working at for 24 years. She not only plants, grows and harvests herself; she answers the phone and tends the retail stand. Wow!
So order your Glidden Points (here). When they arrive grab your shucking knife, some lemon and a pepper mill. Open a bottle of 2010 Vermentino that you have stashed in your fridge or the 2010 Marsanne that is in your fall VINsider shipment and have a feast.