Feel that first breath of cool air. It speaks of fall, it calls for sweaters, but for me the first thing that comes to mind is oysters. Yes, September has an “r,” our traditional way of acknowledging that it’s oyster season. But until the waters of the Gulf cool down, I wait. Cool water improves the texture of an oyster, its flesh develops a firm snap that is usually lacking in the milky substance of summer oysters.
Unless you live in Maine. The New York Times has a story about oysters from the Damariscotta River, about 60 miles north of Portland, Maine. Pollution and overfishing had pretty much destroyed the eastern seaboard oystering grounds, from Long Island in New York to the Chesapeake Bay. But there have been a plethora of stories over the past year or two about the revival of oyster beds as we slowly get a handle on cleaning up rivers and estuaries after decades of dumping everything from sewerage to PCBs into our waterways.
The Damariscotta River has been seeded with oyster spats at mom and pop oyster farms up and down the river. Cold, briny tidal flows grow crisp salty oysters, although it takes about four years for an oyster to reach eating size, rather than the two down here in the steamy South. What I love most about this story is the focus on oyster farmer Barb Scully. In the Gulf, oyster fishers drive a lugger with a rake on the bow, which scoops up entire sacks of oysters in one pass. Up on the Darmriscotta, Scully, pictured in a wet suit, dives for her oysters, retrieving each one by hand. Her crew, meaning her kids, duly chip off barnacles, so that every oyster arrives at the bar as clean and pristine as a pearl.
The rub. The cost. Last summer, I was in Portland and bought two dozen Damariscottas to take home and shuck myself. The price, upwards of $30. In New York City, at the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar, raw oysters cost over $2 a piece. Mind you, they are great oysters — a gorgeous copper-green, small, delicate, crisp and as briny as the sea. Very different from our Gulf oysters, those huge pearlescent topless and salty bivalves we slurp down by the dozen. But that’s the beauty of our Louisiana oysters. We wait a bit, (though today might be the day, cool breeze blowing through my window as I write), but when it’s time, you can get a dozen for under a tenner, and that includes dipping sauce, crackers, lemons and if you hit happy hour, maybe a Dixie. Yum.