Bar Harbor Catering Company staff embarked on an oyster shucking adventure last night with a class at Bar Harbor Oyster Company (BHOC) where Mount Desert Island (MDI) natives and BHOC founders, Joanna and Jesse Fogg, put on a quite a show, from start to finish.
As we approached the side yard where the class was taking place, a fire crackled in the outdoor chimenea, offering a warm welcome, but also, warding off the ever persistent black flies. Bosun, a massive Greater Swiss Mountain dog, boomed hellos as he proudly showed off a bone he was carrying around like a trophy, stopping every so often for a neck or head scratch. We milled about, introducing ourselves to those we didn't know, and then settled in at tables set up along the deck, anxiously awaiting the moment when we'd dig into some oysters.
For me, this class was a big deal. And, not because I hadn't shucked oysters since my days working on the Olde Port Mariner Fleet in Portland, Maine. No, it was because I hadn't eaten an oyster in more than 20 years and tonight I was going to try to let go of the judgment that I've held onto for so long of these little mollusks. Not only would I shuck, but I would also eat an oyster. And, maybe more than one.
BHOC specializes in Bar Harbor Blondes, which spend three years growing on their 22-acre farm at the mouth of Mt Desert Narrows. This farm is very close to one of MDI's biggest saltwater marshes and the cocktail of warm, cold, fresh, and salt water creates the perfect conditions for abundant phytoplankton to thrive, one of the Blondes' favorite things to snack on.
You might be thinking, "What does an oyster farm look like?" For BHOC, their farm consists of moored floating cages that are similar to a lobster trap in construction. Water at the surface is warmer, and the plankton more plentiful, which allows the oysters to filter feed and grow. To aid in the growth process, Joanna and Jesse regularly flip the cages to expose the oysters to the sun and a bit of a drying out phase. This ensures that the shells are bleached, and doesn't, as I thought, mean the oysters are dying a slow death. Apparently, oysters are very resilient, and this drying process doesn't negatively affect them. More importantly, though, this process ensures that all the gear and the oysters are clean from bio-fouling. After 24 hours, the cages are returned to the water and back to their feeding positions.
When winter really sinks its teeth in at the end of December, BHOC drops all the oysters and their cages to the ocean floor. The cold water has an important job in the growth of the oyster - it prevents the shell from growing but it continues to develop and enhance the flavor and texture of the oysters.
The cold weather is also important when it comes to shucking. Not only do the winter months help produce a lovely, well-manicured oyster, but it also makes the shell exceptionally strong, which in turn, makes it easy to shuck. And, what's hidden inside is something that, up until yesterday, I always thought was rather appalling. In reality, it's the perfect morsel of delicious, briny, salty meat. And, when you add a couple of additional accents, like mignonette sauce or lemon or garlic, you won't be able to stop yourself. No, seriously. I ate at least 20 of them, and I feel absolutely no shame.
I'm by no means an expert shucker (yet), but I think I did well, as did the rest of the BHCC staff. We had a fun night, met some new friends, and ate A LOT of oysters. My favorite: when Joanna put the oysters on the grill with a little manchego cheese and an herb pesto.
The best part? They sell their oysters out of their garage - by reservation or on an honor system. And, you'll definitely be on your honor if you have Bosun reminding you that there's someone watching.