Maine Destination: Pemaquid Oyster Festival
Oyster Festival, cocktail sauce not allowed.
Glidden Point Oysters, firm, crisp, as tangy as the water they were raised in– and as many as I wanted to eat! How many was that? About 16, 12 raw with nothing or a small scoop of pico di gallo, and then four, one broiled with cheese, one Rockefeller, one barbecued, and I cannot remember the fourth cooked style. Raw is the way to go. I could have eaten that many again, but it was a good place to stop, content and functional.
I don’t care for cocktail sauce on my oysters, I don’t think many people do, and yet I hear people trying them for the first time frequently smother their oyster in it. No wonder then, if they’re not enchanted with the crisp, briny, I am swallowing the ocean, magnificence of a raw oyster. And so I heard with a bit of awe and a great deal of respect that the Pemaquid Oyster Festival has banned cocktail sauce. The range of flavorings offered instead was impressive: Lime-Sake Sauce from Swan’s Way Caterers; Sea Bean Slaw from Primo Restaurant; Cider Mignonette from Francine Bistro; Pico de Gallo from Amalfi on the Water; Lemon-Leek Mignonette from Newcastle Publick House; Jalepeno Relish from the Anchor Inn/Damariscotta River Grill; Prosecco Preserved Lemon Mignonette from Atlantica; Green Tabasco Mignonette from Augustine’s and Lemon-Fennel Salsa from the Bradley Inn.
Boats were taking happy oyster eaters down the river to the oyster farms, where we could see the very simple mesh containers where the seed oysters spend about four years of their lives, growing from thumbnail size to ready to eat. The trays get rotated every day to keep algae from forming, according to our guide. These oysters are then dumped on the river bottom near shore to enjoy the last few months of their lives out of captivity. Batter flavor, again according to our guide, much like a free-range chicken.
The festival is a great place to learn about the Damariscotta region. Booths manned by members of area organizations provided information about the fish ladder–a stone waterway allowing alewifes to make a 42-foot vertical ascent to their spawning grounds, river trails, and the shell middens–mounds of oyster shells, one of them once more than thirty feet deep, 1,600 feet long and 1,650 feet wide, evidence that people ate oysters from 200 BC to 1000 AD, and many of them. There was also a touch tank with small scallops snapping their way through the water, nudibranches, hermit crabs, starfish (watch out oysters!) and enthusiastic young marine biology students (outside the tank) showing specimens and explaining life-cycles, identification, and who eats whom.
The grey day was brightened by all the yellow and orange slickers, and the line of oyster openers with dull blades flashing in and out keeping up with the hungry crowds. Good food, happy oyster eaters, a boat ride, and oyster lore combine to make the Pemaquid Oyster Festival a great Maine destination. Think about this: the oyster shells in the bottom layers of the midden ranged from 12 to 20 inches in length. Don’t think I’d eat 16 of those!
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