Last year was the first official Damariscotta Oyster Celebration, and when I wrote my initial story on the event, I made a comment that still holds true: growers are the best keepers of oyster stories. There is something so special about this estuary, its beautiful waters, the ample nutrients for oyster growing, and the people who are largely responsible for pushing the industry forward on oyster quality and best practices. Most of the farms on Damariscotta are actively involved in planning and sponsoring the celebration. It is a unique opportunity to meet and hear the stories firsthand from the farmers themselves. “Every day is an adventure,” they will tell you.
Day 1: The International Oyster Chef of the Year
The weekend-long celebration produced by O’Maine’s Taste Maine’s Future kicked off on Thursday night with the International Oyster Chef of the Year competition at Boothbay Harbor Oceanside Golf Resort, bringing together hundreds of oyster growers, supporters, restaurateurs and locals. Chefs were paired with different Damariscotta oysters and tasked with creating a unique oyster dish. The Chefs featured this year came from 8 states and provinces across the US and Canada! Yours truly was one of the judges, along with Kerry Altiero from Cafe Miranda and get this… Governor Janet Mills! It was a complete honor to share the table with them and taste the greatness and ingenuity of every dish.
Below is the oyster showcase! Chef Ralph Smith of Mine Oyster in Booth Bay stole our hearts with his “Bloody Oyster and Vodka Chaser” entry, and Ricky Sheldon of Scales Restaurant in Portland won the Peoples’ Choice award for his “Street Corn Oyster”. Every dish was phenomenal and we were able to venture back in the kitchen in the end to thank everyone for their creativity!
The night ended back at Ralph’s Mine Oyster, which involved a lot of shucks, drinks and making new friends.
Day 2: Tour de Source
We required a few strong coffees the next morning but I couldn’t wait to get out on the water with a team of chefs, shuckers, researchers, and media partners. Offering the true VIP treatment, the farmers themselves navigated three different boats to drive us from farm to farm, teach us about their processes, shuck oysters straight from the water, and fill us with stories. We smuggled Hendricks gin on board as well, and warmed up with a few shots straight out of our oyster shells.
As we rafted up with each crew, we received a unique story about farming on the Damariscotta River. For example, Chris at Norumbega discussed the different sizes of their oysters and their final purge-out process down the river before they’re off to market. Jeff of Mook Sea Farm shared the positive outlook on the next generation’s involvement in the local market. Smokey at Pemaquid showcased his upwellers and the brilliant system he’s developed to more evenly feed his spat. This kind of experience is an oyster lover’s dream – it was cathartic, inspiring and gave us a true understanding of their labor of love.
Here is the story showcase from the day!
Day 3: The Can-Am Shuck Star Competition & Oyster Party
It was the most beautiful, breezy Saturday for an outdoor party. Round Top Farm hosted the main event this year, and after parking we took the scenic route past the old historical oyster midden and blooming buttercups to the farm.
The party was rocking. You could hear the shells clanking into echoing barrels as attendees swarmed each oyster farm booth. The cocktails were flowing and savory notes of delicious tuna rolls and tacos encompassed the outdoor tent. Something about the day felt like an annual neighborhood reunion. The oyster love was permeating all afternoon.
Mid-event, O’Maine turned up the brine with the shucking competition. A handpicked selection of the very best shuckers in North America lined up to show off their skills. The battle was intense, and this year the Canadians stole the show! David Burns of Maisy’s Pearl took the second place slot, and Eamon Clark of Rodney’s Oyster House in Toronto snatched the title. In between rounds, the team featured OystahGuy on the mic and a series of other supporters and media partners.
I am so grateful for this event and the producers who honor the passion inside the industry. Damariscotta has been placed on the map due to the massive efforts of the oyster farmers along the river. The town is a showcase for how a group of small business owners can support each other and create an exuberant, contagious food culture. We’ll be back next year! Thank you all for joining and for those who didn’t, we hope to have you next year!