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Dining & Nightlife

From the Sea, to You

Maine oysters

Maine oysters

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Scientists tell us that life began in the sea and eventually—we’re talking eons—made its way to land. In Maine, we squeeze that timeframe down considerably in a famous reenactment of the great land-to-sea movement every day. We even throw in a few tables. And, believe it or not, that’s the story of how Maine’s sea-to-table movement began. At least that’s one version.

In reality, there are many versions. We’re going to focus our spyglass on four. Oysters. Seaweed. Lobster. Clams. In addition to living under the sea, this fab four resides under the banner of aquaculture, which is a scientific word—there go those scientists again—for growing and harvesting food from the sea. With that in mind, let’s start things off with oysters. The Rockefellers certainly did.

As it turns out, the colder depths off the coast of Maine do not produce wild oysters in great numbers. But our inner coastal waters are a seaside spa for producing farm-grown Maine oysters. One company, Maine Oysters, Inc., operated by husband-wife team Eric Horne and Valy Steverlynck, harvests between 200 thousand and 250 thousand oysters in a good year. Their varietal, Flying Point Oysters, has its own distinctive taste and texture, owing to the unique conditions in which the oysters are raised. The same is true for the 56 other oyster farms in Maine. As Eric Horne describes: “It’s analogous to wine coming from different parts of a state or country.” It’s one of those acquired tastes you’ll want to acquire again and again.

Eat your vegetables. If that still sounds as boring as it did when you were a kid, it’s time for you to take the plunge into the world of sea veggies. Linnette and Shep Erhart did exactly that in 1971 when they created Maine Coast Sea Vegetables. Founded on the harvesting of wild seaweeds, Maine Coast Sea Vegetables is now part of the growing number of seaweed farming enterprises on the coast of Maine. As chefs create new ways of serving them, these tasty, nutrient-rich vegetables are turning up more and more on family tables. And if Linnette and Scott have anything to say about it—which they do, in voices trained to rise above the crash of waves—there’s plenty more where all that comes from. Says Scott: “We understand that these gifts from the sea come with the responsibility to maintain sustainable practices … leaving more than we harvest, producing more than we consume and giving back more than we take.”

Okay, one word. Lobstah. It may not be in the dictionary, but it’s in the hearts and minds of all Mainers. And, in the waters off the Maine Coast, in abundance. Of course, these are not just any lobsters. They’re Maine lobsters. And they know it. Anyone who’s tasted a Maine lobster knows it too. What some folks may not know is that there’s also a softer side to Maine lobsters. You may have heard of it—the soft-shell lobstah, otherwise known as new shell lobster. Once a year, during August and September, mature lobsters shed their hard shells for a new, softer one. When harvested, these soft-shell lobsters are easier to eat (you can crack the shell by hand). They also have a taste described by many as succulent, more flavorful and sweeter. Or should we say sweetah?

If it’s true that clams are somehow happy by nature, there’s a whole lot of happiness on the coast of Maine—and at restaurant tables and clam shacks up and down the state. That’s because Maine’s annual clam harvest is a whopping 10 million pounds. Money may not buy happiness, but clams in those numbers will. Maine’s famous soft-shell clams thrive in the wild and even more with the “seeding” of hatchery-grown clams in our vast tidal flats. It takes a curved-metal rake, a pair of gloves and a sense of purpose to unearth the clams from muddy burrows as much as 14 inches deep. Oh, but the rewards. Deep-fried happiness, with lemon and tartar sauce.

Clamoring for more? Explore The Maine Thing Quarterly: Maine’s Local Food Movement.