From bed to table: Oyster farm tours highlight Maine’s emerging trend of culinary tourism

Posted July 05, 2014, at 5:47 a.m.
Last modified July 06, 2014, at 2:08 p.m.

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SCARBOROUGH, Maine — “What do you guys know about oysters?” Abigail Carroll asked a couple standing on a pier in the Scarborough River on a sunny afternoon.

“That they are delicious,” Amy and Jon Edwards said in unison.

That was enough motivation for the Massachusetts tourists, who just hiked Acadia National Park, to embark on an oyster-tasting tour as they wended homeward. Carroll of Nonesuch Oysters was happy to show the food enthusiasts her 5-year-old farm in the estuary, starting with her floating nursery.

Fishing out a few spats from her upweller, she produced a minuscule oyster.

“It’s like little oyster caviar,” she told them, resting one on the tip of her finger. Her show and tell was met with a chorus of “wows.”

But before that mollusk lands on a bed of ice, a farmer needs to nurture it for years. In June, the oyster entrepreneur opened her bivalve business to an increasingly food-curious public.

On her tours, guests board a working skiff and venture out to her grow site, where oysters are planted in the river bed and grow in bags. The excursion, which costs $50 per person, includes hands-on education and a half-dozen freshly harvested oysters, as well as a crash course on how to make a mignonette sauce on the fly. She also offers tours by kayak.

With a foodie culture intent on eating sustainable and local foods, the 44-year-old Biddeford resident is seen as a trailblazer in aquaculture tourism — the newest ripple in the state’s economy.

“[Visitors to Maine] are looking for special interest experiences that are authentic and unique,” said Carolann Ouellette, director of the Maine Office of Tourism. “[Maine is] starting to recognize the market value.”

Culinary tourism, which includes trips to farms and food processing plants, is on the rise.

“People want a closer look at how their food is being grown and produced,” Ouellette said.

Those who work in the fishing industry are happy to oblige.

“The general trend, of course, is people want to know where their food comes from. They want to meet their farmer and fisherman. And when they do, they want real experiences,” said Dana Morse, marine extension associate for Maine Sea Grant. “Abigail is really doing some leading work here.”

Similar to talking shop with a brewer or winemaker, the opportunity to meet an oyster farmer and gain a firsthand glimpse at their process, from infancy to market, is the essence of food tourism.

Officials at Maine Department of Marine Resources recognize the significance of tours such as Carroll’s.

“Maine has great resources. A lot of folks are looking at how we can create an experience [for visitors] and opportunities for people in agriculture and fisheries,” said Jeff Nichols, communications director for the department. “There are economic opportunities for growers and harvesters to create an experience and connect with the public. There are a lot of folks looking at how we can leverage this.”

For now, all eyes are on Carroll.

Maine has about 18 full-time oyster farms, 14 small farms and 18 startups, according to Morse. Carroll is in the minority of oyster growers who double as tour guides. But that doesn’t mean others don’t exist.

“If a person wants to connect with a farmer, they should give the farmer a call,” Morse said. “They are in the high season now, but you never know.”

To make it easier, Maine Sea Grant created an oyster map in 2011 and updates it regularly. The map of self-guided tour of farms, markets and raw bars is digital, but it may be produced on paper soon.

“Like the Maine wine trail and islands trails,” he said

Still, tourists such as Amy and Jon Edwards are finding them. Amy Edwards Googled oyster farm tours before she stumbled across Nonesuch.

“I had assumed that with the general trend of ‘know your food,’ this would have been easy to find, but it certainly was not the case,” said Edwards of Wellesley. “I am glad I decided to see if there were any oyster farms up in Maine doing this before I came up.”

When compared to the lush beauty of Acadia, the Edwards couple said it was “tough to beat the tour, which gave us the opportunity to learn more about a food we love while out on the water and, best of all, fresh oysters straight out of the water.”

The new trends in tourism, similar to lobster boat tours, don’t work for all entrepreneurs.

“It’s not an easy thing for a grower to do,” Morse said. “Their main business is growing oysters.”

Mark Green of Basket Island Oyster Co., in its second season, is too busy meeting demand from wholesalers to operate tours.

“It’s something I thought about for several years. It’s page 79 of our business plan,” said Green, who sees aquatourism as “a great thing for the Maine economy — it’s like nothing else.”

But the arduous nature of oyster farming, which can take up to three years to produce a market-ready mollusk, has given him pause.

“If you are going to sell widgets on your shelf on Exchange Street, you can order them and open doors on the first morning and sell them. With oysters, the ramp-up time is significant,” he said.

One recent incentive Carroll orchestrated is a change in the state’s aquaculture laws to allow farmers to sell oysters directly from their grow sites. Without it, “it would be like visiting a winery and having to buy the wine at a grocery store,” she said.

Carroll approached the Maine Department of Marine Resources more than a year ago to establish a Maine Oyster Tasting Trail. All these initiatives help increase the visitor’s appetite for oysters, which taste different up and down the coast — Carroll calls it “meroir,” of the sea, like terroir, a wine term, which means of the earth.

Nonesuch Oysters can be found at Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, Earth in Kennebunkport and have been served at the famed Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant in New York City. Running tours takes time away from harvesting, but its needed revenue after a brutal winter when many oysters died.

“This will ease the pain in a production cycle that is low,” Carroll said.

Heading into the crucial tourist season, her phone keeps ringing with request to join her.

“Now I’m feeling very optimistic,” she said. “It’s a boon for us.”