Eric Horne and Valy Steverlynck harvest their own particular type of oysters, hauling blue mesh bags of Flying Points from a seven-acre site on Maine’s Cousins River. Seven years ago, they left lucrative fast-track careers in Boston to move to Freeport and get into the oyster business. They know the flavors of oysters differ depending on where they are harvested.
“The flavor of our Flying Point oysters is influenced by a strong tidal exchange,” explains Eric. “On an incoming tide, they are nourished by cold, briny ocean water. On an outgoing tide, they feed on the nutrients produced in the vast marshes to the north of our site. The result is a complex flavor characterized by a hint of saltiness and a pronounced sweetness.”
Maine’s wild oyster population is small — the chilly water discourages natural reproduction. But because this delicacy is in high demand, farm-raised oysters can be a lucrative product. The risks entailed, however, are enormous: A couple years’ investment can disappear in a too-muddy bottom, be bulldozed off to sea by winter storms, or be eaten by starfish swarming in on currents. The Horne family works together, growing seed oysters in contraptions called upwellers — floating 8-by-20-foot docks equipped with electric pumps that circulate water through silos. The family then relocates their baby oysters from upwellers in the Harraseeket and Royal Rivers to nurseries in Maquoit Bay, floating the shellfish in mesh bags near the water’s surface and flipping them routinely in the summer sun. Finally, come late fall, the oysters make one more trip — to “grow-out” sites on the New Meadows, Cousins, and Sheepscot Rivers, where they lie on the river bottoms and feed on algae. After another two to 2-1/2 years, they are fattened up to chef-worthy size.
“A lot of work, oyster farming,” observes Peter, Eric’s father, as he heaves planks and spreads ice over the precious cargo now loaded on his pickup truck, headed for market.