Rather like taking the most popular belle in Savannah to Anchorage for the winter social season, belon oysters have been transported across the Atlantic to York Harbor, Maine. The Georgia peach's reputation for keeping the party alive may be well known, but can she survive happily? Who knows? In the case of the belon oyster, however, the answer is yes.
Belons are strangers in a strange land, natives of northern Europe and the menus of those three-star restaurants where money is no object, but unlike American oysters, which hug the shoreline, belons like deep water that is cold and consistently salty.
That Maine has. In fact, 99 percent of all American attempts to raise belons take place along Maine's rocky coast, where the foreigners thrive in the same water beloved by the local lobsters and clams, but not American oysters. The natives prefer warmer waters and shallower beds near estuaries such as those of Cape Cod, the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
And, while their tastes in habitat are different, so is their taste. The expensive belon oyster has a tangy oysterness that touches the heart and tongue of most epicures -- particularly when eaten side by side with blue points, chincoteagues and cotuits, or other prides of American waters that tend toward blandness in comparison.
The native and immigrants differ in one other very significant way. While American oysters perform all necessary functions of procreation under one shell, the belon is from the vive la diffe'rence persuasion and manages to be either male or female.
The arrival of belons in New England was inauspicious, a few brought in by Maine's state fisheries for research in 1947. Raising them for the table wasn't even considered. Who could imagine the commercial possibilities of an expensive oyster when Americans were turning up their noses at the blue mussel, which was also adored in Europe besides being abundant here, cheap and delicious?
By the early '70s, all parts came together. The American palate took a quantum leap, hatcheries learned to produce belon seed, and aquaculturists began to invent systems for producing commercial quantities of the belon, which is pronounced in the finest of restaurants as "beu-loan" (the second syllable pronounced nasally in French fashion) and in Maine as "bay-laan."
Kevin Tacy, president of York Harbor Export, was one of the first oyster farmers to bring along the belon with a system of trial and adjustment. "We've been at it since 1975," Tacy said, "and not a year has gone by that we haven't made some changes in the operation. Their natural environment is completely different than our Maine waters. Northern Europe has mild winters so we had to experiment with every phase of growth and still come up with a price that made sense in the American market."
In all coastal waters, the difficulties of raising any shellfish are well known. Only outsiders and fools wander in with visions of simple profits dancing in their heads. "Over 50 belon operations went belly up in their first two or three years," Tacy said, "and it takes three years to get them to market size."
The office end of York Harbor Export has a New England ambiance of grey, weathered wood inside and out, with a few lobster pot casualties in the parking lot, a lot of sun glistening on the water just several paces away. The building has enough space inside for a number of seasonal operations and, since the belon harvesting begins in October, the facility is used to shuck and freeze lobster meat when lobsters are abundant and comparatively inexpensive in late summer and fall.
Every belon oyster plucked from Maine waters could find an eager mouth in Europe, which never seems to have enough. Ironically, however, York Harbor Export prefers to deal only domestically.
"The aggravation is phenomenal and the profits aren't there for us no matter how much they charge for belons in European restaurants," Tacy said. "Between the price of the dollar and the price we're able to get from their importers and the cost of shipping, we've decided exporting isn't worth the trouble."
The department of Maine Marine Resources reports that most of the commercial belon raisers are having the same experiences and prefer to keep their business on this side of the Atlantic.
Tacy, partner Greg Tsairis, and Paul Murphy, their sales manager, look much like young wizards from Merrill, Lynch waiting for the wind to pick up so that they can sail on to Bar Harbor. The atmosphere is breezy and who would know that they've been up since 3 a.m.?
In Tacy's case, raising belons was the quickest way to living the perfect life. He could earn a living, be close to the water, and go scuba diving as often as he wanted. Belon culture was his masters thesis at the University of New Hampshire, which is about a half hour away, and he just carried it on into real life.
Tsairis also graduated from from UNH, from the Whittemore School of Economics, and immediately went to work for a lobsterman in New Hampshire. When he joined Tacy, he could combine his sea and business knowledge.
Tacy and Murphy are both from Massachusetts, and Tsairis is from New Jersey. "When you work in Maine it's best to be from Maine," Tacy said. "Fishermen always ask me where I'm from and I say, 'Around here.' "
Each spring, life for York Harbor Export begins with a new batch of belon seed from a hatchery that also raises seed for American oysters, scallops, clams and mussels. "There are so many chances for a slip-up that we drive over 100 miles to Bristol Shellfish Farms in Round Pond Maine and bring the seed back in Baggies." They take it to Great Bay, an estuary where Tacy began his aquaculture experiments near the University of New Hampshire. Ten thousand baby belons are measured into each tray, which is made of screening with mesh only slightly smaller than the seed.
This is where the belon spends its first year, which is not to say it languishes in the water. Tacy has developed a system of rafts equipped with a power hose that travels over the trays to clean them of algae, barnacles and tiny mussels. "It's like weeding the garden," Tacy said, "and gives the water nutrients a chance to flow freely through the oysters."
The following year when they are three times as big, they are transfered to trays of larger screening, this time 1,600 belons to a tray. They spend their first and second winters in nets that look just like monster Japanese lanterns, and are towed closer to the ocean and its warmer water.
By the third spring, they are large enough to fend for themselves, 2 1/2 to 3 inches long, and very thin. "We've leased five acres of hard, sandy river bottom in the York River," Tacy said, "which turns out to be the best way to cultivate the oysters at this point. Divers spread them out so that they are able to develop a deep cup, which is the hallmark of a good belon. Then on October 1st, we begin harvesting when the shell is 3 1/2 to 4 inches long."
And they keep harvesting through the frigid winters until the water begins to warm up in the spring . . . when the process of filling the trays in Great Bay and transferring the 2-year-olds to York River begins all over again.
"Winter harvesting is the toughest part of the whole thing," Tacy said. "By law we can't drag the bottom of the river until the lobsters go back to sea, and the belons must be gathered by divers."
Even shipping is a special problem. The deep-water belon has not learned to seal its shells in open air as the American oyster has. Coming straight from the water it will gape (open its shell) and allow some of the precious oyster juices to escape. One by one they must be set cup-down in molded plastic trays that the apple growers use to ship their best fruit.
With all of this special handling, no wonder they are so expensive. Boston's Maison Robert, a beautiful and prestigious French restaurant, has belons on the menu for $1.25 apiece, and the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York charges $1.75. In Washington, Clyde's sells them in season for $1.25 and Cannon's sells belons wholesale for 38 cents per oyster.
There's something more . . . a discovery that may change the entire belon situation in America. Two years ago an incredible find was made in Cundys Harbor, Maine, about 60 miles northeast of York. An enormous bed of wild belons was discovered . . . thousands, some say, and Kevin Tacy says millions. This time a lobster man in the early 1950s brought some belons from France and planted them. Nothing of note transpired until very recently.
According to Samuel Chapman of Darling Center, the marine laboratory of the University of Maine, the supply may be erratic. "Only 10 years ago, you would have been lucky to find one belon and four years ago you could turn up two or three. But two years ago, it had a population explosion. The base for seeding oysters is on top of open or broken oyster shells, and in Cundys Harbor you could bring in one with 250 babies growing on it."
Are the aquaculturists of the belon shaking in their boots after years of tray culture and nets and hoists, fearing that the wild oyster will have made all their tender care for nothing? Evidently not. The wild belon is a rough example of the elegant belon, with less attractive shells, uneven sizes and -- most important -- an uneven supply. The population could drop as quickly as it rose in Cundys Harbor.
Fishermen with little oyster experience are dragging the bottom for wild belons and the scene has taken on some of the characteristics of a gold rush. The Maine department of Marine Resources is moving now to monitor the situation.
Michael Goslin, who owns the Finestkind Fish Market in York, Maine, has been getting wild belons. "None of the harvesters know what they are doing yet, and we throw out as much as 40 percent of the catch because they gape and lose all of their juices."
So, the aquaculture professionals at York Harbor Export aren't particularly worried. They are covering themselves by buying and marketing the "wild belons" from Cundys Harbor as well as their precious hand-grown variety. Maybe in the next few years they will learn from nature and make their process of raising belons easier.
What does one do with an oyster, other than shuck it and eat it? Goslin, who takes belons from Finestkind and makes an oyster stew, says "I never measure. I just look around and see how many there will be for dinner and get busy. First I cook some peeled potatoes until they are very soft. Then I heat some heavy cream almost to the boiling point. And while this is going on, I open enough fresh oysters, saving every bit of juice. In a skillet I saute' shallots in butter just until they are soft, and then put in the oysters and their liqueur and simmer them until the edges curl. The potatoes are mashed or riced into the heavy cream, and the oysters, shallots and butter go in next. Finally I season the stew with white pepper, salt if necessary, and a little Old Bay seasoning."
Yes, they even know about Old Bay in New England.