We turn our rental car into the Linkletter's property and park near a small worn building. This will be fine for overnight, I think positively. It turns out to be a storage shed for oyster trays. The actual cottage, obscured by hedges, overlooks Prince Edward Island's New London Bay. Across the water sits Raspberry Point, sidling the shore of PEI National Park. Sand dunes curve in the distance and beyond them, the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Add a spectacular sunset and you almost forget about eating oysters at all. Almost.
Last summer, we'd been invited by Scott and Margie Linkletter to visit while we vacationed in PEI. Aside from running a successful artisanal cheese business – which is how we first got acquainted – Scott is also the owner of COWS ice cream and Raspberry Point Oysters. The company produces four million oysters each year broken down into three brands: the Raspberry Points, Lucky Limes (which have a green tinge to their craggy shells) and Shiny Seas, which are a smaller, cocktail size. All grow in the pristine, chilly waters off Raspberry Point on the north shore of PEI.
The oysters are harvested from spring to fall. Later season oysters will be a little meatier as they fatten up for winter. Raspberry Points all fall into the top grade "choice" category meant for serving on the half-shell. Choice oysters must be rounded and fairly symmetrical, with a deeper cupped bottom; this shape makes them easier to open and produces plumper meat.
Before dinner, Scott offers to take us out on the boat to gather fresh oysters. Our first stop in the waist-deep water reveals orderly rows of plastic oyster trays, hidden like lost cargo.
These trays contain oysters that have already been graded and sorted (by size and brand) after harvesting. They are then returned into the water and their locations are identified with markers. When an order needs filling for Raspberry Points or Lucky Limes, the crew goes out to this underwater "pantry" and pulls up what they need, ensuring oysters are always delivered fresh from their natural habitat.
Cruising leisurely toward Raspberry Point we pass rows of wooden stakes poking out of the water. Swung between them are long oval baskets that hold oysters, still growing to the standard size of 8 to 9 centimetres. Scott is testing out this basket system, which is an alternative to farming oysters on the ocean floor.
Moments later, just outside the bay we reach the oyster beds and drop anchor. Scott, dressed in his fishing waders, gets into the water and begins to rake up some for dinner. The late afternoon light is golden, the breeze is gentle and freshly picked oysters are placed at my feet. I am not lifting a finger. This is a darn good vacation.
As I romanticize the life of the oyster crew, I am reminded that to be available year round, oysters need to be retrieved even in the winter. They stop feeding and hibernate once temperatures drop below 5 C. As winter approaches, the presorted oyster trays are put in cages and moved into deeper water so they don't get crushed by ice that can become a metre thick. The crews use chainsaws to saw through the ice, working in freezing weather to get oysters delivered.
The taste of a cool, briny oyster conjures the ocean quicker than listening for the surf with a seashell to your ear. For my four-year-old, this connection was instantaneous, and then, for me, instantly awkward.
At dinner we offered one to my son Felix. I was proud of him for agreeing to put a shucked oyster to his mouth for the first time. As the salty liqueur hit his lips he made a face, then lit up with recognition, "It's like the ocean." (I beamed, such a connoisseur!) Then, "I puked it up." (Uh-oh.)
It seems the ultrafresh salt hit evoked Felix's first experience in the Atlantic where he was swept under a wave only to emerge spluttering and indeed, expelling much seawater.
Bright side, more oysters for me. I pick up a Raspberry Point and welcome the salt kick and clean, mineral notes that mellow to a vibrant but sweet finish. Scott explains that this sweet flavour comes from the adductor muscle that is used to hold the shell closed.
Scott talks about the importance of terroir. If you put an oyster in a certain location of water it will filter that water and pick up the area's unique flavour profiles – just like grape vines that pick up characteristics of their soil.
Cool temperatures also mean the oysters can take five to seven years to reach top size, but they also have a longer shelf life.
Scott tells us that they can be kept in the fridge for up two to three weeks. "Hmm," I think, "two to three weeks, that's longer than most leftovers."
You know what I'd like to hear more of at my house, "Oysters on the half-shell, again ?"
Globe Travel dug up a few tour companies to help you try your hand at harvesting.
PEI Culinary Adventures
Chef Ross Munro can customize an oyster experience, or you can book his half-day or full-day Seafood Sensations trip. At tour's end you'll enjoy a freshly prepared shellfish feast From $375 to $675 a person; 902-394-5910; peiculinaryadventures.ca
Experience PEI Starting in June, the Tong & Shuck tour takes visitors out in an oyster dory where you'll harvest your own, then slurp them back while bobbing off Salutation Cove. $85 each for two to three person tour; 1-866-887-3238; experiencepei.ca
Paradise on the Sea Adventures
The five-hour Bar Clamming tour gives you a chance to swim out and dig up a clam dinner (dangerous currents put the oysters out of reach here, but are included in your meal). Wetsuits, masks and snorkels are provided. Tours start in July. $105; 1-888-637-1317; peitunafishing.ca