York, Maine — I asked my waitress at Rick's ``All Seasons'' Restaurant in this quiet coastal town what she thought of Belon oysters. ``Don't think much about them,'' she said, ``because I've never heard of 'em.''
Less than a mile up the road, as we huddled around a propane-gas portable stove, I mentioned that exchange to Kevin Tacy, owner of York Harbor Export Inc. He groaned.
``Marketing. That's the hardest part of this business. People that don't know Belon oysters aren't going to pay the extra money for them.
``I tried selling them to some local restaurants. They'd order a dozen every other Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. And then they'd want me to deliver!''
They may not be walking the streets of York, but there are people around who do appreciate the difference between a Belon oyster and the American varieties such as blue point, Cotuit, and Wellfleet. Enough so that Mr. Tacy's business has about doubled every year.
Most of his oysters are sold to distributors along the East Coast, especially in Boston, New York, and Washington. They have a way of surfacing in the better seafood restaurants. ``A lot of them make their way out to Aspen, Colo., too,'' Mr. Tacy adds.
``I guess most of our clientele are pretty sophisticated,'' he says. ``They tend to be well traveled and most likely acquired a taste for Belons in France.''
Belon oysters -- Ostrea edulis, to be scientific -- are a European variety native to the coastal waters off Brittany. For centuries they have slipped down the gullets of hungry gourmets.
Farming them in Maine, however, is relatively new. Mr. Tacy started in the Belon oyster business eight years ago after graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a major in aquaculture.
``All it took to get started was a small boat and a large insurance policy,'' he says.
Last year Mr. Tacy air-freighted between 300,000 and 500,000 Belons from York, Maine, to as far away as the Netherlands, where they are distributed throughout Europe.
The foreign oysters have taken kindly to the salty depths of Maine -- if not to the strong currents.
``We can't just dump adult oysters in the water and let nature take its course,'' says Mike Appleton, who provides Mr. Tacy with the juvenile oysters. ``The current runs about six knots out here, so all the spawn just gets washed away. You just can't contain it.''
``I start seed oysters in saltwater tanks indoors. When they are about 25 grams [about 0.8 ounces] in size I sell them to Kevin, and we dive down and lay them them along the coast and out here in the York River,'' Mr. Appleton adds.
Local residents may be slow to pry open the shell of these imports, but the local sea life took to Belons immediately. Green crabs, boring snails, lobsters, and starfish can all do damage to the beds. ``Growing the oysters to the 25-gram size helps ward off some of the invaders like green crabs,'' Mr. Appleton says.
Whereas the local variety of oyster prefers the sheltered estuaries and inlets with their brackish waters, Belons prefer the colder, salty depths, which in turn give them their strong saline flavor.
There they sit quietly for two years eating a diet of algae and filtering some 100 gallons of salt water a day.
Harvesting them means dredging, weather providing, ``from October until the first of July or when the red tide hits -- whichever comes first.''
Why Belon oysters?
``If you're going to be successful in aquaculture, you really have to harvest something exotic,'' says Mr. Tacy.
Those who like them are willing to pay the price. ``We get 35 cents apiece for them here. Native Cotuits go for 25 cents.''
Mr. Tacy's largest customer is the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal in New York. ``They're selling them down there for a buck sixty-five apiece.''
``Are they really that different?'' I ask. ``You tell me,'' Mike Appleton answers as he rolls up the sleeves of his three shirts and union suit and pulls two oysters from the icy tank.
With a quick flick of the wrist and twist of the knife, Mr. Appleton drops a shucked Belon in my right hand and a Cotuit in the left.
The difference is apparent even in appearance. Belon oysters are round and very flat, while the Cotuit are more foot-shaped and fatter.
``Bottoms up,'' Mr. Appleton salutes.
The taste was surprising and dramatically different. The Cotuit was mild and almost sweet, while the Belon was strong, heavy in salt and mineral flavors.
``What's the best way to eat them?''
``The way you just did. Raw, with nothing on them,'' Mr. Appleton shoots back.
``What about serving Belons in an oyster stew?''
``Most people just eat them raw,'' says Mr. Tacy. ``They're really too expensive to eat any other way. It's not worth it to cook them, really.
``Raw is the way my daughter likes them at least, but she's only 4, so maybe she doesn't know any better.''
The dozen Belons I took back to Boston got mixed reviews. Two couples really enjoyed them, but one friend who has eaten oysters all her life had a hard time getting the first one down and flatly refused the second.
Proof, I guess, that they're not for every taste or pocketbook, but they're most certainly worth trying.