MIDCOAST — Only a few years ago, oyster farms dotted the Midcoast in magnified pointillist fashion, plenty of space between them. Today, a look at the Google “Maine Oyster Trail” (just type those words into your browser) shows those map points clustered together, overlapping even, as our clean, cold waterways play host to more and more farmers and harvesters of the bivalves.

There are currently 70 oyster farms listed there, alongside 45 oyster-serving restaurants (and that list appears to be incomplete). More than 40 oyster operations dot the map between Damariscotta and Harpswell alone.

Our beautiful state couldn’t ask for a better industry to bloom. Oyster farming is clean, sustainable, and even environmentally beneficial (those little critters basically give us even healthier waters).

How do you like your oysters? Roasted, fried, stewed, grilled? Or raw on the half shell, topped with bacon, blue cheese and hot sauce, or perhaps a minimalist drop of fresh citrus juice? The ocean-kissed delights are giving lobster a run for its money as the seafood star of Maine.

Back when it was difficult to find restaurants serving local oysters, King Eider’s Pub in Damariscotta and the Damariscotta River Grill were starting the trend. That was fitting, since that area’s river, home to the reliably tasty and succulent Pemaquid and Glidden Point oysters, among others, has been a rich source for the briny treasures for thousands of years. The river’s churn of salty and fresh waters, its cold filtering system and other features make it the perfect habitat.

Ancient shell middens (human-made heaps) along the Damariscotta River are evidence; they are among the largest in coastal America, created by the Abenaki and Algonquin people, long before European colonists arrived. A perfect outing is one that involves hiking the midden trails, and then seeking out some local oysters.

Did you know oysters are at their best in the fall?

Glidden Point Oyster Farms in Edgecomb is one of the older farms in the business. Started in 1987, it took some years of experimenting to get it right. Ryan McPherson says their growth has been mostly in the orders placed online “for their enjoyment at home.”

“The business used to be only restaurants, but now more and more people are eating oysters at home,” he said. “Our retail store, located right on the farm at 637 River Road, has been getting busier and busier, people are into learning about how oysters are grown and what makes them different. And we’re here to tell them.”

The modest one-room shop, adjacent to a picnic table and grassy area where making a mess is not only allowed but likely expected, offers up a half-dozen or so types of oysters to shuck and consume right there, along with oysters to go.

On a recent visit, a helpful young woman refreshed our shucking know-how, and left us with a lovely mignonette, a shucking knife and glove, and napkins. The fresh, bright and buttery range of several types of oysters was intoxicating, and only a libation and a side dish could have enhanced the experience (noted for future).

Today, restaurants featuring local oysters are now just a shell’s throw away from any point in the Midcoast. From fine dining to shucking them al fresco at a picnic table, there is a wonderfully wide variety of settings and ways to enjoy them.

At Tao Yuan in Brunswick, chef Cara Stadler—a Food & Wine magazine “Best New Chef” winner in 2014—bubbles with enthusiasm for the Maine oyster, and the fact that it’s a sustainable industry, offering new jobs for fishermen whose livelihoods are changing.

“And, they’re awesome,” she laughs. “We grow some of the very best in the world, it would just be foolish not to offer them regularly. We serve them year ‘round, from a number of farms; West Bath’s Winter Points are a favorite.”

You’ll find them at Tao Yuan with a lemongrass and Thai-basil mignonette, and on special menus perhaps in a spring roll, on gelée (gel), or with whipped cream with lemon and Tabasco.
Chef Ali Waks-Adams has featured Brunswick area oysters on her Tuesday night Plat du Jour dinners at the Brunswick Inn, and she buys from a variety of purveyors. “I’ll feature them again in cooler months. The last time I had them, they were in a miso soup with poached oyster ginger, and scallions.”

Over at Bath’s Salt Pine Social, recently voted “Best New Restaurant” by the readers of DownEast Magazine, chef/co-owner Eloise Humphrey is always experimenting. Right now, she says they are serving “quite a few oysters from West Bath: New Meadows, Eider Cove, and Winnegance. Also, Robinhood Cove, and Glidden Point, Otter Cove and Mookie Blues from the Damariscotta River.”

For a while, Humphrey served corn meal fried oysters on the half shell with charred salsa, the description alone enough to activate one’s saliva glands.

“My favorite way to eat oysters is plain,” Humphrey says, “but we serve them with horseradish, lemon, and our house made Beaver Dam Pepper hot sauce. I’m growing Shiso, a Japanese mint, to make a cucumber-Shiso mignonette to serve with them, as well.”

The newly reopened Robinhood Free Meetinghouse in Georgetown offers “Music on the Half Shell” on Thursday nights this month. Next week, on Aug. 17, oysters and beer will help flavor the rowdy, dirty blues of Muddy Ruckus. The Meetinghouse serves oysters from the Robinhood Cove Oyster Farm just down the road—they don’t get any fresher.

According to Tommy Bolster of Robinhood Cove Oyster Farm, their “cocktail oyster,” dubbed the Robinhood, “holds great flavor, a nice salty taste, with a clean finish.”

Bolster says they’re the perfect bite, and are less intimidating for people new to the oyster experience. They sell to a number of restaurants in addition to Salt Pine Social, such as the Osprey in Georgetown (served both as shooters and on the half shell with mignonette, and occasionally grilled); Bath’s Live Edge Lounge (currently serving on the half shell, with salt and reconstituted local kelp, and a peppery, house-made mignonette); and Gray Havens Inn in Georgetown (classic mignonette, with lemon).

Bolster’s father started the business in 2010, so they’ve seen the interest in oysters grow, and Tommy’s enthusiasm for the industry echoes Chef Stadler’s. “It’s great for commercial fishermen, it’s sustainable, they’re good for the environment … and everyone from the old timers to hipsters are loving oysters!”

“Every oyster is going to taste different,” he says, “Oysters produced on the other side of the island are going to taste different from ours due to salinity, briney-ness … You’re tasting the flavor of the water. That’s why people love touring farms and tastings, there is such a variety of flavors out there.”

For a great way to celebrate Maine’s oysters, watch for news on the annual Pemaquid Oyster Festival, at Schooner Landing in Damariscotta, the last Sunday in September. Search “Maine Oyster Trail” in Google for a list of farms and purveyors in the Midcoast and beyond.