Delicious food, served with a helping of heritage on the side
“WE BUY CLAMS” was posted next to a warehouse nestled in the Maine woods. If they buy clams, I reasoned, maybe they would sell us a few pounds.
Behind the building, men and women wearing muddy clothes and rubber boots were hauling baskets and buckets from pick-up trucks. Inside, several people waited by scales while their harvests were weighed. The damp, cool air was filled with the sound of water and the voices of the clammers with their thick Maine accents.
Clams were everywhere—in wire baskets, white plastic buckets and huge tubs. Amid containers of grey and white shells, I spotted colour. I peered into a tub of green and purple spines.
“You like sea urchins?” asked the man who was weighing clams.
I had always wanted to try a sea urchin. While I was saying this, the man pulled a knife from his pocket, cut one open and described what part to eat. I put the golden flesh into my mouth and savoured the incredibly rich flavour.
He sold us three pounds of freshly dug clams and wished us a good day. And a good day it was. We explored back roads that skirted coastal inlets, visited a small museum, met friendly Mainers, and later enjoyed a feast of steamers.
Just one day along the Downeast Fisheries Trail.
Sea urchins are newcomers to the Downeast Maine fishery. In the 1800s, cod and herring supported the economy. At one point, 75 sardine canneries operated in the region. Many stops on the fisheries trail celebrate the history of herring, including Prospect Harbor, site of the last sardine cannery that operated in the US. At grocery stores, you can find gourmet canned herring fillets—products of Canada sold under the label of Bar Harbor Foods.
The Downeast Fisheries Trail is a directory of 45 fishery-related sites, including parks, museums, wharves and fish hatcheries. The trail, stretching along the coastline roughly from Calais to Belfast, is for people who want to avoid dull major highways and experience real Downeast Maine.
The trail website (downeastfisheriestrail.org) provides a fantastic (and convenient) way to plan a holiday. Pick and choose which sites to visit; all are accessible by car. Along the trail, you will encounter stunning scenery and delicious seafood. People in the area take pride in their fishery heritage and welcome visitors.
The area offers a spectrum of choices for seafood dining. You can cook seafood over a campfire, eat out at a roadside diner or dine at an elegant restaurant. Even though the fisheries trail begins at the New Brunswick border, Maine cuisine seems slightly different—from a greater emphasis on clams and crab with regional twists to the way seafood is cooked, served and sold.
Small seafood markets can be found along the coast. Sometimes the harvesters sell clams or crabs from their houses. Look for their roadside signs, or ask someone you meet along the trail. Many sites are staffed by people who can recommend the best places to find local seafood.
Maine lobsters are the same species as those caught in Atlantic Canada, but the eating experience differs. Most Canadian lobsters are caught before they moult when they have hard shells (this makes them easier to ship). In contrast, most live lobsters sold in Maine are ‘new’ or ‘soft’ shelled.
Soft- or hard-shelled: which is better? Depends on who you ask. Hard-shelled lobsters generally have more meat than soft-shelled. However, soft shells make it much easier to get the meat. As for taste, the Maine Lobster Marketing Collaborative states “the meat is at its most flavorful and tender” in soft-shelled whereas the Lobster Council of Canada says “hard-shelled lobster meat is considered to be the tastiest.” In my opinion, lobster is delicious regardless of the thickness of the shell.
Along the Downeast Fisheries Trail, you can find lobster steamed, boiled or served in rolls. A few restaurants offer the classics—lobster thermidor and bisque. Some chefs take a more playful approach and use lobster in sushi, gnocchi or macaroni and cheese.
For a fun and tasty dinner, indulge in a lobster bake. Lobsters, often with mussels, corn on the cob and new potatoes, are steamed over boiling seawater. Blueberry pie is the traditional dessert.
Soft-shell clams are dug in mudflats all along the trail. As in Atlantic Canada, clams are often fried or made into chowder. In Maine, however, soft-shell clams are also steamed and served with the cooking broth and melted butter.
Crab is available throughout Downeast Maine. You might find containers of cooked Jonah or rock crab meat in stores, and crab cakes and rolls at diners.
Oysters are farmed and harvested from the wild. To experience their full flavour, try oysters on the half-shell (i.e. raw). If you prefer them cooked, traditional recipes include the elegant and rich Oysters Rockefeller, fried oysters and oyster stew.
Scallops, shrimp, mussels, halibut and farmed salmon are also available. An app to help consumers find seafood along the trail is being developed.
Recognizing our shared fisheries heritage, the Downeast Fisheries Trail might extend into New Brunswick in the future. Meanwhile visit the website (downeastfisheriestrail.org) to plan a trip to Maine. You’ll find maps that highlight beautiful spaces, working waterfronts and intriguing historical sites.