It’s amazing to me how a sip of a wine can vividly recreate a memory of a place.
I was tasting Sauvignon blancs the other day at CoolVines, a wine shop where I work part time. As soon as the crisp, cool, fermented liquid touched my lips, the resin quality and razor sharp acidity reminded me of a trip to Damariscotta, Maine about 23 years before.
We were sitting on the deck at one of the seafood pubs that graced the once-working waterfront. I was a chef at that time, working for Jim Ledue at Alberta’s one of the first gastro-pubs located in Portland, Maine. We changed our menu daily depending on what was fresh from the local farms and piers. He encouraged his cooks and all of his staff to taste food, preferably from near and also from places like Damariscotta way Down East. We were blessed in Maine to have a wealth of some of the freshest seafood-much of it shipped overnight to Japan for waiting diners.
Jim Ledue had told me about a place up the coast a piece that served Pouilly fumé -not the maligned “Chablis” in the box that was and still is served with every fish “suppuh” meal up and down the Maine Coast. This special place was known for its wine list, especially the French wines from the Loire Valley that went with a very specific kind of food, Belon Oysters brought over from Brittany in France to be introduced, then grown in vast beds surrounding the Damariscotta River.
In those pristine waters, many types of seafood are found living their lives far from the frantic pace of modernization. The relentless tides which churn and combine brackish mineral-laden river and icy cold ocean salt water only improves the specific terroir of the water-bound place. Tides rise and fall 20 feet or more with a frothing power.
Just north of the town of Damariscotta the products that are raised in tidal inlets produce whelks, lobster, clams, sea urchins, peeky-toe crabmeat and Belons. These were the usual fare at the restaurant we were sitting in. A stainless steel plate of oysters sat in front of me amid a swirl of locally collected and very colorful Dulse Seaweeds. The oysters were set haphazardly over the plate overflowing with roughly cut ice were lemon chunks, a red wine mignonette, and freshly ground horseradish.
I could smell the seaweed, saline-sweet and fresh. It stung my nose the moment we arrived having just been delivered from a local fisherman. An ancient wooden skiff was tied roughly to the deck. Wooden boxes of local seaweeds and urchins were being off-loaded.
I ordered a bottle of a mineral-tinged Sauvignon Blanc. Our feast was to be a few plates (then a few more) of several local varieties of oysters. I raised my tiny seafood fork to my mouth. All at once the taste of cool icy briny salt water rushed into my palate, cleaning it of the wine, immediately followed closely by deeper foam, all framed by a brackish sea-charged, living finish creating a vivant tabla rasa for the next taste. This oyster was deeply creamy with its liquor tasting of freshly raked grey fleur de sel — more liquid saline and life spilling out.
This stirred some of my deepest cravings. There is no wonder to me that crisp, acidic steely Sauvignon Blancs we drank that day were the perfect foil to this primal food. I dipped my oyster into the shallot and cracked pepper-infused mignonette, squeezed fresh lemon over it and chewed – breathing in the tang of the sea, then the softly yielding creaminess of its texture, its very soul so to speak, as this oyster was alive, unable to escape from my tongue and teeth.
I devoured every morsel on my plate and ordered another dozen, then another. Seagulls yelled for handouts. Sipping more of the wine I took in the day around me — a salt infused breeze that blew in as fog off the coast.
Behind the counter at CoolVines, I took another sip of Sauvignon blanc, reluctant to leave the realm of a perfect memory.