Stalking the Wild Oyster Beds:
A Culinary Tour of the Rugged Country around Caraquet, New Brunswick
By James Rosenthal
Photos courtesy of Hotel Paulin, Caraquet Oyster Museum, and Tourism New Brunswick.
“The landscape is a state of the soul.”
Coming around each bend of highway en route to Caraquet, New Brunswick , the goggle-eyed driver sighs in the vague hope that he will finally see a glimpse of tranquil blue water. And finally, when the road meets up with the dramatic northern coastline of the province, the land where Acadians dominate the cultural and social fabric of society, it is as if this ride to nowhere (or so it seems) is worth the endless pursuit of the most exquisite oysters in North America.
The destination of choice in Acadian country is Caraquet, a small town hugging the Atlantic Coast of Canada — Europe is somewhere on the other side of the mists and fogs that creep onto shore at dawn — with enough good food and interesting people to make this out-of-the-way spot seem essential to any serious traveler’s experience.
The first stop in this heart and soul of the Acadian Peninsula is the Caraquet Oyster Museum, a small area at the back of a general store in the center of town. Gaetan and Marielle Dugas are the present-day proprietors of an oyster business that spans five generations and more than 200 years. Gaetan, blessed with a quick wit and a mustache that would impress Salvador Dali, notes that Caraquet oysters are now available all over North America, whereas just a short time ago you could find these choice oysters only in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. “The next step is to ship the oysters to France, where there is tremendous passion for the taste and texture of our product,” says Gaetan, who laughs when he adds that he will no longer to ship to California because the business people there do not pay their bills promptly.
ACADIAN ROOTS RUN DEEP
Gaetan can trace his French ancestry all the way back to a Frenchman who arrived in the Maritimes in 1616. The official version of Acadian migration to North America is that it began in 1604, when French explorers landed in what is now known as Nova Scotia. These trailblazers brought their families over to the New World, and transformed marshes into fertile farms with a brilliant dike system to control flooding. The English, feeling threatened as per usual, deported the French-speaking Acadians, who lived in exile (many moving to Louisiana) until they were allowed to return in 1763. There’s no denying that this Acadian pride runs deep in the Dugas family, who are quick to point out that Caraquet oysters are one of the fasting growing businesses in all of New Brunswick.
And after sampling a freshly shucked Caraquet Bay oyster, I was ready to sign on for a regular shipment — and willing to pay quickly and consistently to insure regular deliveries of this culinary delight.
Caraquet Bay oysters are classified as “small choice,” meaning they are about 2 by 3 inches in diameter. Oysters are usually classified as either choice or standard, qualities that refer to the shape of the shell. The “choice” oyster is flat on top and deeply cupped on the bottom.
Karen Mersereau is a passionate advocate and undeniable expert on all New Brunswick oysters, and just about any other food that grows or is cultivated in Eastern Canada. She runs (along with Gerard Paulin) the famous Hotel Paulin, another Caraquet business that has been in one family, the Paulins, for several generations.
Mersereau, who is the chef de cuisine at Hotel Paulin, a charming mansion with two amazing suites with hot tubs and impressive views, recently hosted a blind tasting to analyze the tastes and textures of local oysters. All of the tasters were sommeliers: “We tasted five different oysters from around the Acadian Peninsula and the Caraquet Oyster won hands down,” reports Mersereau.
“We tasted five oysters at that event. The first two are produced out of St. Simon Bay by Mallet L’Etang Ruisseau Bar Ltee, and the latter three come from Neguac and are produced by Maison BeauSoleil. [Neguac is considered part of the Acadian Peninsula, but lies but past Tracadie on the other side of the Acadian Peninsula, on the Northumberland Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.] La St-Simon (Shippegan) is available on a year-round basis; it’s cultivated in floating bags and finished on tables. This oyster delivers a superior shape and clean shell. La Mallet (Shippegan) is available in the fall and cultivated on ropes, the European method, which delivers a deep cup and high meat content. Maison BeauSoleil is available year-round and is cultivated in floating bags. The Caraquet oyster (“La Caraquette”) is produced by Ferme Ostreicole Dugas. The consensus is that these oysters have a richer taste, are somewhat salty, and are well worth the effort to enjoy the complexity of flavors. BeauSoleil is a specialty oyster with nice texture.”
A NIGHT IN THE KITCHEN AT HOTEL PAULIN
After driving around the local beaches and searching for the Museum of the Popes, a repository of papal history, artifacts and photos, it was time to sample the cuisine at the best restaurant in town. Dinner is a major event at Hotel Paulin, which is no wonder when you consider that Mersereau lavishes remarkable attention to detail while producing a cuisine that boasts fresh local produce and the Acadian influences that denote her unique style of cooking.
here is a typical dinner menu with Mersereau’s comments on preparation and nuance:
“Unlike the crab cakes I’ve tried in Boston, which have a potato-like texture with lots of filler, I make my crab cakes with 99% fresh crab meat, a small amount of herbed bread crumbs, and just enough egg wash to hold it all together.”
BBQ Lamb on Skewers with Local Peppers, Served with Wild Rice Risotto
“The lamb comes from Whitfield Farms in Sussex, New Brunswick. The farm is set in a beautiful, hilly region that’s near salt-water marshes. The lamb feed out on the grass which absorbs the natural salt flavors, and this gives the meat a special quality unique to this area.
I then use a Moroccan dry rub to season the lamb, and I’ll often put olive oil on the meat, turn the rub into a sort of paste, and let the meat marinate overnight. I cook the lamb on an outdoor grill and serve it with yellow and red peppers on skewers. One other nuance is that I’ll cook the lamb bones down and make a stock, and use the stock to flavor the wild-mushroom risotto. This way, the lamb flavor is absorbed into everything on the plate.”
Cod in Black Bean Sauce
“The cod is local and I serve it with a sauce made from black beans, fresh garlic, ginger, lime rind, rice wine vinegar and sake. I oven- roast the fish at a high temperature; cod doesn’t like to be handled too much, as it will fall apart, and so oven roasting on high heat is the perfect way to seal in flavor and moisture.”
“I steam the lobsters in sparkling wine or in a combination of beer and white wine. I’ll add herbs from our garden for flavor, and then reduce it all down for the sauce for my famous seafood linguine. I like to steam lobster in flavored water; Gerard (Paulin), like most chefs from Caraquet, likes to boil the lobsters in salted water, and in Nova Scotia the style is to steam the lobsters in a very small amount of water.”
One of Mersereau’s special creations is a line of delicious savory pies made out of seafood or meat. The pies — with a crust as light as air and brimming with fresh flavors — include clam pie, also known as pate au palourde; a shrimp pie made with small, delicate shrimp that are collected fresh off of local shrimp boats; lobster pie; and a meat pie that combines three or four different varieties of game (including moose) that’s cooked up like a stew with allspice, clove, parsley, green onion and garlic.
Acadian culture and pride are alive and well in Caraquet, New Brunswick.
IF YOU GO:
143 Boulevard St. Pierre Ouest
Caraquet, NB, Canada B1W 1B6
The easiest way to get to Caraquet is to fly Air Canada (http://www.aircanada.com) from Montreal to Bathurst (about 30 minutes by car from Caraquet) or from Toronto or Montreal to Moncton (about 3 hours by car from Caraquet.) Schedules change quite frequently so check the Air Canada website for more information.