So, where you been? A valid question at this point in the fall, especially after being largely absent from the interwebs for most of the summer. It’s a good question, too, one that I’ll answer with another: Where haven’t I been? Fortunately, I can say that I’ve haven’t been tethered to the computer. That tends to drive me nuts (as I’ve found during preceding summers in Maine), so I thought I’d find myself a part-time job to keep things interesting. Last year I worked at Rogues Gallery, hocking expensive clothes to the fashion class, a bit uncertain of why and how I had ended up in that position. This year the stars aligned and when a friend asked me if I’d be interested in working on a mussel farm out on the bay, I said yes immediately.
This is where I found myself two mornings a week, down on Portland’s working waterfront, walking through canyons of plastic lobster totes, fording rivers of bait fish effluence. This boat — this beauty — was the destination. I’m still pinching myself looking at the photo, trying to understand how I ended up swinging my legs over her gunwales in the pre-dawn chill so many times. I’m happy to report that the hum of a huge diesel engine below your feet definitely makes coffee taste better.
Each day I arrived to find a new scene unfolding before me down on the wharfs. I’ve tracked tides and obsessed about what they do to the beaches I surf, but I never thought they’d affect my commute. At dead low, this drop is 15 feet. At high, you can literally just step right over the railing and onto the boat. The ritual was always the same, though: over the railing, lumber across one boat (soon the be the work horse of the fleet once it gets some serious TLC), and then untie the other before hopping aboard and pushing off.
“La Cozze” is where I spent early mornings and early afternoons — it means “the mussel” in Italian. She’s been lovingly repaired and refurbished and cuts through the water in a way I had always imagined such boat might. If you’ve been on the water in New England, you’ll notice that she’s actually a lobster boat by design, but she serves our purposes just fine, hauling 1000 pounds of mussels like it ain’t no thing.
I love this rope, in fact, I’ve come to love all ropes. They’re one of man’s most primitive tools — unfailing functional, the backbone of trade and transport going back thousands of years. I’ve only just started chipping the surface of the whole knot tying thing, but that’s like a language unto itself. It’s amazing to think about how many people throughout history have tied up to a cleats in exactly the same way, utilizing the most basic technology to the utmost.
Out of Portland harbor and up the coast a bit on a perfect, sheet glass day. At this point I’m usually shaking the cobwebs out of my head with a cup of coffee from the thermos, bracing for the day of work that lies ahead. It’s a quick ride, sometimes too quick.
The first glimpse of the rafts through the cockpit. That exhaust pipe that you see there will seer flesh at any chance it gets. On days when you’ve been sweating through your shirt for eight hours straight it’s best to stay far away from it. You could roast a wiener on the thing, which might just turn out to be a good thing come winter.
I knew absolutely nothing about aquaculture when I started this job. These rafts are our fields, with a few hundred strands of rope hanging down into the frigid waters of the Casco Bay. The mussels attached themselves to the ropes naturally — they’re attracted to what seems to be an ideal habitat with plenty of food and almost no predators. The resulting product is incredibly high quality, with thin shells, a lot of meat and basically no sand or grit.
Of course, a lot happens between the time we pull them out of the water and they end up on your plate. This is where all that happens, and I think you’ll agree that it’s easily the best office on the planet. We harvest, process, package and deliver all on the same day, and three quarters of that happens inside this tin shed. Stepping aboard this barge is like stepping back into 1940. Everything is run on hydraulics (my boss uses vegetable oil to decrease our environmental impact) and the machines we use look like they were pulled off a WW II battle ship. It’s all very basic and simple: it’s good, hard work.
It’s easy to get too absorbed in the tasks at hand, but I try to actually take a look around once in a while while I’m out there. All around us lobster boats shuttle back and forth between traps, with sail boats traversing the horizon beyond. It’s loud — incredibly so, because we use a generator to pump life into the processing equipment — but with ear protection on all day, it’s also strangely placid.
This thing needs to become a restaurant some day. Seriously. Oysters and moule frites, Belgian beers on tap and that’s it. At present, it’s very far from that (I actually spend the majority of the day shoveling), but it’s got good bones to say the least.
This photo really doesn’t bring them out, but when I shot it, the channels in between the islands were absolutely choked with lobster buoys. At the time, lobster prices were at an all time low, fetching barely $3.00 per pound at most places locally. A confluence of factors including an early start to the season and bumper crop flooded the market, killing the margins for the boats that work these waters. Things are a little better now, but still not good, so if you’re a fan of lobster, think about eating a lot of it. It’s hardly an easy way to make a living, but preserving the trade means preserving a way of life that’s just about as real as it gets.
Speaking of which, you can buy Bangs Island Mussels here in Portland at Harbor Fish Market. Chefs, you can also get them for your restaurant from Browne Trading Co. — even on the West Coast. I’ll personally vouch for every last one of these things that I pull out of the water, and by purchasing them you’re supporting a truly sustainable fishery here in the US.
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