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Discover New Brunswick’s Beausoleil oyster

Plus delicious ways to serve oysters all winter long

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Jean-Francois and Maxime Daigle use long grappling hooks to heave bags of oysters into their flat-bottomed boat. Photo: Ashley Erb and Mike Erb

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By the Northumberland Strait’s chilly northern mouth, on a flat bay ringed with sandy beaches, brothers Maxime and Jean-Francois Daigle launch a silver, flat-bottomed boat into choppy, white-tipped water, heading toward their experimental oyster beds.

Through their thick beards and dark sunglasses, it’s hard to tell these brothers are only in their mid-20s. Maurice Daigle, their father, is a Canadian oyster farming pioneer and an owner of La Maison BeauSoleil. Through him they’re learning how to navigate the life they were born into, one connected to the sea and nature’s rhythms, with what it takes to sell a luxury product in a competitive 21st-century international market. And Maxime has the Instagram account to prove it (@maxbeausoleil).

If you’ve ever eaten oysters in a fancy restaurant, you’ve probably tried Atlantic Canada’s world-renowned Caraquet, Malpeque, Bluepoint, and Beausoleil oysters. Here, in Aldouane, N.B., the wind blows hundreds of floating black mesh bags, strung together on rope and anchored into the riverbed, into sweeping arcs.

“They’re like grapes of the sea,” Maxime gestures towards the beds. They require constant maintenance and vigilance, he says, primarily due to predatory sea stars and battering from tides and stormy weather. Using a knife to pop open one that’ s ready for harvest, he hands over the small, round-cupped cocktail oyster that is Beausoleil’s trademark. Almost literally: in 2000 they were the first company in the world to sell the smaller, party-friendly size. The oyster is salty and chewy, a bit sweet on the finish, and makes you want to eat a hundred more.

In October, the brothers, along with the 90-some New Brunswick oyster farmers who work for Beausoleil, lowered beds, flooding their pontoons with water to hibernate them for winter. The bags will rest in the gap against the river’s unfrozen bottom, either to be harvested mid-winter or wait for the cycle to start again in the spring.

In the sorting facility nearby, workers in aprons and gloves chisel small oysters off bigger oysters. Every Beausoleil oyster will pass through this stainless steel conveyor belt annually during its three- to seven-year life. The machine takes a picture of each oyster and sorts it back into a mesh bag based on size. “Everything that’s here goes back in the water,” says Maxime.

Maurice, a compact man with a silver, well-groomed moustache, worked for the National Parks before starting the business with his father. They started with mussels, which didn’t grow well in the area. Maurice and his wife, a biologist, hoped the business, which they started 16 years ago, would put their sons through school. Today Maurice’s sons are nationally ranked oyster-shucking competitors who travel around the country representing the brand.

“They’re good ambassadors,” says Maurice. “They know the farming techniques, and they bring that to restaurants, so they can explain it.”

In 2010, Beausoleil, which is currently owned by three partners, was producing about three to four million oysters. This year they expect to ship 10 to 12 million as far away as Hong Kong. “We were opening oysters in Quebec last spring, and some of the fellas said Beausoleil is the classic,” says Maurice. “In California some growers said we set the bar. It’s fun to hear comments like that.”

Down a dirt road minutes outside Aldouane, in the small yellow cabin Maxime rents from his parents, cook Dennis MacDonald dons an apron. As he throws a roasting pan full of oysters into the oven to broil, MacDonald laments that more Maritimers don’t savour oysters regularly.

“If you’re not exposed to them, how are you ever going to know?” says MacDonald. “Oysters literally travel with their home, their terroir. They’re the most perfectly seasoned, delicious morsel.”

Next, the young cook from Miramichi, N.B., who hopes to open his own restaurant someday, tosses a homemade Tex-Mex rub with fine cornmeal. He’s making oyster po’boy sandwiches. The oyster farmer and the cook wolf down the first two in a couple of bites. “That’s delicious,” groans Maxime, closing his eyes. But there’s just one problem: they’ve run out of oysters.

Five minutes later, wearing chest-high camouflage waders slicked with salt water, Maxime trudges out of the frigid waters of the Northumberland Strait like a marine bigfoot, slinging black mesh bags in either hand—he keeps a backup stash in the waters outside his home.

He opens one bag, pouring an extravagant pile of oysters onto the picnic table. With flick after flick of his wrist, he shucks dozens of the striped grey and white bivalves into a tiny enameled pail.

“We’re proud to be New Brunswickers. We’re proud to be Acadian in New Brunswick,” he says, handing the pail off to MacDonald. “It’s the best thing in the world to be working in our home province. I love it. I adore this thing. I want to die doing this. If I could do this for the rest of my life, I’d live a happy life.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story implied that Maurice Daigle is the sole owner of La Masion Beausoliel, in fact he is one of three owners.

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