If you're looking for the short answers to those questions, it's not that straightforward. But in a nutshell, Belons are from France, and no, they are not rare... at least not anymore. With that said, Belons deserve to be understood considering their complex history and taste. So this week, we're going to take a deeper look at this interesting oyster.
There are multiple names for the Belon -- European Flat, Harpswell Flat, etc., but it's scientific name is Ostrea Edulis. The oyster is of a different species than its North American counterparts (Crassostrea virginica and Crassostrea gigas) and originates from Europe, hence the name European Flat. A true Belon is only harvested from the Belon River in France.
In the 1950's, scientists transplanted Belon oyster seed from the Netherlands to Maine in hopes of cultivating them in North America as an alternative source. They eventually abandoned their efforts because they saw no short-term results, but ten years later, the oysters began to grow wildly in various beds along the Maine coast. It was not until the 1980's when significant numbers started to show. Today, Belons can be found in Maine's rivers and islands such as Casco Bay and the Damariscotta River.
Many oyster sources claim that Belons are rare oysters, supposedly an estimated 5,000 are harvested a year. Well, that was 20 years ago, and I guess no one bothered to give an update. Today, Pangea can move up to 10,000 Belons a week, and our oystermen in Maine can harvest an average of 5,000 a day! Harvest season is limited to mid-September through mid-June when they're best. During the summer, the oysters spawn and start re-populating the coastal rocks that they thrive on.
According to Steve Bowman from Browne Trading in Maine, Belon supply was never really consistent in the past because there wasn't really a demand for them, and it was difficult getting oystermen to dive for them consistently, especially in winter. Belons are pretty delicate oysters, so it's not preferable to drag or rake them. They should be hand picked underwater. As oyster demand grew in areas like fine dining, the Belon got more attention and restaurant requests, which eventually motivated more oystermen to harvest these oysters. Steve says that despite the proximity of supply, local Mainers still prefer Eastern oysters like Pemaquids over Belons.
Belons require a lot of extra TLC because they are so delicate. At Pangea, we have finally mastered the process of distributing Belons, but it is still a lot of work. Belons are a weaker species than its American cousins. For them to stay alive out of the water, they need extra help from rubber bands to keep their shells closed and their liquor from leaking out.
Each Belon needs its own rubber band. The videos are playing at 8x the original speed. Now imagine rubber banding more than 8,000 oysters a week! That's a lot of time and hand aching work!
And because the oysters are rather flat, they definitely have to be packed cup side down so there's no risk of them losing their liquor, which means we hand pack each box of oysters we ship.
Don't worry, you're not the only one. Many people don't know that they are widely available, so now you can go seek them out! To be completely honest, you'll either love it and swallow it, or hate it and spit it out. What's truly rare is someone who doesn't feel one way or another. Make sure you throw all your expectations of what an oyster should taste like out the window. Belons have a mineral quality (some describe as sucking on a copper penny) that has notes of hazelnut. You may taste something completely different, but it won't be like any other oyster you've tasted before.
If you're looking for something exciting this fall or getting your customers to try new things, Belons will definitely be a treat. Even if they're not as popular as your Wellfleets, you'll get a few "oohlala"s and "hip hip hooorays" from your die hard oyster geeks.
Correction: October 8, 2014
An earlier version of this post misstated that Belons cannot be raked. Oystermen do drag and rake for Belons, but diving is the preferred harvest method.