Virginia is for (Oyster) Lovers

One of the many benefits of oyster restoration
Photo by Rappahannock River Oyster Company

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Oyster Restoration Project is one of the recipients of an Orvis Customer Matching Grant. You’re welcome!

The following article, by Mary Winston Nicklin, appeared in a recent issue of USA Today:

The sun sets over the Rappahannock River and the al fresco crowd at Merroir, the acclaimed waterfront tasting room, are merrily slurping oysters and sipping wine. There’s a fresh breeze off the bay, and deadrise boats — traditionally used by the bay’s working watermen — bob in their slips at Locklies Marina. Devoted regulars are quick to order their favorite type of oysters — Sting Rays, Olde Salts, Witch Ducks — but the newcomers — some from nearby Richmond, some from as far away as California — marvel at the sheer variety on the menu. Launched by cousins Travis and Ryan Croxton (who resurrected their grandfather’s business), the Rappahannock River Oyster Company (RRO) champions the unique terroir of the Chesapeake Bay (“Merroir” is derived from “terroir” and “mer”).

“Nothing speaks to each bend of the river like an oyster, which quite literally captures that specific location and serves it up to you,” explains Ryan Croxton.

Thanks to RRO and a legion of aquaculture farmers, the Chesapeake Bay oyster is having a renaissance. This briny bivalve can be found on some of the finest restaurant menus in the country — from Marea in New York to RRO’s own oyster bar at the historic Union Market in Washington, D.C. It’s chilled on ice at Whole Foods Markets; served in style at major gastronomic events (like James Beard Foundation dinners); and exported internationally to Canada and China.

To celebrate the triumphant return of Crassostrea virginica, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced the launch of the Virginia Oyster Trail on August 19. This major tourism initiative will connect travelers with the watermen who harvest the oysters, the restaurants and raw bars that serve them, and the Virginia wines and beers that pair with them.

“From the beginning, our mission has been to put the Chesapeake Bay oyster back on the map,” says Travis Croxton. “We’re really excited that the state of Virginia has created the Oyster Trail, which literally puts our oysters back on a map.”

Just 15 years ago, the Chesapeake Bay oyster was in crisis. Overharvesting, pollution and disease had wreaked havoc on the population. What was once so abundant that captain John Smith swooned superlatives (“Heaven and Earth never agreed better to frame a place for Man’s habitation,” the 17th-century explorer wrote in his journals) was critically depleted in the 20th century. Watermen only hauled 23,000 bushels in 2001. Last year’s harvest soared to 500,000 bushels — the most in nearly a generation. As a result, Virginia is now the third largest producer of seafood in the United States, after Alaska and Louisiana.

“The recent comeback is due to 10 years of good oyster survival and strong support by government, as the states have invested heavily in aquaculture and they’ve also partnered with federal agencies to make significant strides in restoring wild oyster populations,” explains Bill Goldsborough, director of fisheries at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF). “Virginia has built on a long tradition of oyster farming and encouraged new technologies like water column culture and special oyster strains.”

There’s a lot to love about this aphrodisiac oyster. For one thing, it works tirelessly for the environment. Much like coral reefs, oyster reefs provide habitat for other species in the bay. What’s more, each oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day. “The more oysters you eat, the better for the bay,” says Tommy Leggett, a Virginia oyster restoration and fisheries scientist for CBF. A self-taught waterman, Leggett owns York River Oysters, with oyster beds located one mile from where the last battle of the American Revolution was fought. Leggett has also helmed the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s successful oyster restoration programs in Virginia.

“Oyster consumption is up everywhere,” explains Ryan Croxton. “It’s a great story and it’s a great animal, so I’m hoping it’s still got a long way to go. Plus, it’s a sexy product – raw and unadulterated. It’s one of the few foods we haven’t messed with — no added vitamins or hormones. It’s the same damn oyster Native Americans were eating when Europeans got here. Talk about your heritage breeds! Our shift from energy-inefficient proteins to truly sustainable proteins (of which oysters is one of the few) is a good move for mankind, not just Virginians.”

The new oyster trail was the brainchild of Dudley Patteson, owner of Irvington’s Hope and Glory Inn, who set the idea in motion with several state agencies two and half years ago. The Pattesons also own the Dog and Oyster vineyard, which makes a wine specifically to be paired with Virginia oysters. Familiar with the popularity of Virginia’s wine trails, Patteson started musing about the state’s other local treasure: Why not the oyster?

The oyster industry is one of the longest standing industries in the state — dating back to the original Jamestown colony (1607) — and the oyster trail will immerse the visitor in the bay’s traditional watermen’s culture. “The oyster is part of Virginia’s cultural and culinary heritage, and now it will be part of the Virginia brand,” says Patteson. “The trail will also improve the local economy in Chesapeake Bay communities.” Expected to be put into place over the next year, the trail will have seven distinctive regions, reflecting the Chesapeake’s merroir.

Take the York River oyster. “It’s salty with a sweet flavor,” explains Leggett. “It has just enough salt to satisfy your craving, without dominating the taste of the oyster.” As a small grower, Leggett harvests 300,000-400,000 oysters a year, supplying six local Williamsburg restaurants (Le Yaca, Fat Tuna, Berret’s Seafood, The Trellis, The Aberdeen Barn and Waypoint Grill). Capitalizing on the farm-to-table food movement, the eateries proudly specify “Tommy Leggett’s York River Oysters” on their menus. Some nights Leggett can be found at Waypoint, chatting with customers at the bar about oyster aquaculture, even taking interested foodies out on the water to see the oysters firsthand.

November is Virginia Oyster month, with events galore, including the famous Urbanna Oyster Festival. Indeed, the fall is the perfect time to eat oysters. But the old adage that it’s only wise to eat oysters during months with the letter “R” (September-April)? “An old wive’s tale,” says Leggett. “Back in the day, it was safer to eat oysters in the colder months when refrigeration was unreliable. Today it’s safe to eat them year-round.

Watermen only hauled 23,000 bushels in 2001. Last year’s harvest soared to 500,000 bushels — the most in nearly a generation
Photo by Stephen Salpukas

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