Originally published in Belle:
Out of Their Shells
I’m not going to take sides. Half of sex (or is it three-quarters?) is all in our heads anyway, and if you believe that one little oyster might help the process, who am I to argue? Plus, I’m a true believer that the sensuality of great food leads us all down the path to a deeper appreciation of sensuality in general.
At the very least, good food puts me into a good mood.
Unfortunately, oysters have had a hard time for the last hundred years or so. In the Chesapeake Bay, a trifecta of pollution, over-harvesting, and disease has wiped out the wild oyster population. Most of the tall reefs where oysters like to live have been destroyed, and now, farming is the last gasp of hope for Virginia oysters.
Small aquaculture farmers like the Croxtons of Rappahannock River Oysters might be the solution. Recipient of the 2005 Food & Wine Magazine’s Tastemaker’s Award, the company supplies restaurants like Le Bernadin in New York, Vidalia in DC, and locally, Six Burner, 1 North Belmont, and Comfort, among other high-end restaurants here and throughout the country.
Years ago, Ryan Croxton’s grandfather warned Ryan’s father not to become a waterman. The work was just too hard and the oyster population was dwindling as the bay was decimated by disease and unchecked pollution. But Ryan and his cousin Travis weren’t worried about that. They both had jobs in Richmond and reviving the oyster company their family started in 1899 was going to be a winter weekend hobby.
Instead of dredging the bay for oysters like the their great-grandfather did, which destroys the bay’s fragile ecosystem, today the younger Croxtons string together a series of elevated cages where native oysters can be monitored for shape, size, and health.
Just across the river from the Croxton’s oyster beds, William and Mary’s Institute of Marine Science incubates genetically sturdier rootstock and seed oysters in long, bubbling tanks inside the Kauffman Aquaculture Center. If other watermen can be redirected into the oyster farming business, depleted populations like the blue crab will have a chance to increase their numbers, while the added oysters, like little aquatic vacuum cleaners, can sieve out the algae and sediment clogging the waterways.
Hardy Asian oysters have been introduced around the world to bring back oyster populations, but the Croxtons grow only the Crassostrea virginica, the native species of the Chesapeake Bay. However, different degrees of salinity in the water can dramatically affect how an oyster tastes and looks. By working with other farmers throughout the bay region, Rappahannock River Oysters produces distinctly different varieties.
Olde Salts and Snow Hill are from the Chincoteague Bay right alongside the Atlantic, so they explode in your mouth with a salty blast. Stingrays grow fat but less salty at Mobjack Bay, while the Rappahannock River oyster grows farther up the river in mostly freshwater and is, just as you would expect, the least briny variety, very sweet, and almost buttery. Not produced by Croxtons, but sometimes seen around town are James River oysters, which are both bland-tasting and at risk for contamination because of the pollution the river continues to carry to the ocean every day.
One of the biggest successes of the Chesapeake Bay clean up has been the Lynnhaven River. Since 2002, the environmental action group, Lynnhaven River Now, has worked with the Virginia Beach community to improve water quality and seed new oyster beds. Just last year, the Lynnhaven oyster—full of brine from the nearby ocean-- was available to eat for the first time in over a decade.
Although lots of lovely oysters get flown into town from as far away as Prince Edward Island in Canada (home of the clean-tasting Malpeque), it makes no sense at all, given the variety, to eat any other oyster in Richmond except one from the Chesapeake Bay. Now that we have them again, they’re just too good to pass up.
I like my oysters raw and unadorned. I’ve been a shallot vinaigrette aficionado, a spicy cocktail sauce lover, and, as always, a true devotee of melted butter. However, as I’ve eaten more and more oysters, I’ve found I don’t like their unique sea-shaped flavor obscured by the competition. Freshly shucked, ice cold, and in your mouth are the only instructions anyone needs to perfectly enjoy a good oyster.