Heart of Virginia’s Chesapeake Oyster Country
Oyster tasting * Wine tasting * Art galleries
Ever since Captain John Smith first made his way up the Chesapeake in the 1600s, noting the plethora of oysters hunkered down in the clear waters, these briny bivalves have been a way of life in Chesapeake Country. The Northern Neck, a spit of land east of Fredericksburg, is no exception. And we’re not just talking about eating. Oysters have worked their way into the very fabric of the realm, in its aqua art, architecture, viticulture, and more.
I highly recommend basing yourself in Irvington. This small little town, scented with salty air, has the most adorable main street. Mind you, it’s not large by any means, but its little shops and cafés are as cute as can be. It’s a different world down here, one that’s tied to the Chesapeake. Hard to believe DC’s a mere two-hours’ drive away.
[stay] Tides Inn
Overlooking a small, boat-dotted Chesapeake Bay marina, the country-style Tides Inn has been welcoming guests since 1947. Decorated in British Colonial style, it has plenty of perches to sit in the shade and admire the watery views all around. There’s a golf course here, as well as boat slips, a sailing school, and a swimming pool. The guest rooms are luxuriously appointed but homey, with wood plantation shutters and Egyptian cotton sheets, making you want to relax and stay awhile. But it’s the eclectic offering of activities that sets the Tides Inn apart. Here are some of the possibilities:
? Take a mixology class using herbs picked fresh from the inn’s garden
? Join the Executive Chef in an oyster roast
? Take a jetski tour on the Rappahannock River
? Experience the Oyster Academy, which includes a lecture on Virginia’s oyster industry and ecology; and a one-hour harvesting tour with a Chesapeake waterman. After, you will learn to shuck your oysters and how to pair them with sauces and wine. The inn has done some good work in the oystering realm by turning the facing creek into an oyster sanctuary. Oysters thriving here will never be harvested, and their offspring will be flushed from the creek to populate working reefs in the Rappahannock River.
? And last but certainly not least: Sample an Angry Oyster. This is the Chesapeake’s version of Buffalo wings, with local oysters breaded and fried then doused with homemade hot sauce (the less adventurous can opt for the Slightly Pissed Off Oyster).
Chesapeake oysters suffered a huge setback in the ’80s and ’90s (thanks to water pollution, overfishing, etc), and only now are they reemerging with a vengeance. Chief among the protagonists are Ryan and Travis Croxton, who are on, what I would call, your typical hero’s journey.
The brothers inherited their grandfather’s oyster farm in Topping in 2001 and had no idea what to do with it. They were DC urbanites, working office jobs. Not to mention, the Chesapeake had just recorded its lowest oyster harvest in history; nearly all the Bay oysters were (gasp!) being trucked in from the Gulf of Mexico. But the brothers dug in, learning everything they could, and they became devoted to resurrecting the native Bay oyster.
Fast-forward to today, Virginia is seeing huge growth in its oyster population, leading the entire East Coast in oyster production. The Chesapeake Bay region once again has taken its place beside the world’s great oyster regions — and it’s being done on a foundation of sustainability. Much of this is thanks to their efforts.
The brothers entered the restaurant business in 2011, and today, they own six restaurants (Charleston, DC x 2, Los Angeles, Richmond x 2, Topping) and they fly oysters to restaurants across the country; in fact, the oysters that someone is dining on at certain restaurants in Las Vegas, for example, were guaranteed to be swimming that morning in the Chesapeake.
But what’s really cool about the Rappahannock Oyster Company is that it remains a mom-and-pop (or brother-and-brother) operation right on the creek, and they invite you to the dock, where you can watch the sorting process as well as see the oyster nursery where tiny little oysters are swimming around. You might be invited to join them out on a boat to visit the reef where the oysters mature. And, of course, you can enjoy slurping up some oysters at the indoor-outdoor tasting room and restaurant, Merroir, right there on the water’s edge. You can bet your oysters are fresh.
[fun]Oyster Trail joys
Virginia has created several “Oyster Trails,” linking oyster-related sites—anything to do with oysters, whether it’s a restaurant, cidery, art gallery, historic house, etc. You’ll find the sites in this getaway along Region No. 4 (Northern Neck). As you know, oysters everywhere have a distinct local taste, influenced by the waters, sands, and other environmental characteristics—it’s called merroir (same concept as terroir, but in the water). In this case, the Northern Neck variety are beloved for their sweetwater, light cream flavor.
? Art galleries & boutiques
The vibrant Allure Art Center, located in the town of White Stone, isn’t oyster-centric. But it works with many local artisans who love to paint oyster boats, oystermen, Chesapeake water scenes, and oysters themselves. You’ll find all kinds of exciting and fascinating interpretations here. A local artisan shop in the back sells art and handmade works, including an amazing forged steel oyster knife. The art center is also a lively center of musicals and performance arts (there’s a stage out back).
? Delving into the fascinating past
Historic Christ Church was built in 1735, the gift of wealthy landowner Robert King Carter to the region. It contains one of two extant triple-decker pulpits from the period—but that’s not the most interesting thing about it. Just as oysters touch everything in the region, oyster shells were mixed into the plastering that covers the entire vaulted interior, as well as in the mortar that holds the bricks together.
The Reedville Fisherman’s Museum in Reedville is the place to get the low-down on the region’s history, with oystering high on the roster. There are historic photos and historic tools, though the coolest thing are the historic boats moored out back. You can even take a ride on the Claud W. Somers, a skipjack once used for oystering. Special events are slated throughout the year, including an oyster roast in November.
? Wine tasting (and oyster tasting!)
Dudley Patteson, the head honcho at Dog and Oyster Vineyard, understands how the terroir—the influence of the water’s mineral content, rainfall, temperature, season, etc.—affects the wine’s taste. And here it’s all Chesapeake. With names like Oyster White and Pearl, you can count on the next step being a pairing. Wine-and-oyster pairings are offered throughout the year.