Brine, Wine, & Dine in Eastern Virginia
By Cele & Lynn Seldon
“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.”— Jonathan Swift
Humans were devouring oysters long before 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift commented on already-popular oyster eating in England and around the world. Whether enjoyed raw or cooked, oysters are definitely a unique food considered a delicacy by many.
Today, oyster farming and oyster “tourism” is a big business in eastern Virginia—enough so that the Virginia Oyster Trail was established in 2015 to rave reviews. In his book, A Geography of Oysters (“The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America”), Jacobsen says, “When billions of oysters once more filter the entire bay every few days, it may again be as gaspingly clear as when John Smith mapped its waters in 1608.”
Oysters grown in Virginia and on the east coast are a species which tends to take on the flavor (called “merroir”) and salinity level of the waters in which they grow and are harvested. This merroir is most apparent when oysters are tasted raw, with no accompaniment or with a bit of lemon juice, vinegar, cocktail sauce, or varied-ingredient oyster sauces often called a mignonette.
Virginia oysters are divided into eight “flavor” regions. The general flavor profiles for oysters from each of these regions are outlined on the website, though oysters harvested less than a half-mile apart can have distinctly different flavors.
The Virginia Oyster Trail
The Virginia Oyster Trail was created to increase the awareness of the benefits of Virginia oysters on the local economy, with emphasis on community development, environmental stewardship, health attributes, and the cultural integration of Virginia’s aquaculture way of life. From the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay to the York and Rappahannock Rivers of Virginia’s Middle and Northern Neck, the Virginia Oyster Trail is a self-guided experiential program that offers a glimpse into the generations-old oyster industry and how it infiltrates the varied communities with unique aqua-artisan and waterman sites, as well as hospitality, cultural, arts, culinary and outdoor points of interest. According to the founders of the trail, “There’s something for everyone on the Virginia Oyster Trail!”
Trail sites on the Virginia Oyster Trail are divided into eight categories: Agri-Artisans; Tours; Restaurants; Lodging (often featuring tasty oyster dining options); Cultural; Artists; Art Venues; and Resources. Organizers of the trail were working on “itineraries” based on interests at press time, but it’s easy for oyster lovers to create their own Virginia Oyster Trail trip using the website’s categories, links, and more.
Also known as aqua-artisans, watermen, and oystermen, these businesses offer oyster farm tours, oyster boat experiences, winery tours (many pairing their wines with Virginia oysters), farmer’s markets featuring oyster vendors, and more. A great place to start is a tour with Dr. Lynton Land and Little Wicomico Oyster Company. A retired scientist and oyster reproduction hobbyist, he cultivates oyster larvae for the oyster gardener enthusiast. His knowledge on the life cycle of oysters is vast and provides a great introduction to oyster farming. From his home oyster hatchery, he then takes visitors on a tour of Little Wicomico Oyster Company to see how oysters get from the larvae stage to the plate.
For a great on-water experience, oyster farming pioneer Tommy Leggett and his Chessie Seafood and Aquafarms offers tours that start on land at his property, where he first demonstrates how he farms oysters from seed that he purchases from hatcheries. He goes on to explain the farming process as he takes visitors on his boat to several of his oyster growing sites on the York River.
Another great option is an oyster production tour with Rappahannock River Oysters. The Croxtons grow their oysters in elevated cages, keeping them from the bottom’s mud and the Chesapeake’s top oyster predator (stingrays). Along with their Rappahannock River oysters, the Croxton cousins also offer briny Olde Salts from Chincoteague, Stingrays from Mobjack Bay, Barcats from all over the Bay, and Rochambeau from the York River.
Dozens of other agri-artisan options on the Virginia Oyster Trail include: the Northern Neck’s Big Island Aquaculture Oysters (grown in floating cages for a lighter colored shell and clean taste); Ward Oyster Company (one of few vertically integrated factories, including their own hatchery); and Fat & Happy Oyster Company.
The Virginia Oyster Trail offers dozens of places to indulge on the tasty bivalve. Williamsburg Winery at Wessex Hundred offers multiple places to sip and slurp starting with their Wine & Brine Lounge on the patio of the Gabriel Archer Tavern. With rotating oystermen on hand Saturdays and Sundays, visitors can taste some of Chesapeake Bay’s finest, along with the winery’s perfectly paired wines, all while being able to chat with the people responsible for both. Another option is to take some oysters and a chilled bottle of Williamsburg Winery wine on a Virginia Capital Trail bike tour with Baskets & Bikes, which operates out of Wedmore Place.
There’s also beloved Merroir on the waterfront at aforementioned Rappahannock River Oysters. Visitors can get their oysters on the half shell or roasted with melted butter and other tasty options. Branch out a bit with their BBQ Bourbon Chipotle Grilled oysters or go hog wild with their Angels on Horseback, which are baked with herb butter and a slice of Edwards ham, another local favorite.
Another option for varied oysters and much more can be found at popular Chesapeake Restaurant at the Tides Inn. Dubbed as the “Best in the Country,” their slightly sweet, briny oysters are available on the half shell, roasted with herbed Parmesan butter and gremolata, and pickled watermelon rind—or their House Special Angry Oysters.
There are dozens of other non-chain restaurants featured on the Virginia Oyster Trail including: the Northern Neck’s Willaby’s Café (overlooking the Rappahannock River); traditional Hughlett’s Tavern at Rice’s Hotel; and Southwind Pizza; and Waypoint Seafood & Grill (serving up Tommy Leggett’s delectable York River oysters); plus, the Eastern Shore’s Great Machipongo Clam Shack; Island House Restaurant; Ray’s Shanty; Sting-Ray’s Restaurant; and, although not on the Trail (yet), Saltine in the new bustling Hilton Norfolk The Main along the waterfront.
There are dozens of cultural points of interest along the Virginia Oyster Trail that provide information and interpretive exhibits highlighting the oyster culture of the region. Historic sites, cultural centers, museums, educational institutions, and recreational and festival locations all offer a glimpse into this unique industry and way of life.
The Reedville Fisherman’s Museum represents the fishing and oystering industry of the area, with exhibits in several historic buildings and houses, as well as on National Historic Register vessels. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science, or VIMS, is focused more on the study of coastal ocean and estuarine sciences. The Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society at Ker Place provides a glimpse into the 19th-century lifestyle of upper class shoremen in the area. Plus, Barrier Islands Center focuses on the culture of the Eastern Shore islanders and watermen through centuries-old photographs and artifacts donated by Hog Island natives with tours conducted by island family descendants.
Historic Christ Church & Museum, completed in 1735, is one of the finest and best-preserved parish from colonial Virginia. During a tour, visitors can see how its builders used oyster shells to create a stunning plaster ceiling, as well as how bricklayers used oyster shells for the lime mortar in the church’s remarkable brickwork.
Another unique cultural site on the trail is Kilmarnock Antique Gallery, with one of the largest collections of oyster plates in the country.
Other cultural sites that have an oyster connection in the area include: Belle Isle, Caledon, and Westmoreland State Parks; Kinsale Museum; Menokin Foundation; Morattico Waterfront Museum; Stratford Hall, and many area visitor centers and chambers of commerce. The mother lode of oyster cultural festivals can be found at the Urbanna Oyster Festival, where thousands of people descend on this charming Northern Neck town every fall to celebrate all things oyster.
Artists & Art Venues
The Trail is teeming with locally-owned art venues that highlight original artwork and designs featuring the Virginia oyster in their media. Allure Art Center features the work of local artisans who have been inspired by the bay and the nature that surrounds the region. The works include paintings of oysters, watermen, and deadrise work boats, hand forged oyster knives, and more. Bay School Community Arts Center strives to unleash the inner artist through their gallery, art classes, outreach programs, and their Clay by the Bay potters’ guild.
Oyster jewelry abounds at various jewelry stores and artisan studios throughout the area. Burkes Fine Jewelers features a stunning selection of gold and silver oyster shell jewelry. Karen Tweedie Jewelry Designs features oyster inspired jewelry in sterling silver and bronze with cultured pearl accents and ornamentation. Delicate kiln-formed glass necklaces and oyster plates can also be found at Glass Imaginings.
Other places for oyster art on the Trail include: Ten Good Sheep Yarns (their Chesapeake Line are yarns and fibers inspired by the water and nature of the Bay area); and oyster shell candles and jewelry at Pearl.
In addition to the aforementioned oystermen and winery tours, there are several other tour options available on the Virginia Oyster Trail. During the fall, the Tides Inn offers the Virginia Oyster Academy, a half-day program that includes a short lecture on the history of Virginia’s oyster industry, oyster ecology, and tools of the harvest, followed by a one-hour harvest excursion by boat with a traditional waterman and an oyster shucking lesson and oyster pairing class.
Aforementioned VIMS offers varied tours that feature the opportunity to study the science of oystering. Interested visitors will see how scientists use CSI techniques to understand clam and oyster diseases in the Shellfish Pathology Lab, watch live animals in the VIMS Visitor Center, and tour the oyster hatchery. Tours are also available on Faded Glory, a 42-foot Chesapeake Bay deadrise workboat belonging to the historic Hope and Glory Inn.
There are several oyster culinary tours available throughout the region. Pleasure House Oysters features boat-based tours, including the “Tasting Tour,” where participants shuck and sample oysters fresh from the water, the “Waterman Tour,” with the opportunity to pull oyster cages and crab pots right out of the water, and the “Chef’s Table Tour,” featuring a dining experience standing in waders knee-deep in the Lynnhaven River where prepared foods are served at a table at the actual oyster farm. Taste Virginia Tours also offers an “Oyster and Craft Beer” tour, “Oyster and Wine” tour, and a “Bivalves & More: Eats and Drinks on the Virginia Oyster Trail” tour.
For More Information
Visit www.virginiaoystertrail.com for everything visitors need to know to plan a briny Virginia adventure. The Virginia Tourism Corporation’s extensive website, www.virginia.org, is also a great resource. Visit our website, thousandtrails.com, to plan your next adventure along the oyster trail or elsewhere.