How does an oyster find its way to your plate?
These briny bivalves have been a favorite of mine for years, but until recently, I didn’t ask too many questions about them. As I navigated my way through New York oyster bars, I began to wonder. How long does it take for an oyster to mature? What makes some oysters flat, while others have a nice round cup that results in a more plump bite? After falling for the slightly sweet, wonderful oysters of Ireland, would I find a domestic one that could compare?
To answer these questions, I traveled recently to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Here I chatted with oyster farmers, climbed aboard oyster barges, plied open oyster cages, and sampled bites from all of Virginia’s seven oyster regions. I wrote about learning to shuck oysters recently for Fodors.com, in an article called: Virginia is For Oysters — Kayaking, Wine, and Oysters in the Eastern Shore.
Here’s a sneak peak of that story: I stood with a shucking knife in one hand and an oyster in another, about to crack open one of the great pleasures of Virginia. After a couple clumsy stabs at the shell, I successfully nudged the oyster open, peeling back its lid to reveal the meat beneath. It was still cold from the river. I slurped the briny bivalve down, pausing for a couple good chews to bring out the flavor. I tossed the shell aside, immediately ready for another.
I was completely unaware of the history entangled around oysters in Virginia. One sunny afternoon as a boat glided along the quiet Lynnhaven River, I heard stories of oysters that were 10 to 12 inches long during the time with John Smith arrived on these shores. Today, for a full 12 months (or longer), Virginia oysters mature in the clear waters — literally absorbing the flavor and nuances of a precise location. This is why Virginia is home to seven different oyster regions, as in each location, the salinity of the water differs and a variety of flavors (from eelgrass to a distinct minerality) shine through in the meat. With each oyster, I was tasting a little piece of Virginia.
For oyster farmers, their creations are a labor of love. At the early stages, tiny oysters are about the size of your pinky nail, and placed in mesh bags. These bags are lowered into the water, organized in long rows that you would expect to see on a traditional farm. As the oysters grow, they are shifted to different mesh bags, and ultimately to cages.
One interesting fact is that farmed oysters are removed from the water during their growth and tumbled to encourage the development of a deep cup. This process results in meaty, plump oysters that are so desired by chefs and restaurants along the East Coast and beyond. Virginia oysters have found their way onto menus as far away as Hong Kong.
In the Eastern Shore of Virginia, oysters are on the plate the same day they are plucked from local waters. On my first night in Virginia, I sat down for a big plate of raw, unadorned oysters (local enthusiasts gasped at the idea of squeezing a lemon over these morsels). Shucking my oysters on request, the man behind the counter could tell I was from out of town. Placing the plate in front of me he said, “Welcome to the land of Pleasant Living.” When the first half dozen were gone, I wasn’t embarrassed to ask for more.
Hint: In New York City, oysters from Virginia are often found on the menu of Maison Premiere in Williamsburg.