"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, December 6, 2013

“Merroir’–The Rise of Artisan Oyster Farming And My Lifelong Passion For Oysters Of Any Kind

There is a great restaurant called Merroir in Topping, Virginia at the end of the Middle Neck, just across from Kilmarnock and Irvington on the Northern Neck.  It is the home of the Rappahannock Oyster Company, an artisan oyster farming operation which produces Olde Salts, Sting Rays, and Rappahannocks.  The company was started by J.A. Croxton in 1899 and has continued in the family until the present day.  The current owners, Travis and Ryan Croxton, have revitalized the business, capitalized on the resurgent interest in local foods, and have transformed it into a first-rate, high-quality operation.  The name of the restaurant, a deliberate marine twist to the now well-known concept of terroir, signifies what the company is all about.  Where you farm oysters in the Chesapeake matters a great deal, and knowledgeable customers can appreciate the difference in the company’s offerings.

As can be seen from the map, the character of the water is dramatically different for each offering. The Olde Salts are in Bogues Bay are grown very near the Atlantic Ocean and therefore are more salty than any other oyster in the region. Although very briny, they have a distinct taste of the ocean and are unique.  The Stingrays are farmed down near the York River, but in the Chesapeake itself at a point where it is watered by the Atlantic; but because of its more protected location, it is far less salty.  Its distinctive briny flavor, added to the characteristic sweetness of oysters from the Bay, make it delicious.  The Rappahannocks are actually farmed in the Rappahannock River, and therefore have little or no brininess; but especially when eaten with the Olde Salts and Stingrays, are a perfect complement.

Warshore Oysters are on the Virginian Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake, more or less across the Bay from the Stingray beds.  They are quite similar to the Stingrays, but have their own distinctive, slightly less briny taste because they are grown up near the end of Pungoteague Creek.  They are delicious.

Barren Island Oysters, of Hooper Maryland, is much farther up the bay and across from the relatively small Patuxent River.  The company describes its product this way:

Based in the heart of the Chesapeake, Barren Island produces the tastiest, juiciest, most succulent oyster on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Barren Island Oysters are raised with care in the open-waters of the Bay using the most advanced, sustainable aquaculture techniques. An ideal combination of nutrients, water flow, oxygen, and salinity produces Maryland’s best oyster.

Our open waters are bordered by the width of the Chesapeake to the west and the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge to the east, buffering our oysters from urban and agricultural run-off.

Off-bottom cages increase flow of water, protect the bottom of the Bay, and create shelter for small fish.

The map below not only gives the location of Barren Island Oysters, but provides an excellent overview of the entire Chesapeake Bay.

When I first came to the Washington area over 35 years ago, I was completely befuddled by the Bay.  I could never figure out where the Eastern Shore was, where Maryland ended and where Virginia began which river was which and how you got from one place to another. It seemed as though some bit of the Bay popped up everywhere.  I remember driving down through Southeast DC to Indian Head Highway in a direction I thought was away from the Bay, and lo and behold, there it was – a narrow creek which meandered out to the Patuxent and then into the Bay. When we took our first of many visits to the Tides Inn in Irvington, VA on Carter’s Creek, I knew it flowed into the Rappahannock which eventually ended up in the Bay, but was befuddled by people who gave directions like “One creek over”, or “On the west side of the creek”, or “Cross over the bridge to the Middle Neck”.  As can be seen from the above map, the entire Bay system is a fractal wonderland. There are thousands of inlets, creeks, waterways, and streams, let alone rivers.

I had my first oysters in France, and got used to the briny, intense varieties from Normandy, Brittany, Marennes-Oleron, the famous Vendee Atlantique, and those from Ile de Re.  What I remember most was the experience of eating these oysters.  It was like being in the brine, the spume, the salt spray, and the cold North Atlantic.  No taste experience had ever prepared me for such a complete sensory experience.  I could only close my eyes and travel. 

I was fortunate to then move on to the West Coast oysters, especially those from Washington State.  These Pacific oysters (as compared to the eastern virginica) are flinty crisp with an unmistakable cucumber finish.  As much as I praise the new, artisan oysters from the Chesapeake, when I taste those from the West Coast, I say I will never go back.  The variety is impressive: Dabob, Penn Cove, Quilcene, Hood Canal, Skookum and Totem Inlet, and many more.  The same care goes into raising West Coast oysters as in the Chesapeake.  Here are two short blurbs from a Washington State publication

These are great beach raised; triploid pacific oysters from the cool waters down near the big bend of the Hood Canal in Washington State.  These waters are fed by the runoff from the Olympic Mountains and are some of the most prolific oyster growing beaches in the state.  (Skookum and Totem Inlet)

Originating where the Samish River meets the northern Puget Sound, these beach raised oysters are intensively cultured to an extra small half-shell size before being taken to Whidbey Island's scenic Penn Cove in Washington State. The oysters are suspended from the surface in bags where they can feed and purge themselves of any grains of sand. They are seasoned in Penn Cove until harvested for each order. The meats are firm with a crisp, briny flavor leaving a fresh aftertaste. (Penn Cove).

I moved on to New England oysters – and there are many from Maine to Connecticut.  The big, plump Blue Points were the oysters given away free as bar food in Lower Manhattan in the 19th century, and now, although less plentiful, are still a staple. The Wellfleets from Cape Cod and the Salt Ponds from Rhode Island are both good, but without the distinction of the West Coast varieties or the best from the Chesapeake.  Maine has experimented with the Belon, a well-known premier French oyster, but has produced a large, unattractive, and uninteresting variety.

I had heard about the oysters from Apalachicola, FL, but had never had them. Most Southern oysters never make it to the half-shell circuit up North because of a concern for disease.  Although the risk of eating an infected warm-water oyster is very low, it is much higher than one from the cold waters of the North Atlantic or Pacific. Any southern oysters, especially those from Louisiana which produces a large crop every year, are marketed for cooking in Po’ Boys or stews.

My first stop in Apalachicola was the Up the Creek Raw Bar, a restaurant built on stilts overlooking the Apalachicola River. The oysters are served warm on a cafeteria tray.  No ice, no chill, no extravaganza.  Just sixty cents apiece for the sweetest, most succulent, and temptingly flavorful oysters south of the Chesapeake.  I ate dozens every day.  I could not get enough.

The Apalach oysters are so good because they are grown in a shall estuary at the mouth of the Apalachicola River at its junction with the Gulf of Mexico.  The beds are in very shallow water, and the oysters are harvested by hand in an age-old tradition of tonging.

There is enough local and visitor demand that there is no need to refrigerate the oysters.  The oystermen haul their harvest right up to the dock behind the restaurant, and they are cracked open as fresh as any oyster can ever be and served.

On our way back home to DC, we stopped in Bluffton, SC, another home to famous warm-water oysters on the May River. While not as exquisite as the Apalachicola oyster – no where near the complexity and sweetness – Bluffton oysters are special.  The Bluffton Oyster Company has been in business since 1899, and the family still pays as much attention to quality and quality control as ever before.

Oysters are like wine.  Many factors determine their taste – the temperature of the water, its salinity, the taste and flow of the rivers which feed them, the depth of the oyster bed, the flora and fauna of the marine environment, and many more.  A lot of care goes into oyster production, and the new breed of artisan growers, like the Croxton cousins of Rappahannock Oyster Company who are intent on revitalizing the Chesapeake Bay brand are especially concerned with ‘merroir’.  They are focusing on growing ‘locavore’ but not because of current fads.  They know that the Bay can produce remarkable oysters, and can achieve the micro-taste distinction of their competitors.

There is nothing like an oyster.  It is the complete taste experience. One day I went up to the Hog Island Oyster Farm in Northern California.  I knew their oysters because of the many rounds I ate at their restaurant in the Ferry Building in San Francisco. I and my friend bought a sack of 100 mediums, shucked, and ate them all.  It was the only time in my life – before or after – that I found my oyster stopping point. At restaurants in Washington or Apalachicola I always start with two dozen and easily move on to a third.  I stop only because I think I should, not because I really want to; but at Hog Island, 50 was clearly my limit. My love of oysters being almost an obsession, I easily and without a second thought downed another two dozen the next day at Zuni’s on Market Street.

I know that I haven’t tried every American oyster, but I have put a pretty good dent in the list.  There is a great oyster place in the Village in New York City called Aqua Grille.  They change their oyster selection every day.  Here is today’s:

Blue Point Oysters - Connecticut
Cuttyhunk Oysters - Massachusetts
Lady Chatterley Oysters - Nova Scotia
Rome Point Oysters - Rhode Island 
La St. Simon Oysters - New Brunswick
Malagash Oysters - Nova Scotia 
Ninigret Cup Oysters - Rhode Island
Chefs Creek Oysters - British Columbia
Fanny Bay Oysters - British Columbia 
Onset Bay Oysters - Massachusetts 
Stellar Bay Oysters - British Columbia
Willapa Bay Oysters - Washington
Eagle Creek Oysters - Washington
Moonstone Oysters - Rhode Island 
Pemaquid Oysters - Maine
Royal Miyagi Oysters - British Columbia
Cape May Oysters - Delaware
Blackberry Point Oysters - P.E.I. 
Indian Creek Oysters - P.E.I. 
Cotuit Oysters - Massachusetts
East Beach Blonde Oysters - Rhode Island
Kumamoto Oysters - Washington
Hama Hama Oysters - Washington
Sweet Neck Oysters – Massachusetts

Whenever I travelled to India and made a stop in London, I would make a beeline for Bibendum, an oyster bar in the old Michelin Building in South Kensington.  

The new Oyster Bar foyer

It was famous for its ‘Scottish Rocks’, oysters from the cold waters of Scotland, English Colchester Rocks, and other varieties from the Irish Sea. 

When I travelled to West Africa and made a stop in Paris, I would head for the Brasserie du Terminus du Nord and eat dozens of Brittany oysters.  Even after a long Transatlantic flight, I stopped at the Sheraton Airport Hotel only long enough to drop my bags, then it was the the fast train into the Gare du Nord. 

I read an article recently about oyster farming in Namibia – a small-scale enterprise begun by a young Frenchman which has not grown significantly.  I am like a skier who wants to ski every major slope in the world; or the mountain climber who will never be happy until he scales the highest peaks.  I want to eat oysters from the most far-flung parts of the world.  Here is a picture of some lucky stiffs enjoying Namibian oysters.  I’m next.

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