New Oyster Cult

With big growth in production and a burgeoning reputation in the global market, It’s boom time for Virginia oysters. Here, we offer news from the oyster beat, and recipes worthy of the Chesapeake Bay’s star bivalve.

All kinds of good things are hatching from Virginia’s oyster beds. Growers are expanding into new territory abroad, developing boutique oysters and popularizing distinctive aquaculture techniques. 

Virginia is the top oyster producer in the mid-Atlantic region, according to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Nearly 2,000 commercial oyster farmers and wild harvesters work the Chesapeake Bay, and they hauled in more than 630,000 bushels during the 2015-16 season. That’s twice the number from five years ago. 

Not surprisingly, Rappahannock Oyster Company is part of the push. Cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton already have restaurants in Topping, Richmond and Washington, D.C., and they’re expanding this year into Los Angeles and Charleston, South Carolina. They are also beginning to export Virginia oysters to China, Hong Kong, Colombia and Dubai. 

“You may see native shellfish in China for example, but they aren’t consumed in restaurants or hotels because people are highly aware of pollution,” Travis Croxton explains. “They’ve been importing French and Australian oysters for quite a while. We are selling on the fact that …. when it comes to health standards, we are light-years above anyone else.” 

Other Virginia restaurants are also leveraging the briny Bay, finding spots to grow their own private label oysters. The Boathouse and Casa del Barco restaurants in Midlothian and Richmond’s downtown and Short Pump areas serve The Boathouse Oyster, developed in partnership with Chapel Creek Oyster Company. 

“We started working on our signature oyster about three years ago,” says Paige Healy, director of concept development at The Boathouse. “The goal was to grow an oyster that achieves what we believe is the ideal flavor profile.” It’s a mild oyster with a classic balance of sweetness and salt. 

East Coast Provisions in Richmond started serving Cedar Pointe oysters last fall, which co-owner Michelle Williams and her husband Brian Enroughty grow on riverfront property they bought in Weems three years ago. 

“We had been wanting a place where we could have a home and also grow oysters,” Williams says. “When we looked at the property, we learned it’s on a place on the river called the ‘Holy Grail.’” Seafood giant W.E. Kellum Seafood dredges for oysters in the area daily, says Williams. Her Cedar Pointes have a hint of salt, balanced by sweetness and a mineral finish. 

Williams uses floating beds, an aquaculture method relatively new to Virginia. She bought her oyster cages from Big Island Aquaculture in Gloucester, which adapted this method from overseas oyster growers. 

“Where they’re grown impacts flavor, but how they’re grown also impacts flavor,” says Bruce Vogt, co-owner with his son Daniel of Big Island. “Most oysters here are raised in bottom cages. But oysters are filtering animals, so then you get more of a mineral type flavor.” 

The floating cages, also used by Tangier Island Oyster Company, cost more and are more labor intensive, but Vogt says the benefits outweigh those concerns: “You get a cleaner oyster. And in floating cages they grow faster, because most of the plankton and phytoplankton are in the top 18 inches of the water column.” Vogt credits floating beds for his oysters’ brilliant white shells, balanced flavor and distinctive deep cup.

Winter is a perfect time to enjoy plump local oysters bursting with the briny goodness of the Bay. Because when it comes to oysters, there is no place like home.

Credits: Oyster shucking knife by Join or Die Knives, Richmond. Oysters provided by Yellow Umbrella Provisions, Richmond.

Oyster Shooters  

2 cups mirin
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon sake  
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons Japanese rice vinegar
1 ½ tablespoons light soy sauce 
2 tablespoons wasabi powder
8 oysters, shucked
wasabi paste and pickled ginger for garnish

Combine mirin and sake in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a boil. At the boiling point, ignite liquid with a match to burn off the alcohol. When flames have subsided, remove from the heat and cool. Pour into a clean container and add the rice wine vinegar, soy sauce and wasabi powder. Stir well and store in the refrigerator for 24 hours. 

Strain mixture, being careful not to disturb the wasabi on the bottom. Mixture can be made ahead and kept very cold. 

Chill the shot glasses. Place a shucked oyster in each glass and fill with the shooter mixture. Using a cocktail fork or pick, carefully lift the oyster to the top of the glass without puncturing it. Top each oyster with a dab of wasabi and a speck of pickled ginger. Drink immediately.

Serves 8

Raw Oysters Garnished Three Ways

Oysters with Grapefruit Olive Oil Granité

1 cup fresh grapefruit juice (about 1 large grapefruit)
2 tablespoons olive oil 
fresh tarragon for garnish

Strain juice and mix with olive oil. Freeze in a shallow nonstick pan until icy, about 20 minutes. Scrape with a fork, mixing the icy parts with the unfrozen liquid, then return to freezer. Scrape to mix every 20 minutes until the entire granité is frozen and well blended. Scrape with a fork to serve over shucked oysters. Garnish with tarragon sprigs and serve immediately. Makes enough for 12 oysters.

Oysters with Caviar

Shuck oysters and top each with a generous amount of caviar of your choice. Serve immediately.

Oysters with Cucumber-Celery Mignonette

½ cup Champagne vinegar
½ cup rice wine vinegar
1 2-inch piece cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 medium shallot, peeled
½ teaspoon salt 
½ teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons minced chives
diced shallot and cucumber for garnish

Place all ingredients except garnish in a blender and blend on high until smooth. Spoon a generous tablespoon over each shucked oyster and garnish with diced shallot and cucumber mix. Makes enough for 12 oysters.

Grilled Oysters with Lemon Bacon Butter  

6 slices bacon, diced
1 small fennel bulb, finely diced
1 shallot, finely diced
2 garlic cloves, diced
½ cup parsley, chopped
¼ cup lemon juice
2 cups soft breadcrumbs or Panko 
½ stick unsalted butter, melted
salt and pepper to taste
2 dozen oysters, unshucked 

Sauté the bacon until the fat has rendered and the bacon is crisp. Remove bacon pieces and reserve. Sauté fennel, shallot and garlic in the reserved bacon fat until soft, about 5 minutes. Cool slightly and add parsley, lemon juice and breadcrumbs. Add the cooked bacon. Season lightly with salt and pepper. 

Grill the oysters just until they open, then shuck each to remove the top shell. Spoon a tablespoon of reserved bacon butter over each and return to the grill for several minutes, just until hot. Serve immediately. 

Makes 2 dozen

Tempura Fried Oysters with Oyster Mayonnaise  

1 cup plus 
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour 
1 cup rice flour 
¼ cup cornstarch 
¾ tablespoons baking powder 
3 cups sparkling water 
4 dozen shucked oysters neutral oil for frying (like canola) salt to taste

Heat cooking oil in a fryer or saucepan to 360 degrees. Mix all dry ingredients and divide in half (roughly 1 cup each). The tempura batter is delicate and will begin to break down after use, so only mix one batch of the batter at a time for frying.

Mix the first portion of batter with 1 ½ cup sparkling water. Dip oysters in batter and fry 2-dozen in batches of 6 each. Fry until light golden brown, 45 seconds to 1 minute. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle lightly with salt. Mix up remaining batter and repeat to fry second batch of oysters. 

For the oyster mayonnaise:

6 large or 8 small oysters, shucked
3 egg yolks
1 small garlic clove, crushed
1 small shallot, grated or diced very fine
1 ½ cups flavorless oil, like canola or grapeseed 
¼ cup rice wine vinegar 
1 teaspoon salt

Togarashi for garnish (Japanese red pepper blend)

Blanch the oysters briefly in boiling water (not more than two minutes). Strain and cool in a bowl of ice water. 

Put the blanched oysters, egg yolks, garlic, shallot, salt and rice vinegar in blender. While blending on high speed, slowly add the oil until the mixture makes a smooth emulsion (can add more oil for a thicker consistency). Chill and spoon over fried oysters. Sprinkle with Togarashi.

Serves 8

Oyster Casserole 

1 quart of shucked oysters, sized “selects” 
1 ½ cup Saltine crackers, crushed 
1 ½ cup day-old breadcrumbs, fine ground 
½ cup each diced celery, onion, green pepper and poblano peppers 
¼ cup each chopped parsley and chives 
½ cup unsalted butter, melted 
3 tablespoons lemon juice 
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce 
1 cup heavy cream 
½ cup whole milk 
Aleppo pepper 
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Drain the oysters, reserving the liquor. Combine the breadcrumbs with the crackers. 

Melt ¼ cup of the butter in a medium saucepan over medium high heat and sauté the celery, onion, green pepper and poblanos until soft, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and set aside.

Brush a 12-by-8 ½ inch casserole dish with some of the remaining melted butter. Combine the liquids: milk, cream, Worcestershire, lemon juice and oyster liquor. Layer the casserole beginning with the crumbs, then oysters. Drizzle with the liquid mixture. Add the sautéed vegetables and dot with the remaining melted butter. Sprinkle with the herbs. Repeat these layers until the casserole is full. Pour remaining liquid over the top and finish with a generous sprinkle of Aleppo pepper. 

Bake until golden brown, 35-45 minutes. Can be served warm or at room temperature. 

Serves 8

Oysters, meet your match. Albariño.

Sparkling wine is the classic pairing with bivalves. Many Virginia wineries produce admirable bubblies, but oysters go particularly well with the lesser-known white, albariño, which originates from the Rías Baixas region of Galicia, in Spain. Its crisp herbal minerality is a perfect match for seafood. 

We particularly like the award-winning albariño from Ingleside Vineyards in Oak Grove. Ingleside planted albariño grapes in 2004, gambling on the chance that the maritime climate between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers would mimic Galicia’s coastal terroir. It worked. The vineyard now grows four acres of albariño. The 2014 vintage is particularly impressive, having won Gold at the 2015 Virginia Governor’s Cup and multiple national awards. Check out these other Virginia wineries producing albariño:

Cooper Vineyards, Louisa, 

Chrysalis Vineyards at the Ag District, Middleburg, 

Horton Vineyards, Gordonsville, 

Ingleside Vineyards, Colonial Beach,

Willowcroft Farm Vineyards, Leesburg,

This article originally appeared in our February 2017 issue.

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