Although I grew up in Texas, and spent my summers on the Gulf Coast, I never ate an oyster. My fondest memories were family dinners at the local seafood joint. It wasn’t until I was in France, well into my 30s, before I tasted my first first raw oyster. Now, I will admit, that I only ate it because everyone else was swallowing them down with abandon. Not to mention Champagne was on offer too. I anointed it with lemon juice and gave it a chew. It was good, really good, and it tasted like the salty sea.
I now CRAVE oysters and look for any occasion to indulge. Most recently we discovered Rappahannock Oyster Co., an oyster farm in Topping, Virginia. The delicious little oysters were delivered directly to our door for Christmas Eve. The mineral rich freshwaters is unmistakable and accounts for the oyster’s trademark sweetness, and the low salinity gives it a hint of the sea.
Like most of the oysters available these days, Rappahannock oyster are farmed. In the early 2000s Chesapeake Bay recorded its lowest oyster harvest in history. Now, in just a little over a decade, Virginia is seeing harvest tallies not witnessed in a generation, and leads the entire East Coast in oyster production.
This transformation has been through the careful management of oyster harvests, the establishment of oyster sanctuaries, the restoration of oyster reefs, and experts working to support healthy, sustainable populations. And it’s not just Rappahannock, many inspiring company, farmers, chefs, patrons, activists, and government officials are all joining together.
While there is still much more to do, I think we should all celebrate with a bottle of bubbly, and oysters, of course.
An Oyster Primer
Oysters are a lot like wine and reflect the flavor of their surroundings. When choosing oysters, rely on four of your senses.
Smell: Fresh oysters should smell crisp and briny, much like seawater. They should not smell fishy. Pre-shucked oysters should have no ammonia smell.
Sight: Look to see that the oysters are being kept on ice in a well-drained refrigerated case and that the shells are shut tight. You want a flat top and a deep cup (the bottom half). The deeper the cup, the more room for meat and brine.
Touch: Oyster shells are rough to the touch and may have barnacles. Toss oysters with excessive algae, seaweed, discoloration, or moss. These are signs of poor tank storage and water circulation.
Taste: Ask to taste the oysters, if possible. As a general rule, the Atlantic produces oysters with a sharp brininess and an intense hit of the fresh, cold sea. Pacific oysters are rarely salty and often taste complex and sweet. The combination of fresh water and salt water from the Gulf of Mexico contributes to the unique taste of a Gulf Coast oyster; as a general rule, they are larger and meatier than those from other coastal areas.