On the Oyster Trail Savoring the region's second most famous seafood

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Inland, in Irvington, Virginia, a flat of farmland stretches in the neat, leafy rows of a vineyard, The Dog and Oyster Vineyard, to be exact. Here, rescue mutts guard the grapes against marauding deer, and wines are sampled with the Rappahannock River’s best bivalves.

Seafood, a farm’s bounty and a slow Saturday afternoon to enjoy both — it’s what Dudley Patteson hoped for when he and his wife, Peggy, bought the vineyard with their son in 2011. That, and a little notoriety for the often-overshadowed oyster.

A sculpture at The Dog and Oyster Vineyard

Seven years ago, Patteson was at a meeting concerning the future of Virginia tourism, when the group acknow-ledged a salty truth: People associated the Chesapeake Bay and blue crab with Maryland alone. In his opinion, it was time for the commonwealth to herald its oyster heritage. After all, who hadn’t sampled the salty sweet harvest of the Rappahannock or the bay?

Two initiatives started not long after that meeting: The first was the River Realm, a tourism program for the Rappahannock and the towns in two counties around it, such as Irvington, Urbana, Saluda and Topping, among others. “Find your shoreline” is the River Realm’s slogan, and it aims to bring people to the region to enjoy boating, relaxing and dining options.

The second was the statewide Oyster Trail, another tourism initiative, which brings visitors to aqua farms, restaurants, oyster boat experiences and wineries, such as the Dog and Oyster, which serve up the state’s new culinary mascot. The trail stretches from the Potomac River down to Virginia Beach, and to be part of this membership group, businesses have to be a farm that raises oysters or an eatery that serves them. Think of this initiative as the new “Virginia is for Lovers” — now, it seems, Virginia is for oyster lovers, and for many diners, that’s delicious news.

At the Dog and Oyster Vineyard, they produce six grape varieties, Chardonel, Vidal Blanc, Chambourcin, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Viognier, and six estate wines; prices are reasonable, six wine tastings are $8 while a glass of wine is also $8. The vineyard’s bivalves and other bounty are provided by the tiny, on-site restaurant, Slurp, whose clever motto is, “where Irvington comes out of its shell.” There, the vineyard’s culinary partner, Stuart Tyson, serves up the charm along with the red-and-white paper bowls of fried Rappahannock oysters and an Old Bay remoulade or po’ boys with shrimp and fried pickles or Smithfield ham. Dessert is “slap your mama good,” he calls out as he delivers wedges of frozen key lime pie on a stick and dipped in chocolate.

Outside the sampling room’s screened porch, frogs squawk. Inside, the farm tables are decorated with candelabras and oyster shells signed by guests. At one table, three novices try raw oysters for the first time, cheered on by Joni Carter, a Virginia native who ate her first oyster before first grade. Carter’s grandfather was a waterman and her father an attorney who sometimes got paid in shellfish. Carter is a diplomat for Virginia’s River Realm and was with Patteson at the infamous Maryland-took-the-blue-crab meeting.

Carter’s lineage and her love for this locale make her the perfect booster, and with her encouragement, the rookies try this new and foreign food. Their reviews are mixed, but the veterans are sated. To them, this meal encapsulates the goodness of mid-Atlantic life and the waters and terrain that have nourished generations.

“Oyster and wine are the perfect pairing, because it takes years for each to mature,” Patteson says, agreeing with his guests before advising them, “Y’all keep track of this tiny town. It’s going to explode.”

Oysters all around
Close to the vineyard is the Tides Inn, a resort with a roll-up-your-sleeves appeal, a restaurant with a stellar reputation and an activities menu that includes beekeeping, kayaking and something called the Oyster Academy. Carter leads one of these tours on Carters Creek, a waterway that flows into the Rappahannock and where the Tides Inn sits, nestled in a photo-worthy knell. (Carter is connected to the family for which the creek was named, but on her mother’s side and not her husband’s.) Before getting on the boat, she encourages guests to grab an oyster shell and attach it to a concrete globe that will eventually be added to the river’s oyster reefs.

For generations, discarded oyster shells were used in roadways or for brick ortar, she says, because people didn’t understand that keeping the reefs intact was essential to keeping a hearty oyster population. Rappahannock oysters can be found as far north as Maine, and even today, when they are shipped out of state, Carter says, their shells obviously aren’t returned.

The Oyster Academy is an eco-tour with a regional flair that anyone from around here could appreciate. The tour starts with a lecture on the oyster industry and habitat. Then a waterman (or woman) takes guests for a one-hour boat ride that includes harvesting. On this day, the boat captain is William Saunders, who entertains with stories about dolphins, a snapshot of a 13-inch oyster that he once caught and the observations of a man who has spent his life on the water. “You know what the difference between a good oyster and a bad oyster is?” he says. “The chef.”

As a matter of fact, the Tides Inn’s executive chef, TV Flynn, has won awards for his seafood dishes. After each Oyster Academy voyage, Flynn gives a primer on oyster shucking and pairing the seafood with sauces and wines. The entire academy experience is $185.

Back in Baltimore
Of course, Virginia isn’t the only area that has focused on the oyster. Six years ago, the Waterfront Partnership and Chesapeake Bay Foundation paired to form the Great Baltimore Oyster Partnership, a restoration program that is on track to add five million healthy oysters to a sanctuary on the Patapsco River by 2020.

Each fall, 300 volunteers submerge spats, or baby oysters that are about 2 months old, in cages on docks and piers around Baltimore’s waterfront. For nine months, the oysters grow in this protective environment until they are about the size of a quarter, says Adam Lindquist, director of the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative. Then they are transplanted to the river.

“My favorite thing about this project is that it gets Baltimore residents involved in the ecosystem of the harbor,” Lindquist says.

Many people mistakenly think the harbor is not home to any marine life, he says, but oyster volunteers quickly see grass shrimp, mud crabs, blue crabs, anemones and more. However, he is quick to caution that the Baltimore oysters in this restoration effort are not for eating — they filter pollution from the bay.

However, diners can partake in the Waterfront Partnership’s Great Baltimore Oyster Festival on Nov. 3, when they are brought in from all over the Chesapeake and seafood lovers can “celebrate the amazing, mighty oyster,” he says.

Find more information at baltimorewaterfront.com. For more information on Virginia’s Oyster Trail, visit virginiaoystertrail.com.

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