“He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.” -Jonathan Swift
My agreement with that statement made me somewhat of an outcast among my trendy Baby Boomer friends. I’d watched them shuck open some unsuspecting barnacle-laden shell, tip it up, and let a pulpy, slimy mass of flesh slide down their throat.
No thanks, I’ll pass.
Until I met the Lynnfield oyster. Now all bets are off.
On a recent visit to Virginia Beach, I was invited by Chris Ludford, owner of Pleasure House Oysters, to take his eco boat tour into Chesapeake Bay. “It’s not only educational, it’s a lot of fun to see… and to taste!” he said.
I was skeptical; but I was told I would be joining a group of Millennials doing the tour as a birthday celebration. They’re going to join me in shucking raw oysters, I said to myself. They don’t know ostreaphiles are fashionable.
A Day On The Lynnhaven River
Chris met us at the marina in late afternoon, and I was immediately taken with his friendly, low-key enthusiasm. His crew – Ty and Nick – lowered me into the boat and we set off on the Lynnhaven River, while Chris began to tell us about the area. The Lynnhaven River is a tidal estuary which flows into the Chesapeake Bay a few miles from the Atlantic. Once famous for its oysters, it declined when the river became polluted. Recent restoration efforts by Lynnhaven River Now – a group of locals working to improve water quality in the river – and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have proved fruitful; the river was partially reopened to shellfish farming in 2007, and the oyster business is once again exploding.
“Our theory is based on a three-legged stool of conservations, restoration, and aqua culture,” said Chris. When asked to define aqua theory, he said it’s when you get to eat the bounty, while the other two legs of the stool get built back up. It occurred to me that this is a proverbial win/win/win scenario.
The river is close to Cape Henry which most people don’t realize was the site of the first landing in America by English settlers in 1607. They learned the art of roasting the large oysters when they discovered them on an open fire left by fleeing natives. In the times following, the Lynnhaven oysters became known as the best in the world, coveted as far away as Europe and Russia, for both their large size and delicate taste.The #oyster population of #Virginia's Lynnhaven River has declined, though recent restoration efforts are bringing them back. Here's how. Click To Tweet
We continued cruised through the river, observing stunning scenery on each side as well as various birds and wildlife. Finally, a simple sign popping out of the water in front of a small seagrass-covered islet marked our oyster farm destination.
I didn’t have waders on so I rolled up my jeans as Chris helped me to step into the slightly freezing water. I sucked it up and joined my new Millennial friends as if I’d been doing this every day.
Pleasure House Oysters: An Eco-Conscious Family Business
As Nick and Ty began to work with the oyster cages, Chris explained that Pleasure House Oysters is a family-owned business and described the process of seeding, culling, cleaning, as well as shaking baskets of shells to chip off the lip, making the shell deeper and better for serving on the half-shell.
Pleasure House is dedicated to preserving the river’s eco system. The empty shells are dumped back onto the riverbed to become part of the recycling process. “The discarded shells become part of the reef system,” explained Chris. “Like coral, oyster reefs only grow on the outer crust, and oysters want to grow on something hard.”
Even the local restaurants participate in the recycling. They save the oyster shells which are then picked up and used in the restoration process. “20 years ago you could buy a bushel of shells for fifty cents,” said Chris. “Now they go for as high as $5.00 because locals are also using them for driveways, ornamental art, and even in beer brewing and wineries.”
And then the real fun began as Chris waded into the river, plucking oysters and pointing out the sizes and shapes. Industry standard for harvesting is usually one after a one-year growth period, but Chris is a boutique grower, harvesting only after a two-year growth period.
“The extra year adds to the quality of the shell, making it heavier. There’s less waste from broken shells in which the oyster has to be discarded,” said Chris. “It also results in more developed oyster meat.”#Oyster harvesting is usually one after a one-year growth period, but Pleasure House harvests after a two-year growth period. #eco Click To Tweet
An Adventurous Meal
Then began the procedure of hand-harvesting oysters for our, gulp, meal. They scooped the oysters out of the cages and packed them into long, narrow, meshed wire sacks.
The oysters were emptied onto a rustic wooden table arranged with all kinds of sweet and tangy condiments and Chris began to expertly shuck them and hand them out. Much to my surprise, the Millennials all had their hands extended yelling, “Me! Me!” clamoring to be the first to get their share of the raw treats. What. Ever. I was not going to be undone. So I reached for my own half-shell of (was it still alive?) plump meat, poured a generous dose of hot sauce on it, and went for it.
Apparently the best way to eat an oyster is not to let it slide down your throat as so many do, but to chew it and savor the brisk briny taste and fleshy texture. So that’s what I did. It was so much better than I was anticipating! The legendary Lynnhaven flavor is slightly buttery and I really liked the firm, chewy consistency. My second bivalve was consumed without hot sauce.
Chris continued to shuck and pass out the oysters as fast as we could eat them.
But the pièce de résistance was the grill which had been set up at the other end of the islet. Charcoal-broiled oysters? Yes, please. Grilling the oysters brings out the best flavor, and the just the right amount of heat makes the meat more tender and juicy.Grilling the #oysters brings out the flavor, and the right amount of heat makes the meat tender. #food Click To Tweet
This time it was me worming my way to the front to snag my share of the half-shell delicacies.
Ahead of the Millennials. Who agreed these were indeed the best.
*Photos courtesy of Lost Boy Log
Dining Etiquette: How & Why You Should Eat With Your Hands [Blog Inspiration]
Oyster: A Gastronomic History (with Recipes) by Drew Smith [Great Reads]
Yoga On The Go [Travel Health]
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