We already know Virginia is for Lovers, right? Well how about for Oyster Lovers? Virginia is now known as the “Oyster Capital of the East Coast.” Virginia is the largest producer of fresh, farm-raised oysters in the country, providing eight regions of diverse flavor. From the saltiest waters of the Eastern Shore, to the sweet tastes of the Rappahannock River, the oysters here give visitors another thing to love about travel in Virginia.
The Chesapeake Bay is justifiably famous for its oysters. As a matter of a fact, one translation of the word Chesapeake from the Algonquian language is “Great Shellfish Bay.” Today, local oysters are raised and harvested throughout the coastline. If harvesting is not as appealing as devouring, finding a restaurant to serve them up any way is no task at all.
The oyster originally colonized the Chesapeake approximately 5,000 years ago, becoming known as “filter feeders.” The millions of oysters that cleaned waters as it passed through kept the waters of the Bay clear and pristine down to depths of 20 feet. A pirating and dredging attack in the late 1800s to early 1900s led to a mass shortage of oysters along the Bay; however, Virginia is flourishing once again, making it the ultimate experience for oyster enthusiast.
Gathering oysters is not as hard as you may think it is. If you’re looking to do some homemade preparation yourself, all you’ll need are some nets or baskets and a flotation device. Wait for the tide to recede, gather the oysters in the nets/baskets, attach the flotation device and allow the tide to roll in. The flotation device is used to identify the nets when the tide rises. During this process, the oysters will be provided with a fresh supply of seawater, ensuring freshness. Gather your oysters and you’re good to go!
Oysters harvested in the Chesapeake Bay do more than just contribute a tasty seafood ingredient to local restaurants. Oyster beds form natural aquatic reefs, creating stable habitats for all kinds of marine life. Additionally, these amazing marine creatures are filter feeders, cleaning up pollution in the Bay as they eat. A single oyster can filter more than 50 gallons of water per day, and during the 1600s when early English colonists traveled to America, it is estimated that it took the oyster population less than a week to filter the entire Chesapeake Bay. Over the years, oyster populations declined drastically due to over-harvesting, disease, and other ecologically harmful factors. However, in the past decade, Virginia is one of the few places in the world that is actually on the upswing with oyster productions, resulting in cleaner Bay waters than we have seen in over a hundred years.
Each year, oyster industry participants must pay an annual fee. The revenue collected from these fees is used for the Oyster Replenishment Program, which involves the spawning and formations of new adult oysters, which will reach market size in roughly three years. The program also provides training and support for the growing oyster aquaculture industry, and monitors oyster populations throughout the Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries and the coastal bays of the Eastern Shore. Annual fees are required for harvesting, shucking and more.
RESTAURANTS TO TRY
There’s many places around Virginia to get your oyster fix. Head to the shore and you’ll find Harpoon Larry’s Oyster Bar in Virginia Beach. The restaurant has been a local hang out for years, featuring fresh, local oysters. The restaurant has also been named as one of the Best 23 Seafood Dives in the U.S. by Coastal Living magazine. At the mouth of the Rappahannock lies Merroir, a riverfront gourmet oyster tasting house, featuring the celebrated farms of the Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Try out Catch 31 in Virginia Beach, offering an exciting, multi-venue seafood dining experience. The restaurant offers an extensive menu of fresh seafood and a variety of seating options. The Shanty and The Oyster Farm Seafood Eatery in Cape Charles are going to give visitors a taste of the saltiness of the Eastern Shore, while the Rappahannock Oyster Co. offers a series of farm-to-table restaurants throughout the state. Rappahannock Oyster Bar in D.C. has been recognized by the Wall Street Journal as one of the 5 top oyster bars in America.
Tuscarora Mill in Leesburg prides itself on farm-to-table fine dining, including Virginia’s freshest oysters. Tuskie’s offers oyster plates for lunch and dinner, and different specials throughout the week.
There’s always plenty more oyster hotspots to experience in Virginia.
And don’t forget about the oyster festivals coming up this year!