If you listen hard enough, you may hear it.
It’s the advice of the Old Wives Tale about eating oysters only in months that have an “R” in them. Pity May, June, July and August.
Somehow, despite debunking that myth, it still resides in the shadowy backs of our minds. Well, it’s September now, and it seems like as good of time as any to crack open some shells to slurp and savor.
Like wine grapes, oysters take on a true sense of place with their tastes. The terroir of a region – soil and climate among the factors – are what gives a particular wine from a certain area the qualities it has.
With oysters, its all about the merroir – the minerality, including saline – of a particular growing area, as well as climate features, gives those tasty little fruits de mer.
There are scores of oyster varieties in Virginia from across the seven distinct growing regions, and yes, you can tell a difference in taste from one to the other. Some are salty, some are sweet. Some meet in the middle.
There is bound to be an oyster, or two, or three that you’ll love. You just have to start tasting.
Here are six of my oyster picks to get you started on your journey:
From Ballard Fish & Oyster Company
Region 1 – Seaside
A high salinity level in this diminutive bivalve, the perfect size for slurping at cocktail hour with a Virginia beer, wine or other imbibe, comes from growth on the Atlantic Ocean side of the Eastern Shore. The upfront salt taste is described as “quickly transitioning to a sweet grassy finish.”
A Perfect Pair: 2009 Sparkling Rose’ wine from Trump Winery
From Ludford Brothers Oyster Company
Region 7 – Tidewater
Harvested from the Lynnhaven Bay, where George Percy first wrote about the pleasures of American oysters upon landing in the New World in April, 1607, these oysters have a fair amount of salt at first blush, which transitions into a sweet and smooth finish.
A Perfect Pair: New Recruit Honey Blonde Ale beer from Young Veterans Brewing Company
From Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Region 5 – Middle Bay Western Shore
This deep-cupped oyster has a mild saltiness which comes from being located at the mouth of the Rappahannock River on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It is described as showcasing “a sweet, buttery, full-bodied taste with a refreshingly clean, crisp finish.”
A Perfect Pair: Harlequin Reserve Chardonnay 2012 wine from Veritas Vineyard and Winery
From Ruby Salts Oyster Company
Region 3 – Lower Bay Eastern Shore
These oysters are grown in Cherrystone Creek and this lower part of the Eastern Shore provides the oysters with a touch of salinity accenting a rich, buttery flavor. Folks at Ruby Salts say it’s a “just-right mixture of seawater” that produces a well-balanced bivalve.
A Perfect Pair: Charred Ordinary cider from Blue Bee Cider
From H. M. Terry Co., Inc.
Region 1 – Seaside
The salt from the nearby Atlantic Ocean washes into the bays and estuaries on the Eastern Shore bathing the oysters in salinity, such as with these offerings. They are described as having “a firm, meaty texture; the taste, beautifully balanced with an initial briny burst of flavor mellowing to a sweet, delicate finish.”
A Perfect Pair: Church Creek Chardonnay – Steel Fermented wine from Chatham Vineyards
Note: Plan on attending Chatham Vineyard’s Merroir & Terroir Oyster Extravaganza on Nov. 8 for an afternoon of oysters and wine.
From Chessie Seafood and Aquafarms
Region 6 – Lower Bay Western Shore
In an area rich with history, York River Oysters are grown near the area which provided the shellfish to many Colonial Virginians. The river, a tributary to the lower Chesapeake Bay, makes them “moderately salty with a sweet finishing taste,” say the York River oystermen.
A Perfect Pair: Killer Kolsch beer from Champion Brewing Company
Further sate your oyster desire with visiting stops along The Virginia Oyster Trail which highlights coastal communities with a rich cultural and culinary heritage tied to the shellfish.
And you don’t have to wait until “R” months to celebrate the bivalve, but one in particular is very special: November has been designated as Virginia Oyster Month.
Oh, and about the “R” month thing: there are two trains of thought in regards to this. One is that, 100 years ago or more before proper refrigeration, it was sage advice to eat oysters in cooler months, and those just happened to have an “R” in them.
The other is that wild oysters – not cultivated ones as many are today – spawn in the summer and therefore aren’t as plump and juicy as in the months from September through April.
It’s good to live in the 21st century, however, when you can enjoy one of these beauties any time you’d like.
Get up-close-and-personal with some Virginia oysters with a guided tour from oysterman Chris Ludford, owner of Pleasure House Oysters.
The tour sets out on the Lynnhaven River from Lynnhaven Municipal Marina in Virginia Beach to Ludford’s private stash.
Two tours are offered: a two-hour Tasting Tour takes folks out on the water and to the oyster beds, slurping down some of the rich and creamy bivalves, and is priced at $250 for up to six folks.
The Waterman Tour lasts four hours and is more hands-on, as well as offering an on-board picnic of local delicacies, including chilled oysters. The Waterman Tour costs $400 for up to six people.
Lynnhaven Municipal Marina is at 3211 Lynnhaven Dr., Virginia Beach. To book an oyster tasting tour, call 757-663-6970 or visit Pleasure House Oysters website.
Patrick Evans-Hylton, a Johnson & Wales University trained chef, is a Norfolk, Va.-based food journalist, historian and educator. His work has appeared in print, television, radio and social media since 1995. Evans-Hylton calls his cookbook, Dishing Up Virginia, his love letter to the state’s foods and foodways. He blogs at PatrickEvansHylton.com.