The Virginia oyster (Crassostrea virginica) ain't exactly cute.
Its silvery gray shell is rough, etched by tiny worms, studded by barnacles and algae, and sharp enough to slash the skin. Its silvery gray insides are gelatinous and quivery.
Just close your eyes, however, and the Virginia oyster is beautiful — smooth, salty, sweet and delicate. It can even look elegant in the hands of chefs like Walter Bundy of Lemaire, who presents them raw, crowned with celery aspic and a little flag of celery leaf.
Eighty years ago, Chesapeake Bay oysters enjoyed the reputation of being the finest oysters in the world. Everybody, rich and poor, ate them. They were harvested by the millions, until they were nearly no more. Then the poor oysters slipped from favor, forgotten by the culinary world.
Until now. The rebirth of the Virginia oyster may be at hand, brought about by an unlikely union between three young men from Richmond, the chefs of America's most exclusive restaurants and 3 million very thirsty gray lumps.
One winter night in 2002, cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton, both Richmonders, were reminiscing about their grandfather over a couple of beers (Chesapeake's finest: Mobjack). As kids growing up in Tappahannock, they remembered him sitting in the garage and expertly shucking oysters, wearing a buttoned shirt and tie.
William Arthur Croxton Sr. was an oysterman, taking up the trade his father, James Arthur Croxton Jr., had begun in 1899. He sowed oyster seed on river bottom leased from the state and then reaped the harvest. But he told his sons, Travis and Ryan's fathers, to let the family business die. It wasn't worth with the trouble.
Slowly, the Bay's oysters had been decimated by overfishing, pollution and disease. Even when they were plentiful, you never knew when nature would utterly destroy a year's take. "Total loss," W. A. Croxton wrote in his logbook in 1954, the year Hurricane Hazel ripped up the coast. Boats, oysters, everything — gone.
But the Croxtons still had leasing rights for about 100 acres in the Rappahannock River. Travis and Ryan started talking about raising oysters as a hobby.
They researched aquaculture methods from around the world, carted trash cans of river water to Travis' Fan house and sent away for infant oysters to raise. The hatchery neglected to place a cooling gel pack in the shipment, they later found out, dooming the effort from the start. "Not knowing what we were doing, we nursed those dead larvae for a week and a half," Ryan Croxton says.
Undeterred, they bought about 10,000 seed oysters and, in March 2002, placed them in underwater mesh cages in the Rappahannock. The little guys grew and grew. Now, the Croxton boys know their bivalves. "We've always loved oysters," Ryan says. "We didn't have a choice." They thought their crop tasted pretty good — but they wanted an expert opinion.
So in January of last year, the Croxtons took their oysters on a field trip to Le Bernardin — the 2004 Zagat Survey's top-ranked restaurant in New York City. Chef Chris Muller not only agreed to meet with them, but, they say, told them, "This is what I'm looking for in an oyster."
Muller wanted Rappahannock oysters for his dinner menu, as did the chefs of two other New York restaurants. Ryan and Travis gave them all hats and T-shirts. Sweet, salty success — but the Croxtons had a problem. They didn't have enough shellfish to sell.
At a state-mandated shellfish safety class a few months before, Travis Croxton met a fellow oyster enthusiast, Doug McMinn. Travis found out that McMinn, too, was interested in oyster aqua-culture and had a sizable operation going, the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Company. All he needed was a marketing team.
Today, the three are partners. McMinn, who's 34, stands 6-foot-8, a freckled giant in bright orange waders. He handles the farming in the Rappahannock, one of four locations in the Bay where the company grows oysters. With fellow waterman Chris Petrone, he rises at 5:30 each morning and zips out in a tiny Carolina skiff, or sometimes his dead-rise work boat, the Ellie K, to tend the oysters. They lift and turn the square mesh cages, sort out the oysters that are market size (about 3 inches) and return the ones that need to grow a little more.
They then examine their catch, laying out the oysters as carefully as cards in a solitaire game. The air in the boathouse is sweet and salty, and surprisingly clean — nary a whiff of fishiness. For better presentation, they try to make sure the shells in one restaurant's batch are as similar in shape and size as possible. "Our oysters have to be as pretty as they taste," Ryan says.
McMinn explains the oysters' contribution to the Bay in the affable, patient manner of a high school teacher, which is precisely what he was before becoming an oyster farmer.
A mature oyster can filter 50 gallons of water per day, removing plankton and sediment. Oyster colonies are ecosystems unto themselves, evidenced by the baby blue crabs, grass shrimp, eels and other creatures that flop into the bottom of the skiff every time a cage is hoisted. "We don't take anything from the Bay," McMinn says. "We are actually putting into the Bay."
"There's a whole lot of things that need to happen to fix the Bay," says Tommy Leggett, an oyster fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "Oysters are a part of that." Since 1995 Leggett has been growing his own, which the Croxtons now market under the brand name York River Oysters. Watermen have been reluctant to try aquaculture, he says. "They're still hanging on to the old ways." But once they see people profiting from oyster farming, Leggett says, more of them will jump on board.
McMinn and the Croxtons hope other oyster-preneurs follow their lead. They even sell oyster-farming equipment — $35 per starter kit — for anyone who wants to become a weekend waterman.
But McMinn has nothing but disdain for efforts to farm the Asian oyster, Crassostrea ariakensis. In 1998, the Virginia Seafood Council began testing the viability of sterile Asian oysters in the Bay. Research has shown they taste similar to the Virginia kind and are resistant to the diseases known as MSX and Dermo. This June, the council plans to place 1 million caged oysters in the Bay to see if they can reach market size in 12 months.
The Asian oyster has a short shelf life, however, lasting only a few days in refrigeration. The Virginia oyster can stay alive and fresh for a month or more once pulled from the water, McMinn says.
Other qualities that entice chefs, they say, are the consistency of flavor and shape; the deep cup of the shell, produced by frequent turning and handling, which contains a deceptively large piece of meat; and the unique flavor varieties found only in the Chesapeake. "It's the saltiness and the flavor that really attracts me," Chef Bundy of Lemaire says.
Notable clients include Alan Wong's in Honolulu, Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar in New York City, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurant Prime in Las Vegas. Only the best can afford their oysters — whereas Louisiana oysters cost maybe $35 per bushel, Rappahannock oysters command a menu price of $2 to $5 apiece.
Travis, 30, and Ryan, 35, hope to keep growing the business with more restaurants and co-op oyster farms to fill the demand, though they don't plan to quit their day jobs at Capital One Financial Corp.
The oyster business is going better than they ever expected — but there's one bit of luck they haven't had yet.
"Never seen a pearl," Ryan says. S
To sample Rappahannock River oysters in Richmond, visit Lemaire at The Jefferson Hotel, Six Burner, Acacia and Comfort.
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