Virginia’s water culture is celebrated on the Oyster Trail. Photo courtesy Rappahannock Oyster Co.
Covered in oyster grime, a disheveled Patrick Oliver sorts oysters into sea squirt laden cages.
Oliver, farm manager for Rappahannock Oyster Company, has been at it since 5:30 a.m., moving and shifting upwards of 1,700 cages of oysters with his team of 10 affable guys. It’s hard, dirty work, yet he speaks of “his” oysters like they are his kids, enthusiastically offering scienc-y explanations to visitors to the Topping business on how an oyster’s salinity stems from the water in which it was farmed, and how spat (a baby oyster) will attach to a clean oyster shell and that union, if consistently maintained, can help restore the Chesapeake Bay to its original glory.
His enthusiasm for all things oyster-related is mirrored across the Eastern Shore and Western Shore, where the bivalves have been an integral part of the culture for centuries. The Virginia Tourism Corporation is promoting that water culture with its Virginia’s Oyster Trail, which launched in November.
Dudley Patteson, owner of the boutique hotel the Hope and Glory Inn in Irvington, beams when asked about the trail. “It was our brainchild,” Patteson says. “Virginia should and could be the nation’s oyster capital. Together, with Rappahannock Oyster Company’s owners, Ryan and Travis Croxton, we presented this to the state tourism board.”
There are eight regions on the trail, each featuring an oyster with a flavor unique to where it was grown. Similar to wine or coffee, a multitude of environmental factors can influence the oyster, including water salinity, and the sediment, seaweed or algae the oyster filters.
If you want to explore the succulent morsel and other trail’s delights, begin where it began, around Irvington, White Stone and Gloucester on the western side of the bay. A day trip from Richmond is easy, but a full weekend jaunt is advisable.
Muddying the water
While in Irvington, check out the Hope and Glory Inn (65 Tavern Road, Irvington). The converted schoolhouse has six rooms and six detached cottages with one or two bedrooms. Have Meseret Crockett, the Inn’s ever-present manager and executive chef, stir up a relaxing combination of Amaretto, Kahlua and Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueurs, or enjoy her food at Dining Hall, the Inn’s boat-to-table restaurant ($68 per person prix fixe, reservations required).
A taste of Toppington
If educational excursions (with delicious food, of course) delight you, head to Topping and take a tour of the working oyster farm at Rappahannock Oyster Company (784 Locklies Creek Road, Topping). Eat at their award-winning restaurant, Merroir, which was once a fishing and bait shack.Rappahannock features three different oysters at Merroir, a briny Old Salt from their farm in Chincoteague, Sting Ray oyster presenting with hints of butter, and their namesake oyster, a gateway oyster, if you will, sweet and fat.
Oyster stew like Mama made
While in White Stone, savor the view from William Barnett’s Willaby’s Cafe, (327 Old Ferry Road). Sit outside and enjoy their oysters, which are from W.E. Kellum Seafood, (96 Shipyard Lane, Weems, kellumseafood.com), an oyster shucking house that started in 1948. Treat yourself to a cup of oyster stew, no matter the weather. It is Barnett’s mother’s recipe, simple and savory, fully showcasing the Eastern oyster’s delicate saltiness.
Also worth a stop just down the road you’ll find the Box Boutique (538 Rappahannock Drive). It’s a kitschy little store that brims with monogrammed items, scarves and clothing that sports anchors and seaside emblems.