A Rural And Refreshing Respite Of Fresh Feasts—From River To Restaurant
It's Chef Win Goodier's night to show off oysters at the stately Inn at Warner Hall in Gloucester. And this waterman-turned-chef arrives with a multi-tiered display of fun and fanciful culinary creations.
"What really flavors an oyster is its environment," says Goodier, the corporate chef and director of business development for the Ward Oyster Company. "If you've had Rappahannock oysters, they're going to be not as salty, because they're further up in fresher water.”
Goodier’s oyster offerings mark the highlight of my weekend stay at Warner Hall, an inn situated on the site of a Severn River plantation, dating to 1642. All around are oyster grounds—places where tasty bivalves grow in cages on the river bottoms of Gloucester, Lancaster and Middlesex counties.
It takes two to three years for oysters to mature under farm-raised conditions, Goodier says. "The difference between the aquaculture oyster and the wild oyster is ours are sterile. All they want to do is eat. They don't want to spawn."
Which shucks up another thought: Should you avoid eating oysters in the summer?
"There's nothing wrong with them—the wild oysters. But that's when they spawn. They get thin, and they get milky,” Goodier says. “Our oysters stay the same 12 months a year."
Farm-raised oysters have a thinner shell than wild oysters. They also grow about twice as fast; some reach restaurant-quality maturity in as little as 18 months.
"Last fall we got phenomenal growth," Goodier says. "And we've noticed the water stays clear in the fall earlier and stays clearer in the spring a little bit later.”
Credit the oysters: Each filters about 50 gallons of water a day, says Joni Carter, Lancaster County's coordinator for oyster asset development. "And each river that they come from, and each part of the river, gives them a different salinity and a different taste."
Oysters mirror their environment, says Patrick Oliver, the director of farms for the Rappahannock Oyster Company in Topping. "So you can kind of see the difference. On the outsides of the shell, they have a little bit darker shell sometimes."
Both the Ward and Rappahannock companies raise millions of farm oysters each year. Adding these oysters to Virginia’s rivers has appeared to improve water quality and spawn grasses, says Oliver. "So the water, you can now see through it easier.”
All of this is quite a breakthrough from the 1980s, when Virginia’s wild oyster industry declined and watermen wondered how they would get oysters back.
"That's where aquaculture kind of came into play," Oliver says. "We've harvested so many wild oysters, the oysters had problems. We had disease come through with overharvesting."
So, in recent years, watermen have turned to raising their own oysters to supplement that wild population. "And we're babying them all the way,” Oliver says with a smile. “When they need a little bit more room, we give it to them. And also the breeding behind it: You find oysters that are disease resistant, you find oysters that grow fast, and you start to breed those oysters."
Virginia Oyster Country, in turn, bursts with bountiful blue crabs at sites like Urbanna Seafood Company, where I crunch through a soft-shell crab sandwich then take a tour of the soft-shell shedding pools with restaurant owner Rufus Ruark.
The next day, I board the Rappahannock River Charters with Captain William Saunders on his all-wooden, 38-foot-long, Chesapeake dead-rise, Miss Nicole. Saunders’ workboat provides a delightfully adventurous and frothy journey, checking crab-pots and pointing to oyster grounds along the way. "And not only do you get the culinary experience," says Saunders, 47, "but you get the history and the education that goes along with it."
Landing at Topping, I check out Merroir, a small-plates eatery serving Rappahannock (sweet), Rochambeaus (mild) and Olde Salts (briny) oysters. And what’s also not to miss: the crab cake topped with Remoulade sauce.
With an afternoon to spare, and still eager to explore, I investigate Irvington and discover The Dog and Oyster Vineyard. And I find it’s more than a place to sip award-winning reds and whites served by “wine edu-tainer” Margo Fahey and owner Dudley Patteson.
On the lawn, this winery uniquely features the mobile-cooking skills of Bryan Byrd, an oysterman and owner of Byrd's Seafood. "Everybody's doing farm-to-table,” says Byrd’s mother and business partner, Phyllis Reynolds. “We're doing water-to-table."
Never mind it’s far from fancy.
"This is what you get. Fresh out of the water, under a tent,” Byrd says. “I can do raw, roasted, fried. And I can do the soft-shell crabs—whatever's fresh and local at the time. I try to be as seasonal as possible."
Roasting freshly-caught oysters on his grill, Byrd says, "These are out of Little Bay, just north of the Rappahannock. They're lightly salty with a mineral finish. And I like to serve what I call a medium-rare oyster, so it's not overcooked.”
Byrd next holds up a batch of soft-shell crabs. "These are still fresh and alive and right out of the Rappahannock River, literally one hour ago,” he says. “So they'll be alive, dropped in the fryer, and you'll be eating them two minutes later."
I eagerly munch on those lightly-battered bites as well as Byrd’s famous and fluffy fried oyster tacos, topped with a Sriracha key lime slaw.
Nesting nearby for the night at the Tides Inn, I savor supper in the hotel's Chesapeake Dining Room: a four-course feast of “Angry Oysters,” teeming with hot juices; heirloom tomato and asparagus Caprese salad; a duo of jumbo lump crab served with a medallion of roasted beef tenderloin; and bowlful of berries and cream.
This deliciously caps my weekend in the Virginia Oyster Country, a rural and refreshing respite of fresh feasts—from river to restaurant.
"And it's not just about eating oysters. It's about experiencing the real watermen, getting those oysters right out of the water," says Michelle Brown, the economic development and tourism coordinator for Middlesex County. "And it's all about the one thing that everybody has in common, which is seafood and eating and the water and being together."
Extend Your Stay
The Dog and Oyster Vineyard
The Inn at Warner Hall
Rappahannock River Charter
Virginia Oyster Country